By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — As Philadelphia enters a new phase of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the virus will continue to disproportionately affect African-American residents.
Stricter coronavirus restrictions went into effect Friday in the city to combat a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The spread of the respiratory virus, as well as the flu, will be fueled by colder weather.
Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said last week it was “unlikely that we’re going to have this problem solved by Jan. 1,” referring to rising case counts that led to the additional restrictions.
Yet eight months after the first COVID-19 case was reported in Philadelphia, Black residents face the same health care-related challenges that led to the virus hitting them hardest, said Dr. Delana Wardlaw, a family medicine physician for two decades.
A lack of access to quality health care, chronic health conditions, putting off preventative care during the pandemic, and systemic racism remain key drivers for why African Americans are disproportionately affected by the disease, Wardlaw said.
“All those things that existed before the pandemic are still allowing African Americans to have disproportionate rates of COVID-19 infections and complications.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging Americans to stay at home this Thanksgiving and celebrate with only household members to stop the spread of the virus.
“Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu,” the CDC says on its website.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease specialist, told The New York Times during the week that “December, January and early February are going to be terribly painful months.”
Philadelphia logged 1,054 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, bringing the total confirmed cases to 58,291, and seven new virus-related deaths increased the total to 1,952.
Philadelphia hospitals were treating 602 patients with COVID-19, including 60 on ventilators on Friday.
African-American Philadelphians account for the most COVID-19 cases (35%), hospitalizations (52.9%) and deaths (49%), according to city data.
Those trends for Black Philadelphians won’t change, said James Garrow, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Public Health, in an email Friday.
“It is a fact that African-American people in Philadelphia are more vulnerable from COVID-19 and this disease hasn’t changed,” Garrow said.
The city did not have the resources to adequately conduct contact tracing in neighborhoods where spikes occur, Farley said this week.
“We don’t have, though, the staff to go into those neighborhoods when they light up and do all the contact tracing,” Farley said. “There’s just too many cases right now.”
Those limitations contributed to the city banning indoor dining at restaurants, placing limits on gatherings, and closing gyms, libraries and museums — collectively known as Safer at Home guidance.
Dr. Ala Stanford, a pediatric surgeon who heads the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, said African-American communities need more access to testing and contact tracing as conditions that allowed the virus to spread in those areas remain unchanged.
“The only thing now is that there’s more of it around,” Stanford said, referring to COVID-19.
Stanford has operated free COVID-19 testing at pop-up sites for months through a grant with the city, focusing primarily on Black and brown neighborhoods. Demand has never been higher, which has caused people from outside those communities — including from New Jersey — to seek testing there, she said.
“I know when we show to test and there’s BMWs and Land Rovers and Teslas in the parking lot, OK, that it’s changing,” Stanford said.
Stanford warned that not everyone who needs a test can receive one and that barriers to accessing testing remain, including some sites requiring a physician referral.
While city officials monitor various metrics, such as virus-related hospitalizations and deaths, they have not set thresholds that will trigger further restrictions, Garrow said.
“We are looking at trends, and right now the trend looks bad, so we’ve started implementing the Safer at Home guidance,” Garrow said.
Whether the Kenney administration reimposes another full stay-at-home order will depend on residents following the restrictions, Garrow said.
“We don’t want to go back to a stay-at-home order like in the spring and feel that, if everyone does their part, we won’t need to,” Garrow said. “But, yes, it’s an option.”
Wardlaw, who practices medicine at Temple Physicians Inc. in Nicetown, said more coronavirus restrictions could be implemented incrementally in Philadelphia as health officials gauge how effective current limitations are.
Wardlaw was cautious about whether new coronavirus restrictions were a prelude to a full shutdown.
“It all depends on how the numbers respond to this current shutdown,” Wardlaw said. “If the data shows the numbers are continuing to increase, then, yeah, that will likely lead to a larger shutdown.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.