We have now reached six weeks since businesses across the state were shut down to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure that those who became infected could receive treatment without overwhelming our hospitals.
We witness daily the growing lines at our food pantries, the historically high levels of unemployment claims, the shuttered retail businesses, the postponement of milestone events like graduations and weddings, and the fear and anxiety of so many residents. It has been a long six weeks, and to all of those who have lost loved ones, become ill, or lost their jobs or businesses, please know that every member of County Council and County government as a whole feels for your loss and expresses our deepest sympathies.
To our first responders, health care workers and the people who go to work every day to make sure every Delaware County resident and worker is safe and has what they need to get through this pandemic – thank you.
We are so proud to see the many examples of “Delco being Delco” with our residents rallying to help each other in our times of need. Meals are being delivered to hospital workers, organizations are grocery shopping for the elderly, residents are making masks for the community, organizations are donating food and teachers are offering free tutoring. These are all examples of Delco doing what Delco does best– coming together when we need each other most.
We should all be clear, however: while much is still unknown about this new virus even among the leading scientists and public health experts worldwide, we do know that we will not quickly return to how things were. There is no cure for COVID-19 and it remains deadly to many who come into contact, as evidenced by the growing number of lost lives here in our county.
Every one of the 255 deaths we have had to-date in our county from COVID-19 is not just a number, but a person who we have lost, with friends and family who mourn them. As we all look for a reopening, we cannot lose sight of the fact that people’s safety – particularly our most vulnerable neighbors – has to be our priority. And we will lose many more if we move too quickly in our desire for a return to normalcy.
Make no mistake, the protective measures we have been taking as a community, including social distancing and wearing masks when in public HAVE BEEN WORKING. The number of daily new cases has stopped growing. Thus far we have been able to avoid the "hospital crunch" that has crippled other places around the world. Through our efforts as a community, hospital ICUs so far have not exceeded their capacity and there have been adequate supplies of ventilators for patients. But just because we have been successful in avoiding this “hospital crunch” so far doesn’t mean the mission is accomplished and we can stop what we’ve been doing.
Last week Governor Wolf put out his "Plan for Reopening", which included criteria for a region or county in the state to progress toward reopening.
While the plan made clear it wasn't the only metric that would be looked at, the most prominent was a target of 50 or fewer new cases total over a 14-day period for every 100,000 population. For Delaware County, this would translate to roughly an average of 20 new cases per day over 14 days. By comparison, this past week we saw an average of 139 new cases per day, versus the target of 20. And since the threat in one county easily crosses to neighboring counties, a similar population-adjusted target would also have to be reached in our neighboring counties for a partial lifting of the shutdown to occur in the Philadelphia region.
Even with the real efforts we’ve been making, at our current level of new cases per day, and similar levels in our neighboring counties, we are not yet close to the Governor's target for a re-opening in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Council views our current situation as two separate challenges that require separate approaches – infections in our nursing homes and other congregate care facilities, and the outbreak level in the broader community at-large.
Roughly 70% of the deaths from COVID-19 in Delaware County and 20% of positive tests have occurred among our nursing home populations. The tragic situation in many of our nursing homes is not unique to our county, as nursing homes throughout the region and country have also been hit hard due to the particular vulnerabilities of this population and the close proximity in which residents live.
With the support of our partners in the Chester County Health Department, Delaware County is working with nursing home management to get them the resources needed as well as the guidance to mitigate the dangers as best we can. We will continue to take every available measure to keep our seniors in congregate care facilities as safe as possible while they deal with this unprecedented danger.
Our partners at the Chester County Health Department have a physician-lead team of trained staff members working daily with nursing homes and other congregate care facilities to ensure patient and staff have the information and resources needed to address their facility’s unique issues in their COVID-19 response.
Any progress made in the broader community will not distract us from the ongoing heightened risks for our vulnerable nursing home residents. Protecting our seniors and the most vulnerable will remain a top priority, as it has been.
The second distinct issue is the level of spread in the broader community. While COVID-19 is still circulating in the community at a rate that is unsafe to allow for a full reopening of most businesses, there has been progress. With the necessary resources and if the public continues to adhere to proper safety measures, we can begin at least a partial reopening before too long.
That is why we have asked that the Governor measure progress using metrics that separate out new cases in nursing homes from new cases in the rest of the community. Looking at the two populations separately will help us take appropriate measures in both our nursing homes and in the broader community without confusing our understanding of the situation in either.
Regardless of how we measure however, in order to get the necessary reduction of new COVID-19 cases as quickly as possible, we need resources we don't currently have, and the primary resource lacking is more widely available diagnostic testing.
With higher levels of testing capacity, nursing homes would be able to test more widely and more frequently, and identify and separate those who show no symptoms but nevertheless are carrying and transmitting the virus to others.
According to our public health experts locally and nationally, higher levels of testing capacity would allow us to broaden our community testing and include asymptomatic people who are unknowingly spreading the virus further. In tandem with a more robust contact tracing and case investigation system, we would be able to more rapidly identify where the virus exists and isolate it. And, after a full or partial reopening, when the inevitable flare-ups of COVID-19 occur, more robust testing and contact tracing would allow us to more readily contain the spread to help prevent returning to a state of shutdown.
That is why we, along with the leadership of the other counties of the Southeast, have been calling on State leadership in Harrisburg to prioritize making more tests available to the region. The Philadelphia region was the first in the state to be shut down, has been the hardest hit, and therefore has the greatest need for tests to combat COVID-19.
Southeastern Pennsylvania is the economic engine that drives the state economy and contributes a disproportionate share of the State's tax revenue. It is incumbent to get that economic engine back up and running as quickly as safely possible. The Governor has outlined a plan for reopening, and the Philadelphia region must be given the necessary resources to reach the targets set out.
While some have pointed out that an increase in testing will increase our new case numbers in the short-term and might set us back in our progress towards the "50 per 100,000" target, sticking our collective heads in the sand and doing less testing is not a sustainable strategy for getting COVID-19 under control.
So, know that we are doing all we can to ramp up the testing availability in Delaware County. In collaboration with the Chester County Health Department, we are working to expand testing availability while ensuring the key at-risk groups of long-term care and other congregate facilities, hospitals, healthcare workers and first responders have continued access to testing.
In the meantime, it is so important that we stay the course– that we stay diligent in maintaining physical separation, wearing masks when in public, and washing our hands frequently and thoroughly. This is hard on all of us, but the more we "trust the process", the sooner we can safely begin to reopen. If we have another outbreak because we fully open our businesses before we are ready, we will only hurt our economy and all of us individually even further.
We recognize it is frustrating to watch some of the counties in Central and Western Pennsylvania that have been less hard-hit begin to open up while we are still shuttered. We know that so many residents and business owners are worried about when they can go back to work. The County is doing everything we can to help our businesses with our current “Delco Strong” grant program and with plans in the works for a more significant, second round of small business support coming soon.
We thank you for your collective efforts and sacrifices as a community as we all face this crisis together. We will beat this shared enemy and get back to work as soon as we can safely do so.