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COVID-19 surge is slowing in Philly, but mask mandate won’t be lifted

Coronavirus case rates remain much higher than earlier this summer and officials expressed concern about other new variants and lagging vaccination rates.

Steve Mullins of South Philadelphia wears a face mask outside of Walmart in August.
Steve Mullins of South Philadelphia wears a face mask outside of Walmart in August.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The rate of new cases of the coronavirus is once again slowing in Philadelphia, but health officials aren’t yet ready to lift the mask mandate instituted last month amid a surge caused by the delta variant.

Acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said Thursday that the latest trends “are heartening,” but as long as there are coronavirus hot spots and lagging vaccination rates, new variants will spread and masks will be necessary.

“We all would love to see a time when we can take our masks off, but I don’t think we’re going to be there for a while,” she said.

Bettigole credited Philadelphia’s mask mandate, along with vaccination mandates for health-care workers and students and staff of higher-education institutions, for helping to slow the spread of the delta variant. Still, she said, case rates remain higher than she would like, school is back in session, and cold weather approaches.

» READ MORE: Philly-area COVID-19 cases are leveling off, but health community is ‘bracing for an uptick’ heading into fall

The city has had an average of 282 cases per day in the last two weeks, an improvement from 307 a week ago. In late June, when there were no restrictions in place, that average daily case count had dropped to just 24. As of Thursday, there were 195 coronavirus patients in Philadelphia hospitals.

The positivity rate of coronavirus tests has been 5% in the last two weeks, after reaching a high of 7% in late August. But that figure is also still higher than earlier in the summer, when it was as low as 1%.

“I wouldn’t say [the numbers] look good, because we have more cases than we want, but they have flattened and started to decrease a little bit,” Bettigole said during a virtual news conference.

The late-summer surge in cases has slowed the reopening of the city, as many employers who had planned to bring workers back into offices after Labor Day have chosen to stay remote. Philadelphia City Council, which starts its fall session next week, also canceled plans to meet in-person and will continue with virtual meetings.

» READ MORE: How is enforcement of Philly’s mask mandate going? The city can’t say.

Bettigole said she is committed to instituting only the minimum level of restrictions necessary to slow the spread. But as the weather changes and school resumes, health officials are planning for another possible spike in cases and hospitalizations.

“With vaccine numbers rising I’m hopeful that we can avoid a big [fall or winter] surge, but time will tell,” she said.

There is also the potential for the addition of more restrictions. Bettigole said officials have discussed expanding the mask mandate to include outdoor events like Eagles games.

The city currently requires masks indoors and at unseated outdoor events such as concerts. That means outdoor sports stadiums where fans have assigned seats, like Lincoln Financial Field, do not require masks. Fans must wear masks in indoor areas of the stadium. (The mandate also includes an exception for businesses that verify proof of vaccination from all staff and patrons, allowing them to forgo the mask requirement.)

» READ MORE: Full list of places in the Philly region where you need to show proof of vaccination (so far)

At the Made in America music festival on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway over the weekend, Bettigole acknowledged that many concertgoers didn’t follow the masking requirement. She said officials are hopeful there won’t be an outbreak, given that the event was outdoors and attendees also had to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result. But she said the city will watch new cases to see if the event had an impact.

The city is also working with schools to institute regular testing policies, Bettigole said. She said health officials have worked to have testing for children participating in activities where masks can’t be worn, such as choir or playing musical instruments, and in classrooms where children cannot wear masks due to disabilities.

“We’ve got over 100,000 kids in school, so we would expect to see some cases,” she said. “We are not seeing major outbreaks at this stage, but this is all going to be something that has to be managed in order to keep kids in school and learning.”

Vaccination rates have increased in recent weeks. While there have been some breakthrough infections, Bettigole said “the vast majority of cases” are in unvaccinated residents.

Nearly 82% of adults in Philadelphia have had at least one dose of vaccine and 67% are fully vaccinated.

Vaccination rates are lowest among young Black residents, who Bettigole said also account for the largest share of recent cases. Just 35% of Black residents between the ages of 18 and 44 have had at least one dose, along with 55% of white residents, 58% of Hispanic residents, and 83% of Asian residents in that same age group.

Bettigole said vaccination efforts are focused on young Black residents. And health officials are also urging pregnant people, who have low vaccination rates, to get the shot.

Less than 25% of pregnant people are vaccinated nationwide, said Stacey Kallem, director of the maternal, child, and family health division for the city’s health department.

”And in talking to our Philly health-care providers, we’re hearing that many of their pregnant patients are not vaccinated,” Kallem said.

Bettigole, meanwhile, expressed support for President Joe Biden’s strengthening of a vaccine mandate for federal employees.

“The more people who are vaccinated, for whatever reason they get vaccinated, the safer we are,” she said.

And as a summer that was supposed to represent a return to normal for Philadelphia comes to a close, Bettigole stressed that it’s hard to know what will happen next with the trajectory of the pandemic.

“I have given up trying to predict the future,” she said.