In Philly, coronavirus cases reach ‘rapid growth phase,’ city shuts down mall

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia's drive-thru testing site in West Philadelphia. At least two RVs were and a handful of canopy tents were set up in a parking lot. No CHOP officials were immediately available for comment and a reporter was directed off the hospital’s property (Philadelphia Tribune photo by Michael D'Onofrio)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia has entered a “rapid growth phase” of the coronavirus pandemic as confirmed cases of coronavirus climbed in the city again on Wednesday, the city’s top health official said.

“This virus is everywhere, it’s not in one neighborhood than any other one,” Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said. “No one should assume that it’s not in your neighborhood.”

Sixteen new individuals tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19) from the previous day, bringing the total up to 34, Farley said during the Kenney administration’s daily briefing inside City Hall on Wednesday.

Five of the 16 new cases have been hospitalized with COVID-19. The administration could not confirm whether any of the other individuals who tested positive required hospitalization.

The city is monitoring 144 individuals who have known contacts with people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

City Manager Brian Abernathy emphasized that the best action residents could take to reduce the spread of the virus was to stay home.

“Help us contain this virus so we can all stay healthy and get back to business as quickly as we possibly can,” he said.

The total number of confirmed cases in Philadelphia was made up of 19 individuals between the ages of 20 and 39; 10 cases between the ages of 40 and 59; and five over the age of 60.

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In terms of gender, the total number of confirmed cases was made up of 22 men and 19 women.

Farley said the confirmed cases were made up of every race, pushing back against rumors that the coronavirus does not affect all races.

“This virus doesn’t discriminate,” Farley said.

The city has received 177 test results since Tuesday, marking a dramatic increase in test results reported since the weekend.

Farley still called for more testing.

Mall shutdown over continued operation

Police shut down the Philadelphia Mills Mall on Wednesday for violating the city’s ban on non-essential businesses.

Abernathy said the mall, which was the only business to be forced to shutter for violating the ban, was putting people’s health at risk.

“I am disappointed by their inability and their responsibility,” he said, adding, “If you can’t be responsible, we will be responsible for you.”

Simon Property Group owns the Philadelphia Mills Mall in Northeast Philadelphia. The group also owns the King of Prussia Mall, as well as dozens of other malls and outlet across the country.

The group said on its website it will close its U.S. retail properties from 7 p.m. on Wednesday through March 29.

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Rapid-testing sites for COVID-19

Healthcare providers tested approximately 700 individuals at rapid-testing sites for the virus in the city and region on Tuesday as materials needed to test for the virus remain in short supply.

The development of a new drive-thru rapid-testing site at the stadium complex in South Philadelphia remains ongoing.

Farley could not say when the new site will be opened, which is being done in coordination with state and federal officials. Several issues remain outstanding, including training staff and determining who will get tested.

Penn Medicine has one rapid testing site in West Philadelphia and another in Radnor Township in Delaware County; Temple University was expected to have one up and running soon; Jefferson Hospital has a site in Center City and another in Abington Township in Montgomery County; and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has a site in West Philadelphia.

All sites will require a referral from a physician and criteria individuals must meet to be tested, Farley said. The sites will not test everyone who wants one because of the lack of availability of testing materials.

There is a shortage of viral transport media kits, or special swabs used to collect a test sample. Farley said the health department was redistributing kits to ensure testing sites have enough kits for those most in need.

Individuals should contact their primary care physician to seek testing if they are experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19 (a dry cough, fever, fatigue). Those who are considered high-risk should also be tested, including older adults and those with underlying medical conditions, including HIV or AIDS, heart disease, diabetes.

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No co-pays or deductibles will be charged for testing and uninsured patients will be able to be tested for free.

Hospital beds

City hospitals have approximately 6,200 beds “inpatient acute care licensed and staffed beds,” a higher bed-per-capita than the region and national average. Hospital beds are typically around 70% occupied in the city.

While Farley could not provide current figures for the number of occupied hospital beds, he said more beds should be available because hospitals have canceled elective surgery and sought to add more available beds.

“All the hospitals are reporting that they have fewer patients than they typically do,” Farley said.

The state’s Department of Health also issued an emergency waiver for hospitals to expand the number of beds they can provide by putting them in unused space, among other measures to respond to the pandemic.

The city was in need of volunteers, from nurses and healthcare professionals to general tasks, Farley said.

Those interested in volunteering should go to phila.gov/mrc.

Restoring utilities

This week, the city’s Water Department began restoring water service to customers who had their water shut off due to delinquent water bills.

PECO also has suspended service suspensions and waived late-payment fees during this crisis.

School District of Philadelphia

Top school brass have shut down online remote learning for students who attend district-run schools over a lack of access while charter schools were free to continue their programs.

The School District of Philadelphia has been unable to provide equal access to remote learning to all of its 130,000, said Superintendent William Hite at the news briefing.

District officials have prohibited teachers from accessing the district’s system, where they would log attendance and distribute grades.

“If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make that available for some,” Hite said.

Yet charter schools, which educate 70,000 students in the district, can continue to provide online learning because they operate under a different set of standards.

Hite dodged questions about the fairness of some Philadelphia students accessing education during the crisis while others go without.

“I can’t speak to what the charters are doing,” Hite said. “I can only speak to what the district of Philadelphia is doing to make sure that we provide all children with what they need.”

Based on state and federal guidelines, any educational instruction that a district or local education agency provides during the crisis must ensure “full access to learning for all students,” Hite said.

District staff were seeking to understand what programs district-run schools were offering and what programs they were capable of offering. The district also distributed educational packets to students this week.

District teachers were not prohibiting school staff from communicating with students and their families in order to provide materials.

Free meals for students

The city and School District of Philadelphia have provided approximately 6,000 free meals to children today.

The city and school district began providing the meals on Monday. They provide two free meals — breakfast and lunch — per day to children 18 and younger between 9 a.m. and noon at 30 locations throughout the city.

A full list of where students and parents can get the meals can be found by visiting https://www.phila.gov/2020-03-14-find-free-meals-and-safe-spaces-for-students-while-schools-are-closed/

Safe spaces for children

Fifty recreation centers will remain open between 2 and 6 p.m. to provide a safe space for children while school are out.

Meals will be provided for children 18 years old and younger at 3 p.m.

For a full listing of the open recreation centers, visit https://www.phila.gov/2020-03-16-50-recreation-centers-and-six-older-adult-centers-to-remain-open/

SEPTA offering partial refunds for passes

SEPTA is offering credits for unused and partially used monthly and weekly while schedules are reduced and businesses are closed during the coronavirus pandemic

Customers who purchased March monthly passes on Key Cards, and weekly passes for March 9 and for the current week starting Monday should contact SEPTA call center at 1-855-567-3782 to request that the pass be removed. SEPTA will offer a prorated refund on a customer’s Travel Wallet.

The call center is available 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.

Customers who purchased legacy paper passes must mail their pass to this address to receive a pro-rated refund: SEPTA Refunds, 1234 Market St. 9th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Customers must include their name and a return mailing address.

Customers who purchased passes from third-party pre-tax benefit providers will receive a credit to their pre-tax account. Those customers who will not travel in April should check with their provider and see if they can suspend their pass election.

Customers using autoload for passes should turn it off if travel needs are uncertain.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.