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July 22, 2021

Philly 'strongly recommends' masks indoors as Delta variant fuels COVID-19 cases among children

The health department's new guidance includes those who are fully vaccinated

Philadelphia health officials are again strongly urging residents to wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status. The shift in guidance comes just over a month after the city lifted its mask mandate and other remaining pandemic restrictions.

The health department cited rising COVID-19 cases in the city and across the country, increasingly among children under 12 years who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. The highly infectious Delta variant has become the dominant form of the virus in the United States and now accounts for a growing number of pediatric cases.

Acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said Thursday the city has begun to see more children falling ill from COVID-19.

"We are seeing 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," Bettigole said. "It's time for all of us to do what we need to do to protect our city's kids. That means getting fully vaccinated if you haven't yet, and it means all of us going back to wearing masks in public. Kids under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated. They need you to step up. If you still have questions you need answered, call your doctor or our health department staff and get the information you need. And then get it done."

Clinical trials remain underway on both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to determine their safety and efficacy for children under 12. Authorization for kids isn't expected to happen before the fall at the earliest, and perhaps as late as some time this winter. Pediatricians have made a number of recommendations to parents to help ensure the health of their children over the coming months. 

There is no evidence that the Delta variant, which now accounts for 83% of new cases in the United States, produces severe disease or complications in kids. Illnesses among children have generally been asymptomatic or mild cases throughout the pandemic, but the risk remains real enough to warrant concern. 

At least 335 children ages 17 and under have died from COVID-19 in the United States, per the CDC, and more than 16,600 had been hospitalized as of July 8, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, citing data from 23 states and New York City.

Health department spokesperson James Garrow said Thursday that the city's new guidance will remain a recommendation for the time being.

"The rationale for a recommendation rather than a mandate is that we’re right now only seeing a slight rise in cases and hospitalizations," Garrow said. "Rather than overreact and clamp down – potentially alienating people – we’re trying to work with people to stand up and do the right thing to protect our children. Not everyone will do it, we know that, but if enough people do combined with our high vaccination rate, we hope to be able to head this off. If things continue to get worse, we may consider moving to a more strict mandate."

The recommendation will not require Philadelphia businesses to reintroduce mask requirements, though many have continued to ask guests to wear masks indoors since the mandate was lifted in June.

The new guidance also includes recommendations that people opt to spend time outdoors rather than indoor locations, avoid crowded indoor locations and wear masks indoors around people whose vaccination status is not clear. Unvaccinated people are advised to consider double-masking while in indoor public spaces.

The School District of Philadelphia will require all teachers and students to wear masks when in-person classes resume at the end of August.

Currently, 60.8% of Philadelphia adults are fully vaccinated, and 73.9% of Philadelphia adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

"As of this week, over one million people have been vaccinated in Philadelphia," said Mayor Kenney. "The numbers make it clear: vaccinations are the best way to combat COVID-19 by protecting ourselves and the people around us."

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