Is Philly the next COVID-19 hot spot? Health commissioner welcomes White House attention

Tim Jimenez
April 09, 2020 - 7:55 am

UPDATED: 9:40 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The White House's coronavirus task force says the Philadelphia region is a possible hot spot.

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During the daily news conference at the White House on Wednesday, officials mentioned Washington, D.C; Baltimore and Philadelphia as areas of concern.

"In the Philadelphia metro area, where I come from, it’s 1,400 cases per day," said task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx. "This of course includes Camden, the counties around the Philadelphia metro and Wilmington."

Birx first mentioned the potential hot spots during nationally televised interviews. In response, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley, during the city’s daily briefing, said their numbers show the rise of new cases may be slowing.

"I doubt she’s looking at numbers as updated as we are. I’m glad she’s concerned about Philadelphia. We have been hit hard so far, but at the moment things are looking a little bit better," Farley said. 

Vice President Mike Pence and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf both acknowledged they spoke about getting more resources to the region. 

"While it’s not good news that Philadelphia and the southeastern part of the state is seen as a hot spot, it is going to be helpful in terms of getting more attention from the federal resources and that’s a good thing,” Wolf said during his daily news conference on Wednesday.

One thing all officials agreed on, is the importance of continuing the mitigation efforts.

"Our message to the people of the Philadelphia area is now more than ever practice social distancing," Pence said.

Farley joined KYW Newsradio's Brandon Brooks on the air Thursday morning to talk about the assessment from the White House task force. Listen to the full interview above.

A lightly edited transcript follows here.

Dr. Farley, do you agree with the assessment that Philly could become a hotspot?

Well, Philadelphia has certainly been hit hard, like a lot of Northeastern cities, with New York City being the one that's hit hardest. And we're concerned about where this is going to go. 

We've had some better news, I would say, in the past few days, where our case counts continue to rise, but they're not rising at the same rate as they were before. So I'm hopeful that things may be tailing off.

I'm glad that the White House is concerned. We need all the attention we can get here.

How will we know if Philadelphia is becoming a hot spot? And at what point will we know the curve is really flattening?

There is a nice curve in the Inquirer this morning that shows our count on cases and our count on deaths is not going straight up; it's curving somewhat to the right. So that's a good sign. And it may be a sign that our social distancing is having an impact.

Right now, we have close to 5,000 cases in the city. That's still plenty. Unfortunately we've had 78 deaths. We're going to track these numbers every day. If the daily numbers start to go down, then we'll feel that we really have made a difference with the social distancing.  

Why haven't we seen the infection rate New York has seen? Is it just that we were a few weeks behind their level of infection when we put the same measures in place?

We're a little bit behind — but I think it's just that New York City is a much more crowded place than Philadelphia. I've lived in both places, and when you're in New York City, everywhere you go is crowded. So just more people in contact with more people, so it's easier for the virus to spread more quickly. 

How can we realistically expect to lift some measures, when the time comes, while preventing another spike?

It's going to be difficult. We're going to have to think hard about what measures are going to have the least likelihood of igniting another epidemic. And we're going to have to watch it really closely. And if we lift some measures and the virus starts to spread again, theN we're going to have to reinstitute them. 

The mayor's office has decided not to release data on city workers, including police officers, who have been tested and who are quarantined or isolated. Do you think there is a public interest in having that data available?

I don't think so, no. If it got to the point where the police force couldn't function, that's another story. But it's nowhere near that. We're able to maintain city services.

And even during these extraordinary times, people have a right to privacy and confidentiality. I think your listeners can appreciate that. They wouldn't want their information about their medical problems out there in the public. So I think the city is taking the right stance there.

Are there specific areas of he city or neighborhoods that are seeing worse outbreaks?

We have a map on the (city) website, and you can see the case rate by ZIP code. What mainly strikes me is that there is no specific pattern. This is in every ZIP code. It's in every population.

So the message to people is that you should assume that it's right nearby, and anybody you come in contact with might be having the infection and not have symptoms yet. So you need to be absolutely certain you keep your distance from people. And if you have to be close to people because of the nature of your work, that you wear a mask.

The testing site at Citizens Bank Park is closing. How busy have the testing sites been? Which ones are busiest?

We're testing about 1,000 Philadelphia residents every day. The Citizens Bank Park site is one of about 20 in the greater Philadelphia region. 

We certainly want testing to be more available, but there's a limit to how many test kits we have and to laboratory capacity. And we feel like, given those limits, we're doing the best we can as far as making it available across the city.

What percentage of the tests that are being done are coming back positive?

We're somewhere between 25% and 30% now.

Are you concerned about the rate of false negatives?

The test isn't perfect. We haven't heard about a big problem with the current testing technology showing a lot of false negatives. There are a number of new tests coming out that may give you a rapid answer. ... We're very excited to put these in our hands. 

I have heard some concerns about false negatives on those, and so we're going to have to see. This technology is changing very, very quickly.

Do you have any idea when those rapid tests will be widely available in the city?

I don't know. We got a first pilot bunch in the city health department just in the last couple of days. We're going to test to see how well they perform in our laboratory. 

And then I don't know how quickly the company can ramp up. Because we would certainly want many, many of those tests. And I'm sure every other city in the country does too.

Any last thoughts?

The main message is that this is an epidemic, this is a crisis. There is some reason for hope with a slowing of the growing of the curve. It hasn't plateaued, but the growth is slowing. 

But this is not the time to let up on our recommendations. Keep your distance from other people. The virus is still out there plenty. And although most people get over this infection, it absolutely can be deadly.