Philly confirms first presumptive coronavirus case as officials advise against large, public gatherings

Love Park in Philadelphia (Photo via Flickr Commons)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia’s first presumptive case of coronavirus was confirmed on Tuesday.

The discovery was made in a city resident who was exposed by another person known to have COVID-19, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said. In the latest case, the adult is being treated at home and is under self-quarantine, he added.

“The pandemic has now arrived to the city of Philadelphia,” Farley said during a news conference in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall.

The health commissioner did not provide further information about the Philadelphia case, citing patient privacy laws, and did not elaborate on the person who transmitted the disease.

City officials continue to reach out to those who had contact with the infected city resident and will recommend they self-quarantine.

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“This person did expose other people and we will contact those other people to make sure that they are quarantined,” Farley said.

The total presumptive cases of coronavirus in the state rose to 12 on Tuesday, according to the Pennsylvania’s Department of Health.

  • Delaware County: 1
  • Monroe County: 1
  • Montgomery County: 8
  • Wayne County: 1
  • Philadelphia County: 1

Mayor Jim Kenney said city officials have been preparing for the expected arrival of COVID-19 for weeks with stakeholders, including SEPTA as well as business and industry leaders.

“I want to assure the public that Philadelphia is ready to manage the situation with the urgency that is warranted,” he said.

The most vulnerable to the disease are the elderly and people with chronic illnesses.

City officials are taking additional precautions to contain the spread. They have recommended individuals not attend large public gatherings of more than 5,000 people in which close contact poses a “greatest risk” of virus transmission.

However, the city says planned conventions and events, including this weekend’s 250th annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, will go on as scheduled.

“We are not canceling these events; we are not prohibiting people from going there but we are recommending that people not attend as spectators,” Farley said. “Instead, we are recommending that people watch those events on television.”

Farley warns officials will adjust recommendations as the situation changes.

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The Kenney administration was “absolutely considering” options to help low-income residents who may be unable to work due to contracting the coronavirus, said Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director. He did not elaborate on the possible options.

The Office of Emergency Management plans to activate its emergency operation centers on a limited basis at noon on Wednesday, said Adam Thiel, the city’s fire commissioner and director of OEM.

To contain the spread of the disease, Farley said officials would take steps to rapidly identify cases, isolate the infected people and then notify those who were potentially exposed. Infected people will be told to self-quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Residents will play a critical role in containing coronavirus, which has infected more than 110,000 people worldwide and has prompted travel bans as well as business and school closings.

Farley says it is important that the public recognizes the symptoms and bringing them to the attention of medical professionals so testing can determine if it is COVID-19.

The two most common symptoms are a fever and a dry cough.

“If you have those, stay away from other people,” Farley said.

Testing for COVID-19 was available but limited.

Council President Darrell Clarke said legislators were “fully prepared” to support “whatever is needed” for the Kenney administration to respond to the health emergency. However, the Council did not have any pending legislation to assist with the city in that regard as of Tuesday.

“Clearly, we do not want a panic. But we are asking people to be cautious and follow the signs,” Clarke said.

Testing for the uninsured

Testing for the coronavirus is now available to the uninsured and low-income residents at city-run health centers.

Individuals who believe they have the disease are being asked to call ahead to the health facility they intend to visit in order for healthcare professionals to prepare for them, said James Garrow, a spokesman for the health department, during a telephone interview.

“Testing for COVID-19 is limited to those who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 and have been in contact with someone who has the disease are recommended,” Garrow said.

The city’s nine health centers, located throughout the city, accept those without health insurance, charging a small fee based on family income and size. The centers accept Medicare, Medicaid and most health insurance, too. There are also translation and interpretation services being offered for non-English speakers.

The city’s health department’s Division of Disease Control plans to work with the health centers to take a sample from a patient and send it to a state laboratory for testing for the coronavirus.

According to Garrow the city-run health centers have not received an “overwhelming” response from patients seeking services, but he noted, “I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes.”

The health department has not recommended new protocols due to the coronavirus but officials were prepared to supplement staff if it were needed, Garrow said.

“We’re not seeing the burden that some other countries are seeing,” Garrow said. “Again, that could change in the future.”

In 2018, 10.3% of adults and 3.1% of children did not have insurance coverage, according to the Department of Public Health’s 2019 Health of the City’s report.

That same year, 36% of the city’s population was covered by Medicaid or other needs-based social welfare programs, according to the 1-year American Community Survey from the U.S. Census.

However, the uninsured rates of African Americans are better than the overall population: 10.2% among Black adults and 2.4% among children, according to the city report. Hispanic adults documented the highest uninsured rates in the city (18.7%).

Since the first reported from China on Dec. 31, the virus has since spread to dozens of countries globally, touching all continents except Antarctica with currently no cure in sight.

Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

To prevent infection, the World Health Organization recommends regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs.

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