Just a few weeks ago, Philadelphians rejoiced as we began a summer of freedom after the last of the city’s COVID-19 restrictions, including an indoor mask mandate, were lifted in June. But now recommendations are starting to creep back in response to the delta variant, a more transmissible type of the virus that has the potential for more serious disease.
While there are many reasons to be concerned, there is also reason to believe that the city can get through this new phase of the pandemic without reverting to the shutdowns we experienced last year.
On Thursday, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health issued a written statement in which it “strongly recommends” that everyone — regardless of vaccine status — wear a mask indoors (double masking for the unvaccinated), gather outdoors rather than indoors when possible, and avoid crowded indoor spaces.
In the press release, acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole says the city has seen a “small but disturbing increase in hospitalizations due to COVID-19 among children in Philadelphia, along with more than a doubling of cases in the city.” The overall numbers of cases and hospitalizations are low, but the trend is concerning — particularly because kids under 12 aren’t able to get the vaccine and, like unvaccinated adults, seem to be at higher risk of the more infectious delta variant compared with the coronavirus that circulated in Philadelphia last year.
The change in recommendations — the first in nearly two months — was hidden in the sixth paragraph of the twice-weekly COVID-19 update from the city. The city’s last COVID-19 news conference, where the public could tune in, was at the end of May.
A department spokesperson stressed to this board that the recommendation is an effort to get ahead of an outbreak, not a signal that Philadelphia is in the midst of one.
However, even though numbers of hospitalizations are low now, if they grow, restrictions could increase again. Earlier this month, Los Angeles reinstated a mask mandate — stronger than Philadelphia’s recommendation — and officials in Philadelphia say that while they hope to avoid it, that could happen here.
But Philadelphia is better prepared to address the delta variant than it was to address the coronavirus in March 2020: There are effective vaccines, data showing that mask-wearing reduces risk, and so does limiting time with groups to outdoor activities.
There is a fine line between overreacting and under-preparing. Carefully guiding the city’s residents through this difficult time is the job of city leadership.
The city hasn’t had a full-time health commissioner since May, when Dr. Thomas Farley resigned in the wake of a scandal. Mayor Jim Kenney needs to step up and fill that void by over-communicating with his constituents — and in this moment of uncertainty, that means speaking directly to the city.
Kenney knows the value of direct communication. The COVID-19 daily briefings, which, to his administration’s credit, lasted for more than a year, garnered large audiences in the early days of the pandemic — and so do the biweekly gun-violence briefings.
A repeated critique of the city throughout this pandemic has been that restrictions, both their imposition and their cancellation, felt random and changes often took residents and business owners by surprise. Preparing the public for what may come, without making predictions or promises, is key.
After more than a year of combating COVID-19, we know that the blueprint to prevent a delta variant outbreak includes getting people vaccinated, avoiding crowded spaces, masking indoors to prevent super-spreader events, and contact tracing. It also means that everyone in the community needs to be vigilant again about their own health — getting tested for COVID-19 and avoiding people from other households when feeling coldlike symptoms.
It would also help if role models, like the Phillies, would lead by example and finally up their abysmal vaccination rate.
Despite reasonable fears about future mandates, and of delta variant outbreaks, Philadelphians should see this as a moment of opportunity and can help by following the city’s recommendations so we can avoid the shutdowns that we endured last year.
Every single person in Philadelphia has a role to play to prevent a full-blown outbreak of the delta variant and shutdown — that includes our city leaders, starting with the mayor, who needs to do more than let a press release talk for him.