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January 05, 2022

FEMA COVID-19 testing site expected to open in Southwest Philly this week

Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole believes there is a 'huge undercount' of cases in the city

Illness Coronavirus

FEMA is expected to open a COVID-19 testing site at the Cibotti Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency could open a new COVID-19 testing site in Southwest Philadelphia as soon as Thursday, providing some relief as the city scrambles to increase its testing capacity during the surge of omicron infections.

The plan is to open the federal testing site at the Cibotti Recreation Center at 2500 S. 77th St. Testing capacity on the first day will be limited as logistics are finalized, but beginning Friday the site could run from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will be capable of administering about 500 tests per day, Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said. 

The city health department is expected to provide additional details in the near future. Plans for the site had been announced by the White House last week.

On Wednesday, Bettigole discussed the state of the city's COVID-19 response as Philadelphia continues to see record numbers of infections and rising hospitalizations.

"We are getting close to the kind of dire situation we all dread, in which treatable conditions can be fatal because our hospitals simply don't have room or staff to take care of those who need help," Bettigole said.

As of Tuesday, the city was averaging 3,108 new cases per day, with nearly 40% of test results coming back positive. There are currently 1,108 people being treated for COVID-19 in city hospitals, up from 368 as recently as mid-December.

Hospital administrators have told the health department that most patients admitted with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated. Those who have been vaccinated usually have not received a booster shot.

"We continue to strongly encourage every Philadelphian who has not yet been vaccinated and boosted to get theirs shots as soon as they possibly can," Bettigole said.

In light of the shortage of both PCR tests and at-home COVID-19 test kits, the health department believes there is much more significant spread occurring than the current numbers capture. Plus, people who do take tests at home are not counted in the city's data.

"I'm pretty sure that we have a huge undercount of cases," Bettigole said. "A piece of that is the home tests and a piece of that is just that a large number of people who are not getting tested right now for a whole variety of reasons. If we're seeing a positivity rate of close to 40%, we know we're seeing a massive undercount."

Given the extremely high transmission of omicron, the health department expects it will shift focus to hospitalizations while continuing to monitor cases and urge safe practices to limit spread.

"Increasingly, as we move deeper into the pandemic, as more people are vaccinated, we're going to be going by hospitalizations more than we'll be going by case counts," Bettigole said. "Case counts still matter to us ... and although we have a lot of missing data, knowing that we have 3,000 cases per day is still a valuable piece of information about how prevalent this is in the city."

Bettigole added that it's more important for people to have access to tests at home than it is to have exact case numbers, and the city is continuing to work on ways to increase its supply of at-home tests. Those who have symptoms and are unable to get a test are advised to assume they have COVID-19 and follow guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Philadelphia's new vaccine mandate for indoor dining establishments entered its first phase this week as the city looks for ways to increase safety without returning to more sweeping restrictions. There are no imminent plans to introduce additional measures.

"We continue to try to stay away from closures and capacity limits, but I can never say never," Bettigole said.

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