Philadelphia is likely “several months” away from being able to drop its current pandemic restrictions, even as the omicron surge wanes, Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said Wednesday.
City officials hope to drop the indoor mask mandate eventually, but it’s too early to do so now, Bettigole said at a virtual briefing Wednesday, citing much-improved but still-high case and hospitalization numbers.
However, officials have begun discussing plans for easing restrictions and providing guidance to residents once the pandemic relents. The city will also consider when to eliminate the vaccine mandate for indoor dining at restaurants, which Bettigole said would not be permanent.
“Our team is actively discussing what an off-ramp looks like,” Bettigole said when asked about easing restrictions. “If you think about where we are with this particular wave and case rates right now, we’re probably several months away from a place where we will have the kind of safety to drop all the current restrictions.”
With the surge rapidly declining but transmission levels still categorized as high, public health officials nationwide are urging continued caution for now — while saying optimism is warranted as the spring looks likely to bring at least a period of relief.
In New Jersey, the rate of COVID-19 transmission is the lowest it has been in several weeks, Gov. Phil Murphy said.
“Trends that we are seeing across literally all metrics continue to suggest the omicron tsunami, as fast as it washed in, is washing out at nearly the same speed,” the governor said. Still, “we have to remain on a vigilant footing.”
The average daily new case count has dropped 70% in New Jersey and 57% in Pennsylvania over the last two weeks, according to federal data analyzed by the New York Times. Still, more than 10,000 new cases are being reported each day in Pennsylvania and more than 5,000 in New Jersey.
“There is hope at the end of the tunnel here, but until then, we do encourage folks to continue those good public health measures,” acting Pennsylvania Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter said Wednesday at a news briefing in Pittsburgh.
In New Jersey, virus-related hospitalizations have dropped more than 30% in the last two weeks, Murphy said, though nearly 2,800 people are still being treated at facilities across the state. Nearly 2,400 people statewide died of the virus in January, Murphy said, disproving “misinformation that omicron isn’t deadly.”
Even as cases drop, “none of us are yet at a point where we feel completely comfortable,” he said. “We know the staff in our hospitals are still overwhelmed and we can’t yet let up on any measures.”
Pennsylvania has seen a similar drop in hospitalizations, as deaths — which usually lag cases and hospitalizations — continue to rise. More than 5,000 people were hospitalized in Pennsylvania on Wednesday; about three weeks ago there were more than 8,200.
New cases in Philadelphia have dropped 50% since last week, Bettigole reported, but the city is still recording about 500 cases a day, a number that doesn’t account for at-home positive tests, and it expects to log 300 deaths from COVID-19 in January alone.
The positive-test rate in the city is 7.3%, the lowest it has been since Dec. 21. On Tuesday, 686 people were hospitalized, less than half the number at the peak two weeks ago.
Philadelphia health officials are discussing what thresholds must be reached before the mask restriction is lifted, Bettigole said, but it will likely be a combination of virus-related hospitalizations, case counts, deaths, and other metrics. For now, transmission is high enough that residents should continue masking and avoiding crowded indoor areas.
“We are not at a point where we would drop the mask mandate,” Bettigole said. “Eventually, absolutely, but not at this time.”
More vaccinations needed
Half of eligible New Jerseyans, more than half of Pennsylvanians, and most Philadelphians still need their booster doses, which are necessary to protect against omicron.
“We still have much work to do,” said New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
Officials are also dismayed by a slow rate of pediatric vaccinations. Philadelphia has “made real progress in the last few weeks,” with 46% of kids 5 to 11 now having gotten at least their first dose, Bettigole said, but the majority of children are not fully vaccinated.
As the FDA and CDC are set to consider approving the COVID-19 vaccine for children 6 months to 5 years old, Philadelphia health officials are working on logistics for vaccinating babies and toddlers, Bettigole said.
Pharmacies cannot vaccinate children younger than 3, who normally receive immunizations from their doctors. That presents “an infrastructure problem” for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which has largely relied on distribution of shots at pharmacies, Bettigole said.
“We’re very excited to have young children start to get their protection, but we can’t just have little babies and toddlers showing up to pharmacies,” Bettigole said. “The rollout for that vaccine will be quite different than what we’ve been doing over the last 13 months.”
Officials hope to have babies vaccinated by their primary care providers, but many doctors are not registered as COVID-19 vaccine providers. The city hopes to get more signed up before the vaccine is approved.
Many doctors did not provide the coronavirus vaccine at the start of the pandemic, Bettigole said, because they needed ultra-cold freezer units or felt the CDC-required reporting was challenging. Now, the vaccine can be stored without an ultra-cold freezer for two to four weeks, depending on the type of refrigeration, according to Pfizer.
“If we can get lots and lots of primary care practitioners signed up and able to get vaccine, that’s going to make this whole process a lot easier for parents,” she said. “I’d love to see kids getting these vaccines at their normal pediatric visits.”