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April 09, 2020

Vice President Mike Pence urges Philly to ramp up social distancing 'now more than ever'

Federal government to direct resources to Pennsylvania as state approaches projected coronavirus peak

Vice President Mike Pence echoed concerns Wednesday night that Philadelphia could become a hot spot for the coronavirus as the city approaches its anticipated peak early next week.

During a press briefing, Pence said he had spoken to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and was planning to direct additional federal resources to the state to contain the spread of COVID-19.

"Our message to the people of the Philadelphia area is, now more than ever, practice the social distancing so that Philadelphia — and to some extent, even Pittsburgh — do not have to endure what other communities before them have had to endure."

The vice president's comments followed remarks from White House coronavirus response director Dr. Deborah Birx, who said the federal government is closely watching trends in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

Wolf said the influx of federal resources was welcome as the state's COVID-19 cases surpassed 18,200 on Thursday, with 338 fatalities. Philadelphia had reported 5,271 total cases and 104 deaths as of Thursday afternoon.

"While it's not good that Philadelphia and the southeastern part of the state is seen as a hot spot, it is going to be helpful in terms of getting more federal resources and that's a good thing," Wolf said Wednesday afternoon.

The alarming forecast stood in contrast to remarks from Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, who noted a dip in the number of new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. The city reported 494 new presumptive positive cases on Thursday, the second straight day that number fell. 

"I'm hopeful that the social distancing steps we put in place a few weeks ago are showing some signs of working," Farley said during an appearance Thursday morning on CNN. "The numbers still continue to rise, but just in the past two to three days, for the first time I'm starting to feel a little more optimistic."

During Philadelphia's daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, Farley had questioned whether Birx saw the city's updated numbers before suggesting it would be among the next COVID-19 hot spots. 

He clarified on Thursday why there may have been a local discrepancy with the language used by the White House. 

"They're looking at the percent of tests that are positive in different cities around the country, and looked at Philadelphia versus other cities," Farley said Thursday afternoon. "The percent of tests that are positive in Philadelphia has been rising — and it's high, there's no question about that." 

Both Farley and Mayor Jim Kenney said they did not feel there was any overtly political motive for the White House to single out the Philadelphia area.

"We're glad for the attention," Farley said. "We need all the resources we can get, and we'll be happy to work with the federal government to reduce infections as much as possible." 

A frequently cited model from the University of Washington projects that Pennsylvania will hit its peak on April 15. The model, which accounts for hospital needs and projected death totals, has lowered its anticipated fatalities in the United States in recent days to 60,415 by Aug. 4, down from 82,000 when the model was first introduced.

Farley repeated Thursday that the most important statistic he's watching as the pandemic continues is the number of new coronavirus cases reported each day, as opposed to cumulative cases and total deaths, which have a built-in lag time behind new cases.

The concerns raised by the federal government are valid, however.

"It's absolutely fine for them to call out Philadelphia as a city that's been hit hard," Farley said. "We have been hit hard. If that is what it takes to drive home the message of how important it is for people to keep their distance from people, that's fine."