Philly’s health commissioner takes issue with mandatory testing for city’s Black commmunity

The city's health commissioner, Thomas Farley, discussed on Tuesday the steps being taken with the surfacing of the first "presumptive positive" case of the coronavirus in Philadelphia. -- (PHILADELPHIA TRIBUNE PHOTO/ABDUL SULAYMAN)

By Kimberly C. Roberts

PHILADELPHIA — Mandatory testing for coronavirus infection in the Black community could prove to be counterproductive, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, said Tuesday.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-3rd District, called for universal mandatory COVID-19 testing and for President Donald Trump to use the Defense Production Act to have manufacturers produce the necessary testing supplies.

Evans told WHYY-FM’s “Radio Times” that mandatory testing is important, “particularly in the African-American community.” Disproportionately large numbers of African Americans in Philadelphia have died from COVID-19, according to city data.

“We have to get as serious as possible about making it safe for workers and customers to come back,” Evans said in a statement. “The president showed he is willing to use the Defense Production Act to keep meat in the grocery stores — universal testing is far more important,” Evans said.

However, Farley cited two problems with the idea of mandatory testing.

“First of all, we don’t have enough swabs to test everyone in the city. We have 1.5 million people in the city,” he said.

“Second of all, that information isn’t necessarily useful, and it can actually backfire. If you were exposed to somebody yesterday, and tested today and were negative, you might actually be incubating infection. You might become infectious tomorrow, and then you’re out there exposing other people, thinking that you’re negative. So the information can sometimes actually work against us.”

At the city’s daily briefing on the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday, Farley described the situation as “very similar to where we were yesterday, where we’re seeing plenty of cases, but clearly we have a down slope of the epidemic.”

The Philadelphia Department of Health reported 370 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 17 additional fatalities in the city, bringing the number of confirmed cases to 16,410 and raising the death toll to 743, more than half of them residents of long-term care facilities.

As previously announced, testing is being expanded, both in the number of locations available, as well as the criteria for having a test administered. A comprehensive list of test sites is available here.

“All of those sites are asking that people call for an appointment in advance,” Farley said. “They don’t want people cueing up at these sites for testing. They want to be able to be prepared to test when they come in, so everyone is protected.”

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Under its expanded standards, the Philadelphia Department of Health now recommends coronavirus testing for anyone, regardless of age, who has a new cough, is experiencing new shortness of breath, or has two of the following symptoms: fever, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache, new loss of taste or smell.

“Within that, though, we’re recommending priority for people who are at higher risk, or in higher risk situations,” said Farley. “That would include residents at facilities for congregate living, such as homeless shelters, that would include public safety workers such as police and fire, and emergency medical service workers, and it would include other essential workers, such as people who work in grocery stores and pharmacies. And it would include contacts to known cases who have been exposed to someone else we know has the coronavirus infection.”

The expansion of testing recommendations comes as a result of the increasing availability of coronavirus testing at public health and commercial laboratories. Increased testing for the coronavirus is a key part of the city’s and Pennsylvania’s plan to reopen safely.

Kimberly C. Roberts is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared