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Delco hospitals are swamped by the coronavirus. Can suburban Philly schools stay open? | Maria Panaritis

Wave Two of the COVID-19 pandemic is upon us. County officials want to keep schools from buckling this time around but may not have a choice.

Remember this? Delaware County officials are contemplating options for dealing with the second wave of the coronavirus, including potentially opening a makeshift hospital like this one at the Glen Mills School from late March.
Remember this? Delaware County officials are contemplating options for dealing with the second wave of the coronavirus, including potentially opening a makeshift hospital like this one at the Glen Mills School from late March.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

As if last week’s elections weren’t exhausting enough, as if all of 2020 hasn’t been a relentless slugfest in which we, the people, are taking all the upper cuts and gut punches, now the monster known as the coronavirus again is rising from the swamp.

A second pandemic wave is among us in the region nearly nine months after the first forced shutdowns from which we emerged, partially and gradually, over the summer. Philadelphia public schools and even those in Cherry Hill responded this week by halting plans to resume in-class instruction for their students. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab recommended Wednesday that all area schools revert to virtual learning.

And as of this writing, there was no way of knowing whether anyone’s great intentions would hold for even another day.

The COVID-19 surge is jockeying for top billing in the news cycle alongside the orgy of obstructionism by a Republican Party that refuses to accept the clear electoral win by Joe Biden over President Donald Trump. It caught my tired mind’s attention enough to make some calls to gauge what we are facing.

Just how dangerous, I wanted to know, is this second round, potentially? And what can we expect for public school students who have been so damaged by the total or partial loss of in-class learning for five and, in less-resourced districts, nine months?

Here is just some of what I found out:

  1. Hospitals in Delaware County in recent days became so inundated with COVID-19 cases that they are turning away ambulances, elected Council member Monica Taylor confirmed when I interviewed her Wednesday morning. There are discussions about potentially opening another field facility to handle COVID patients so that hospitals can continue seeing patients for other treatments.

  2. In Montgomery County, hospitalizations have risen sharply in recent weeks, Commissioner Val Arkoosh told me on election night. She said officials continued to pin hopes on masking and other mitigation efforts there to keep things from getting much worse.

  3. In Delaware and Chester Counties, where a single agency is running the pandemic response for nearly 1.1 million residents, public health officials remain focused on keeping schools open for as long as possible. But if push comes to shove, some Delco schools are considering a potential return to all-virtual instruction for all but children in third or second grades and younger, she said.

  4. Health Department Director Jeanne Casner told me Wednesday that a goal for both counties is to keep schools open, so long as they continue to successfully keep from becoming sites of contagion. She hoped that antigen cards, allowing for quick test results of children who show symptoms in school, could be on site as early as after New Year’s Day but that nothing was yet set in stone.

All of this was on top of what Bucks County officials announced Tuesday in a news conference: Cases there were up 79% due largely to unsafe social gatherings. Schools were not a source of transmission and would likely remain open, and hospitalizations for the time being remained fairly low.

It was heartening that at least these four suburban counties seemed intent on aggressively managing through the schools situation. They are right to do so, since case investigations show that it is careless social groups, sporting leagues, and families disregarding social distancing who are causing the majority of cases.

“We’re starting to see our hospitals being overwhelmed again,” Taylor said when I called. “We’re starting to see long lines at the emergency room and hospitals being unable to intake patients and having to go on divert. Some of our hospital networks are having to send people away to other hospitals because they’re starting to be full again.”

Some schools, such as in the Upper Darby School District, already had scotched plans for in-classroom learning due to staffing issues. That is a tragedy similar to the failure of Philadelphia’s schools to open in any meaningful way. Parents elsewhere are wondering if their even partially opened schools are at risk after being open for only a few weeks.

“We’re not going there yet,” Taylor said, “because the schools have done such a good job at trying to mitigate the virus.” She said officials were perhaps “weeks away” from bringing substantial testing capacity into schools to bolster those efforts through the winter.

The top public health official for Delaware and Chester Counties signaled a similar resolve with regard to schools.

“The vast majority in both counties of our cases that are entering into the school are coming from the outside,” said Casner, adding that she has plenty of investigators for now to handle the surge. “They’re coming from family decisions to participate in sports, a gathering, going to church, attending a wedding, traveling out of the area to a higher-risk area.”

It is heartening that our county officials have now prioritized our children and their education and their social and emotional development in ways that our understandable triage response to Wave One did not allow.

“Schools are really important,” Taylor said. “Yes, they are a congregate setting and we are trying to make them as safe as possible. We understand also that if schools go all-virtual, it will have a massive impact on our families, especially the families that have children in third grade and under.”

The good news is that deaths are fewer today than they were earlier this year. That’s partly because therapies have improved and because long-term-care facilities have been vigilant and armed with preventive protocols to avoid a repeat of the mass elderly deaths there in the spring.

But the disease remains highly contagious and damaging in ways that medical researchers do not yet fully understand. Soaring hospitalization rates are Exhibit A in the case against giving up on social distancing.

The takeaway: Let’s all do what we can — not what we want. Put the damn masks on, people.