“Plenty of reasons to be concerned” about pandemic, health chief says

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley says he is concerned about the surge of coronavirus cases throughout the country. 
PHOTO: JACK TOMCZUK

Philadelphia’s top health official said he is worried about a surge of coronavirus cases elsewhere in the country as the region gets ready to relax restrictions later this week.

COVID-19 infections in the United States were up 25 percent last week, and some states, including Texas, Nevada and Arizona, are recording record high case counts, according to Reuters.

“With cases surging in many parts of the United States, the impact on Philadelphia so far is unclear, but there are plenty of reasons to be concerned,” Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday.

The city is moving forward with plans to restart the economy. Barber shops, nail salons, spas and swim clubs will be allowed to reopen with restrictions on Friday.

A planned move to the Green Phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan is still scheduled for July 3, though restrictions will remain stricter in Philadelphia than in other parts of the state.

City officials reported 219 new coronavirus cases Tuesday and 37 new deaths, numbers Farley said were inflated due to data reconciliation efforts. About 120 of the cases were from positive tests in recent days.

Farley said the city has been averaging about 100 cases a day over the past week, and the rate of decline seems to be slowing.

“I’m concerned that we may be hitting a plateau here rather than continue to fall,” he said, adding that it was too early to say if progress against the virus had been halted.

More people are being tested in Philadelphia than ever before. Samples are being collected from about 2,100 people a day at more than 50 testing sites in the city, Farley said.

The city has hired 58 people to act as contact tracers, reaching out to those diagnosed with the virus and their associates. Farley said they expect to hire 25 more by July 6.

Specialized software developed for contact tracing was set to go live Tuesday, he added, and officials hope the program will be fully operational by July 1.

Experts believe contact tracing will be an important tool in containing the virus until a vaccine is developed.

Farley said 51 percent of the employees hired as tracers so far are African American. About a quarter are immigrants, and 39 percent speak a foreign language, he said.

The virus has disproportionately affected Black Philadelphians. African Americans have accounted for 46 percent of the city’s cases, and the death rate among Black residents is significantly higher, according to health department data.

In other COVID-19-related news, the Philadelphia Housing Authority has begun an effort to distribute cloth masks to all residents living in public housing.

PHA personnel kicked off the initiative Tuesday by handing out masks to seniors living at Sharswood Tower, a 13-story building in North Philadelphia. The authority plans to provide 22,000 masks.

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