Philadelphia had its single largest increase in Covid-19 infections on Tuesday, with 879 new confirmed cases of the virus. Last week, the average of new cases was the highest it has been since April, according to Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. Farley has warned, like many health officials around the country, that we are likely entering “the worst period in the entire epidemic.”
PGN spoke with three local health organizations on how to stay as safe as possible as the pandemic continues. Much of their advice remains the same as it has been all year: limiting close proximity to those outside your household, hand washing, social distancing, and of course, wearing a mask.
There is also one additional item, now that we’re in autumn, that people can do to help themselves and people around them.
“We are in flu season. Get a flu shot,” said Larry Benjamin, Director of Communications at the Mazzoni Center. “Influenza is a serious disease that can result in hospitalization and death. With the severity of Covid-19 in communities of color and other at-risk populations, and with hospitals across the US quickly reaching capacity under the strain of this current wave of Covid-19 infections, folks need to avoid the possibility of acquiring two respiratory illnesses this season.”
“Co-infection with influenza and Covid-19 would theoretically be much more severe,” said Dr. Jennifer L. Aldrich, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, “so everyone is advised to get a flu shot; influenza alone killed 24,000-62,000 Americans last year. One encouraging note is that our anti-Covid measures are likely to reduce influenza transmission in the community.”
Kevin J. Burns, is both a licensed clinical social worker and the Executive Director for Action Wellness which started out as ActionAIDS in 1986. A major part of their mission is to care for those living with HIV and other chronic medical conditions. Like many other public-facing, client-serving spaces in the city, they have implemented plexi-glass barriers for in-office meetings, required masks for all who enter, and only require staff to come into the office for two days each week. Like other medical offices, they continue to utilize video conferences to restrict possible exposure between personnel and patients.
“All of [ActionWellness patients] are at higher risk for COVID,” Burns told PGN. “We have been working with clients to make sure they continue to have access to primary medical care to manage HIV-disease and other chronic illnesses they may have in order to maintain overall wellness.”
While November has seen COVID-19 infections spike nationwide, there was also some potentially good news around the curve. Pfizer, in conjunction with German pharmaceutical company BioNTech, has developed a vaccine which claims a 90% success rate for inoculated individuals.
However, Aldrich stresses that despite there being a vaccine in sight we must maintain best-health practices recommended by the CDC and other leading health organizations.
“Until we have an effective vaccine,” Aldrich cautions, “and enough of the population has received it, our best defense continues to be what we know works — maintaining social distance, trying to keep activities in well-ventilated, and if possible, outdoor spaces, and always wearing protective masks when we can not physically separate ourselves from those not living in our household.”
As we come into the colder months, activities resuming indoors is certainly concerning. In addition, Aldrich added that, except for perhaps the most introverted Philadelphians used to working consistently or exclusively from home, we are all beginning to suffer from “COVID-19 fatigue.”
Aldrich is also a key figure in Temple Health’s LGBTQ Alliance Task Force. She understands that for the LGBTQ community, gathering and supporting each other are always important. Yet, events with large groups are advised against as it is difficult to socially distance.
“On the other hand, isolation and loneliness feed depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. It is important to take advantage of support groups, supportive social media, and mental health agencies, most of which can be done online.”
Other facets which can affect LGBTQ health include high rates of tobacco users, which can weaken immune systems. The transgender community is also at higher risk simply because they often are the most vulnerable when it comes to seeking out medical professionals due to possible stigma from providers.
“For HIV patients,” some of which have feared leaving their homes due to risk of infection from COVID,” Aldrich explained, “it is important to stay in care and keep the virus well-controlled, as the data suggest they will not suffer more severe complications of coronavirus.”
Aldrich highlighted the substantial group of those who can’t really escape going out into the world during the pandemic. They include, essential workers such as medical providers, public transportation employees, those who work in retail, banking, and other services, as well as people living with medical conditions requiring in-person treatment including diabetes, hypertension, heart or kidney disease, active cancer, and compromised immune systems including but not limited to HIV.
As the holiday season approaches with possible events with loved ones, the desire to purchase holiday gifts in person in potentially crowded locations, and other events on the horizon, the population must consider their health first. Aldrich highly encourages continuing household-only and virtual events which have become part of the so-called “new normal” during the pandemic.
For those who think they may have been exposed to the virus or have contracted the virus, Action Wellness has been providing monthly free COVID testing. Mazzoni Center has also facilitated rapid COVID testing via MazzoniGo. This is a drive-through or walk-up service which allows existing patients to get screening easily. Mazzoni devised this service for patients who may not have felt comfortable with getting tested at other locations or institutions. Benjamin also reminded us that, as a community, we were faced with an equally novel virus some four decades ago.
“Much like this community learned to embrace and practice safer sex, so we must embrace mask wearing and social distancing for the foreseeable future — to ensure the healthy future of our community,” Benjamin concluded. “When it seems no one else cares about us, we must care about ourselves — and each other.”