Congregants at African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas hoped to celebrate Easter without masks, finally worshiping together without visible reminders of the COVID-19 threat.
It wasn’t to be, said the Rev. Martini Shaw, pastor of the country’s oldest Black Episcopal church. Case counts are rising again in Philadelphia, and city health officials have opened the door to reinstating the indoor mask mandate as soon as today. Last week, Shaw said members will have to keep masking at in-person services for the foreseeable future.
“Our 40 days of Lent, the theme has been emerging from the wilderness with Jesus,” Shaw said. “We still feel like we’re emerging.”
This past week Philadelphia reported 5,000 lives lost to COVID since the start of the pandemic, though the grim milestone was likely reached earlier in March. By some measures, Philadelphia has weathered COVID better than other big cities. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago each had higher death rates from the virus. But the 5,000th death is a symbolic landmark in a pandemic that appears to be waning but isn’t over.
“Every death here is a tragedy and something we wish could have been avoided,” said James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “This is a round number that really puts into scope what this pandemic has done to the city.”
No part of the city has been untouched by COVID, but an Inquirer analysis of city deaths by zip code highlighted the communities hardest hit by the virus. As with virtually every aspect of the pandemic, people of color generally suffered more. Black residents make up 38% of the population but 48% of deaths.
There are exceptions, though. Some overwhelmingly white communities saw higher death rates. Vaccination rates were reliable predictors. Zip codes where less than 70% of the population has been fully vaccinated had worse death rates. But some zip codes’ high death rates could have been the result of a lot of losses early in the pandemic, before vaccines were available, and older people especially in nursing homes bore the brunt.
“We’ve seen death rates drop, especially as older folks have gotten vaccinated,” Garrow said. “I think there’s definitely a time component to this.”
Perhaps the most reliable determinant of who survives or dies from COVID is age. Nine out of 10 COVID deaths in the city have been among people 55 or older, a group that accounts for a quarter of the city’s population. About half of the city’s COVID deaths were among people 75 or older, though that group makes up just 6% of the population. A third of all COVID victims in Philadelphia have been nursing home residents, Garrow said.
Shaw’s church lost about 25 members or their relatives since the pandemic began, he said. Many were older, less likely to chronicle their lives on social media, and their passing sometimes happened with few ripples, private tragedies played out in hospital rooms and nursing homes.
“What I’m learning now since we’re back in person,” he said, “people are shocked when they heard of certain people who died.”
Msgr. Joseph Garvin, pastor of the Parish Church of St. Christopher in Northeast Philadelphia, described the parishioners lost over the last two years as generally older. One couple in their 60s caught COVID about the same time, he recalled. The wife died, and her husband, still being treated for the virus, watched the funeral through a live stream.
“I was preaching to him at the funeral that we really need you to get better,” Garvin recalled, “and he didn’t make it.”
Another elderly parishioner had tried to isolate herself but before vaccines were available became weary and started working at Acme again. She, too, died of COVID.
Northeast Philadelphia has an older population overall than most of Philadelphia, and the Bustleton, Rhawnhurst, Somerton, and Byberry neighborhoods collectively are home to 10 nursing homes. Those zip codes had some of the highest death rates in the city, and the impact continues.
“People are still afraid,” Garvin said. “Our parish, we were getting about 3,000 people every weekend Saturday evening and Sunday morning for Mass. This past weekend we only had 900.”
Northeast Philadelphia, which has more white residents than most of Philadelphia, also is one of the few Republican strongholds in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Republican voters generally have been much more leery of vaccines and masking than others. A Pew study released last month found that COVID deaths in all counties won by Donald Trump in 2020 were substantially higher than in those that backed Joe Biden.
City health officials emphasized it was unclear how much of a role political beliefs played in COVID’s spread, but none of the nine zip codes in Northeast Philadelphia have more than 64% of their residents fully vaccinated. Some Northeast residents said their neighbors took COVID less seriously than people in other parts of the city.
“People would try to get away without wearing their mask,” said Amber Edwards, a Rhawnhurst resident who is vaccinated but caught COVID twice. “Very reluctant to get the vaccine.”
Garvin said his parish lost fewer than 10 people to COVID, but most were unvaccinated.
“I have said both in writing and I’ve also preached about it,” he said. “I tell them it’s basically something they have a responsibility not just to their own health but the health of other people.”
When vaccines first became available in Philadelphia, Shaw was eager to get doses to his community in Overbrook, where most residents are Black. He hosted vaccination clinics at the church and said most of his congregants have been vaccinated. Even still, he said, COVID deaths are commonplace in the community.
Overall, the city continues to add COVID deaths and the latest count is up to 5,065.
The recent rise in cases could be driven by the newly dominant BA.2 subvariant of omicron, though it remains unknown whether that will cause a moderate uptick or another surge. Shaw worries that two years of pandemic has numbed his community.
“Unfortunately, there were so many deaths that were occurring that people became insensitive to what was happening,” he said. “It became so commonplace.”