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June 23, 2020

Philly health commissioner 'concerned' by possible plateau in COVID-19 cases

Farley urges caution as coronavirus surges across large parts of United States

Illness COVID-19
COVID-19 Concern Philly Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

As coronavirus cases increase in more than half of the United States, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley is concerned that the city's streak of progress could be slowing.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley expressed some worry on Tuesday that the city's COVID-19 counts could be hitting a plateau as the next phase of its reopening process looms

Although case counts fluctuate from day to day, they have continued to fall. But the rate of decline has been smaller than it was in recent weeks. The average daily total over the last week has been about 100 new COVID-19 cases.

"I'm concerned that we may be hitting a plateau here rather than continuing to fall," Farley said, adding that it remains too early to tell. 

As coronavirus cases trend in the wrong direction in the South and Southwest regions of the United States, those setbacks serve as a cautionary tale for the Northeast, where numbers have been declining since peaking in April. 

"U.S. case counts have risen more than 30% in the past 14 days," Farley said. "Case counts are rising now in 26 states after reopening. A couple of examples – in Florida and Texas, after having an initial peak of about 1,000 cases per day in April, then having a fall, now they're peaking again at about 4,000 cases per day." 

Based on these alarming trends, Farley warned that the COVID-19 risk is rising. Even parts of Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware are still seeing case counts grow. 

"We all need to take this seriously," Farley said. "Businesses and people that organize activity need to take our Safe Mode seriously, and individual people need to take our mask, distance (and) hand-washing message seriously." 

Philadelphia reported 219 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the city's total to 25,335. About half of these new cases were from backlogged tests. Another 37 fatalities brought Philadelphia's death toll to 1,563, including 802 nursing home residents. 

Philadelphia's testing capacity reached a new high in the past week, climbing to about 2,100 tests per day. About 5% of tests are coming back positive, significantly down from about 40% during the peak in April. 

Over the past few weeks, the city has hired 58 staff members to lead Philadelphia's contact tracing program, including employees of various backgrounds to address language barriers. By early next month, the city hopes to have 83 staff members. 

A pilot program found that contact tracers were able to reach about 65-75% of reported COVD-19 cases. Among those cases, contact tracers were able to speak to an average of 2.4 contacts per person. That accounts for about 65-70% of the contacts given by the patients. 

"Those are a starting point based on our pilot," Farley said. "We hope to improve all of those numbers as we get better information and as we train up and learn more about this process." 

The city currently plans to enter a modified version of the green phase of Pennsylvania's reopening plan on July 3, with some activities resuming early on June 26. 

Farley reiterated that Philadelphia residents must be vigilant about the city's higher level of risk and the need to follow safety guidelines. 

"In view of the rising case rates around the country, it's particularly important that we be very careful as we reopen any activity," Farley said. "Philadelphia is unique. We're the largest city in the state by far. We're the most densely populated. We have a high poverty rate. We have a very diverse population. And we've had the highest case counts throughout this entire epidemic. We don't want to become another Miami or another Houston. We want to truly reopen with care."

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