For Jesse Nieves of North Camden, the list of loved ones affected by the coronavirus seems to get longer every day.
“Lord, we now add ... spiritual brothers and sisters, a spiritual mother, and my grandfather who you now have by your side,” Nieves wrote on Facebook on Friday, after learning a half-dozen people from his church, the 27th Street Revival Center, had been sickened. “This virus has gone too far too fast.”
The same can be said for the entire city of Camden, where confirmed coronavirus cases have grown by 2,925% since March 31, from 16 to 484, as of Sunday. That is more cases than any other municipality in the Philadelphia region other than Philadelphia itself, according to an Inquirer analysis, with the number of cases growing by about 20% every day.
On Sunday, Nieves recalled his close bond with his grandfather, Jose “Pepe” Arce, 84, a retired cook and native of Puerto Rico, who had had recent eye surgery and succumbed to the coronavirus on April 8. Arce lived less than a block from his own home and he frequently walked by the house to stop and talk.
“We’ve been praying a lot," Nieves said in a telephone interview. "My grandfather lives less than a block away from me. When I found out he was infected, I got nervous. My wife and I would see him frequently.”
Camden County police and officials, and city clergy and community activists said they are all working to combat this dramatic spike in Camden, where a drive-up and walk-up testing site opened along the waterfront on April 1. About 50% of people tested have been from the city itself, said county spokesperson Dan Keashen.
Along Federal Street in East Camden on Sunday, officers from the Camden County Police Department gave out fliers warning of penalties for violations of social-distancing guidelines and urging other precautions. People, many in masks, were nonetheless out and about food shopping in bodegas, sitting on steps.
Pastors, about 30 of whom met in a Zoom meeting with the police chief last week, were urging parishioners to take precautions and conform to social-distancing mandates.
“We’ve been watching,” said the Rev. William Heard of the Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church, who stressed the severity of the pandemic — remotely — to his congregation on Sunday. “Why the heightened spike? We have up to 12, 13, 14 people living in a household. It’s difficult to keep that distance.”
Among factors cited, in addition to the availability of testing within the city limits, are the density of the city, the many multi-generational families living together, a continued resistance to social distancing in some neighborhoods, a population of homeless and addicted living on the streets, lack of access to medical care, many undocumented and uninsured, a reliance on public transportation, employment in such high-risk jobs as lower-level health positions, and a general numbness to the severity of the threat.
“Our strength is our biggest weakness,” said Amir Khan, a pastor and activist in Camden. “Residents in Camden have gone through so much trauma, whether it’s divorce, jail, child being murdered, father being murdered, now this invisible enemy comes along, it’s just another thing. You become desensitized.”
Police Chief Joe Wysocki said the fliers, printed in English and Spanish, were being placed on car windshields in selected neighborhoods. A public address urging precautions was also being broadcast from police cars. It was recorded in three languages, he said: English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
“We’re able to map areas to see where the concentration of the spread is,” Wysocki said.
The chief said police were balancing their community policing efforts in the city of 73,973 with the need to educate about social distancing and discourage gatherings in town, including reported house parties, basketball games, and general loitering among homeless and others.
“People are tired of being stuck in the house," he said. “There’s anger and frustration. You have to do this in a way that you still have the trust in the community.”
But some community activists say the police have not done enough, and only focused on some neighborhoods, such as East Camden.
“At nighttime, the city never sleeps," said activist Vida Neil, who has been out observing behavior in a mask from a slow-moving scooter. "You have the homeless people, the people on drugs, and drug dealers take over the city. You don’t see police presence. They say we’re not getting out of the car.”
Wysocki acknowledged some concern among his 400 officers.
“We’re maintaining social distance,” he said. “There’s anxiety among officers.”
According to an Inquirer analysis, cases in Camden are growing by about 20% a day, which means they are doubling a little faster than every four days. The rate of increase is faster than that of any suburban municipality in the Philadelphia region that had at least 10 cases at the end of March. There have been eight COVID-19 deaths in Camden.
The next highest case-increase rate in the Philadelphia area, at 14% per day, is in Springfield, Montgomery County, which is the epicenter of a nursing home outbreak.
Camden’s 468 cases in April far outnumbered totals in surrounding municipalities.
Cherry Hill, with a population of 71,009, was next with 228 cases. Two other towns in Camden County had more deaths in April: Cherry Hill, with 30, and Voorhees, with 15. Both municipalities are home to long-term care facilities.
Evangelista Batista, an outreach worker in Camden, said large families had no choice but to stay together, even if a family member was sick. “You separate as much as you can,” she said. “What do you do? You can’t kick them out.”
She said crowds in the city are still a problem. “The kids understandably are stressed,” she said. Groups of young people on all-terrain vehicles had been riding over the Ben Franklin Bridge and onto Admiral Wilson Boulevard, she said. “They say, we’re young, we’re not going to get it.”
But numbers in Camden show a higher percentage of younger people testing positive compared with the rest of Camden County. In Camden, 50% of the positive cases are people in their 20s to 40s, compared with 43% for the rest of the county. And just 9% of those in the city with the coronavirus are in their 70s or older, compared with 19% for the rest of the county. Of the 44 new cases announced Sunday, 34 were under the age of 60, including one teenager.
The virus’ harsh blow to the city puts Camden in a familiar place: the bull’s-eye of societal ills.
“They say when New Jersey catches a cold, Camden catches a flu," said Khan. “It’s so true. When crisis hits, urban America is normally the last to be hit with it and also it hits us the worst. That kind of sums up where we’re going to go with this.”
Indeed, Keashen said the county’s contact-tracing investigations had found that when the virus first appeared in the Cherry Hill area, 40 percent of infections could be traced to travel abroad. But no longer.
“We’re finding in the city of Camden, an individual may not know,” Keashen said. “It’s a community spread situation. Individuals who became impacted or tested positive unwittingly shed it to family members."
Inquirer staff photographer Tom Gralish and graphics editor John Duchneskie contributed to this article.