Elected leaders and other government and health officials across the Delaware Valley are scrambling to find fast and workable measures they can put in place to curb the dreaded “fall surge” in coronavirus cases that has now begun to materialize.
Montgomery County leaders have imposed a two-week “virtual”-only learning program for students in private and public schools countywide, while Delaware County leaders advised residents that hospitals have been forced to divert patients due to increased hospitalizations, in two virtual public meetings Thursday.
On Friday, the Montgomery County Board of Health approved the plan for schools to go into the virtual mode on November 23 through December 6 to decrease exposures between children who may attend family gatherings around the holiday. Extracurricular activities will be canceled through that time as well.
In Montgomery County, cases rose to 512 on November 12. Data provided by the county showed the positivity rate — the number of positive tests as a percentage of the overall tests taken — has been above 5 percent in the last week, occasionally spiking into the double digits. Other data showed the positivity rate oscillating between 2 and 4 percent for most of July through September.
Interim Health Administrator Janet Panning proposed the two-week retrenchment at a Thursday virtual meeting, in which parents and school administrators were also in attendance.
“We believe this will help the community stem the tide from what will likely be indoor gatherings, with relatives who may be visiting from far away,” said Panning.
Montgomery County Director of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention Michel Masters attributes the uptick to more social gatherings and more inside events as the weather grows cooler. The cooler weather is also believed to help the virus survive longer.
“With this order, what we hope to do, is put a pause on the Covid spread,” Masters said, noting that the two-week stretch would give those who caught the virus a chance to develop symptoms and be diagnosed. “Our goal is that as of December 7, we can return to the hybrid model.”
Parent Michael Napolitan passionately resisted.
“We are suffering, the families in your district are suffering,” said Napolitan. “This is out of control. Parents can’t work and make sure their child is attending school online at home and what about single parent families? This is a tremendous strain, financially and every other way. Children, particularly those with disabilities, are not benefitting from this. Stop it.”
Another parent, Lisa Barry, agreed, as did many many more parents to follow.
“Once you go with the two weeks of virtual, it’s going to be months of virtual school, which is what happened in March. You shut down the schools for Thanksgiving, so what will we do for Christmas and New Year’s? This virus isn’t going anywhere. And our kids are safer in school than most places, because precautions are taken.”
Many of the parents expressed concerns for children with learning disabilities, who would once again be in front of a screen for classes.
After over two hours of public comment, almost uniformly from parents against the idea, the board decided to delay the vote.
“We need time to digest this,” said Board of Health Chair Michael Laighn.
For Delaware County, the recent spike in cases forced hospitals to divert patients on Monday, noted Delaware County Council Chair Bran Zidek at a press conference, also conducted via Zoom, Thursday afternoon.
“There is an alarmingly high spike in COVID-19 cases across the county, and even more alarming is the ways in which our county is being impacted,” Zidek said. At the beginning of the press conference he said there were 232 cases in the county during the height of the pandemic and 214 cases on November 11.
Council members, and a panel of local health and emergency services leaders, pleaded with residents to continue the routine of mask-wearing, frequent handwashing, social distancing and limiting social contact.
“We are seeing this disease spread through small events, not just mass events, that took place this fall as well, like pumpkin carving parties, trick or treating with a group, a team photograph with everyone standing together,” said Chester County Health Director Jeanne Casner. “These are normal, everyday events in normal times. Unfortunately, we are not in normal times.”
Those who care for COVID patients and respond to emergencies are also not immune to the disease, and that has impacted the number of first responders and essential healthcare workers available to help the increasing number of patients, said Emergency Services Director Timothy Boyce.
“There has been a significant rise in calls over the past week,” said Boyce. “This spike is impacting us as well, which creates a cascading effect of problems. With less people available to respond to emergencies and more emergencies…”
The Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed 5,488 additional positive cases of COVID-19 on November 12, bringing the statewide total to 248,856, the highest daily increase of cases since the beginning of the pandemic.