If you look at state and regional charts marking the course of the coronavirus in this region, as well as throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, you see lovely downward slopes that are a sign that weeks of social isolation and careful behavior have paid off. As a result, public health officials say it’s OK to go out a little more.
But that doesn’t mean it’s time to get back to our old normal. For the foreseeable future, “normal” means taking care to avoid a virus that can spread more stealthily than most and still sees almost all of us — the ones who haven’t gotten sick yet — as easy pickings.
Having no previous experience with the coronavirus, our bodies are defenseless. Doctors are still experimenting with treatments, and there is no vaccine. Even though numbers of new cases have fallen, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health still says there’s a “high” risk of community spread.
Asked what he would tell the public about the coronavirus now, P.J. Brennan, chief medical officer for Penn Medicine, said, “I would tell them to continue to take it seriously. I would tell them to continue to do the things that have helped us.” Those measures include social distancing, frequent hand washing, and mask wearing.
Tony Reed, chief medical officer of Temple University Hospital, said coronavirus cases at his hospital are “way down,” but he remains wary. “It’s still out there looming,” he said.
The Philadelphia region was never as overwhelmed with coronavirus cases as were parts of New York and New Jersey, but it still has had thousands of cases. These mid-Atlantic states are now loosening restrictions while public health experts at Johns Hopkins University are seeing strong upward trends in new cases in states like Michigan, Arizona, Arkansas, and South Carolina. The Washington Post reported a spike in hospitalizations after Memorial Day in Texas, North and South Carolina, California, Oregon, Arkansas, Mississippi, Utah, and Arizona.
Brennan and Reed said their hospitals did not see increases in patients after Mother’s Day or Memorial Day.
Brennan wasn’t sure he could say Philadelphia is no longer a hot spot, but said, “It’s certainly a lot cooler than it was a month or six weeks ago.” He said the number of patients with COVID-19 at Penn hospitals is now 130, and it hasn’t been that low since the last week of March. Hospitalized COVID-19 patients who survive often require long hospitalizations. Brennan said one patient has been in the hospital for more than 90 days. From 70 to 80 have been hospitalized for more than two weeks.
Temple took in 14 new COVID-19 patients in the last 24 hours, Reed said Wednesday. At peak, around the week after Easter, the hospital admitted 45 in one day. Temple now has about 50 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, Reed said.
Cases and deaths, including among nursing home residents, have been falling in the Philadelphia area and throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. An exception is Chester County, where case rates haven’t been so encouraging. Philadelphia is still seeing 100 to 150 new cases per day. At peak, on April 15, there were 608.
So, it’s OK to party, right?
Not really. The Philadelphia health department says you’re still “safer at home” and suggests you leave only for “essential” activities. We’re in the “yellow” phase now, and it doesn’t include some things a lot of us would like to do, like get a haircut or go to the gym. The state says gatherings are allowed but discouraged.
Brennan said he still wouldn’t go to a dinner party indoors. “I might invite a friend to sit across the patio from me,” he said. Reed let his 11-year-old son see some friends outside recently because numbers are very low in Gloucester County, where he lives. His mother-in-law, who lives in a separate suite in the house, is staying away from her grandson until danger of infection has passed.
Reed thinks older people, who are at higher risk for serious illness and death, should be especially cautious, but everyone needs to be careful, because young people can spread the disease to elders.
You still need to wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth in public. “You should be wearing a mask whenever you’re around people who do not live in your household,” said James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “This should be the new normal.”
Protests responding to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis brought thousands of people together outside in Philadelphia and the suburbs. It’s still too soon to know how well those crowds spread coronavirus, but public health officials are worried.
Philadelphia has asked protesters to get coronavirus tests seven days after the last day they were in a crowd. They don’t have to say they were protesting, they can just say they think they were exposed to the virus. The city also asks that protesters keep an eye out for COVID-19 symptoms for 14 days and stay away from other people.
Garrow said about 1,900 new tests were reported in Philadelphia on Wednesday, up from 1,500 to 1,700 earlier in the month.
Reed said it may take longer than two weeks to see whether the virus is on the upswing again because it could take a while for younger protesters to spread the virus to older friends and relatives, who are more likely to get serious symptoms. “It’s the second- and third-order infections we worry about,” he said.
He hopes that precautions kept the virus from running rampant. “As I was looking at [the protests] on television, the first thing I was looking for was masks and, by and large, people had masks on,” he said. “I think they did what they could to protect themselves during it. I think that we will see some growth in COVID-19 numbers.”
He is carefully watching the flow of patients in and out of his hospital. On Tuesday, there were more admissions than discharges. On Wednesday, it was the reverse.
Brennan said Penn has started returning to more non-COVID-19 care, but will have to keep an eye on the post-protest numbers. “It’s necessitated that we pay very careful attention to our census and ICU capacity,” he said.