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COVID-19 updates: Masks, omicron subvariant BA.2, and a slow rise in cases

Jennifer Wright, Philadelphia Fight Administrative Director of COVID-19 Community Testing performs a COVID-19 rapid test at The Simple Way, on January 18, 2022. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

Kensington Voice regularly collects updates from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health about the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Below, you’ll find information and recommendations to help you stay protected from COVID-19. This article was originally published on Jan. 28, 2022, and updated on May 27, 2022.  

Additionally, here are some other helpful COVID-19 resources: 

If you have any questions about COVID-19 or need information we haven’t included here, please fill out this form. We’ll take your questions directly to trusted health professionals to get you answers.

General information

How many positive cases a day are we seeing in Philadelphia?

As of May 23, the average number of new cases per day was 400.

“This number has been slowly rising over the previous two weeks,” James Garrow, communications director of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, wrote in an email on April 1 when the average number of new cases per day was 84. “We anticipate it’s likely to continue rising.”

What is the City’s current COVID-19 response level?

On Feb. 16, the City announced COVID-19 Response Levels to decide citywide mandates based on the following pandemic-related numbers: average new cases per day, number of hospitalizations, and the rate of change of new cases. The City retired the system on April 22, 2022, after enforcing masks in indoor public spaces for less than a week. Currently, masks are strongly recommended in indoor public settings.

What general information should people keep in mind to stay safe?

Garrow encourages people to stay vigilant by being fully vaccinated, receiving a booster shot, and taking special precautions.

“First and most importantly, if you aren’t up to date on your vaccines, get it today,” Garrow wrote in an email. “Being boosted significantly cuts your risk of severe COVID and death.”

“If you or someone in your household is not fully vaccinated and boosted or is immunocompromised, you should consider still wearing a mask when around others,” he added. “Finally, if you’re not feeling well, you still might have COVID and should not go out.”

On March 29, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended additional doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for certain individuals. People over the age of 50 who received their first booster at least four months ago, and pre-teens, teenagers, and adults who are considered moderately or severely immunocompromised are recommended to receive a total of four doses of the mRNA vaccines. People in this category who received one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should have received a second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines and can receive a booster of either.

On April 5, a federally funded program reimbursing vaccine providers administering vaccines to uninsured people ended due to a lack of funding. Although a new $10 billion funding deal passed in the Senate, it is significantly smaller than what the Biden administration requested. Some vaccine providers may begin charging uninsured patients for the vaccine due to the diminished federal funding.

What is the situation like at Philadelphia hospitals?

As of May 18, there were 142 people in Philadelphia hospitals with COVID-19.

Variants

What is a variant?

According to Nicole Spector, the City’s nurse practitioner leading mobile vaccination efforts in Kensington, after a virus infects the body, it makes copies of itself. If a mistake happens during the copying process, those viruses become mutations. Most mutations don’t have much of an effect. However, the ones that do survive become new versions of the virus. Those versions are called variants, she said.

The current variants of concern are omicron and delta, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Omicron, the dominant variant in the United States, led to a surge in COVID-19 cases over the holidays in December 2021 and earlier this year. 

“The omicron variant was much more easily transmitted than any other COVID variant to date,” Garrow wrote in an email. “That means it spread more efficiently between people and was able to get more people sick.”

What variants are in Philadelphia?

The discovery of COVID-19 variants in Philadelphia generally runs behind by several weeks, Garrow wrote in an email. The health department’s reporting from February and early March mostly detected the omicron subvariant BA.1, which led to a surge in cases in late 2021 and earlier this year. Since then, the omicron subvariant BA.2 has become the dominant version of the virus in the United States and other countries. 

“According to CDC’s estimates, up to half of the cases in the country could be the BA.2 version of omicron,” Garrow wrote in an email. “Given that we’re seeing a slight rise in cases, we feel that it’s likely that some amount of BA.2 is circulating here in Philadelphia.”

The omicron subvariants are simply mutated versions of the omicron variant. However, BA.2 can spread faster than the once-dominant BA.1 subvariant, which caused an increase in breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated people. According to recent research, existing vaccines, including booster shots, are effective at neutralizing BA.2. 

A Philly resident receives a COVID-19 vaccine at The City of Philadelphia’s COVID-19 mobile vaccination unit in Kensington on October 28th, 2021. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

Vaccines & boosters

What is a booster shot?

A booster shot is an additional dose of a vaccine that helps protect your body’s immune system in case you are exposed to a disease, like COVID-19, according to the health department.

“Many vaccines that we get throughout our lives require booster doses. Most people know they need to get a tetanus shot every once in a while; the Tdap vaccine you’ll get is a booster,” Matt Rankin, a spokesperson for the health department wrote to Kensington Voice in an email on Jan. 18. “It helps your body’s immune system to be ready in case you get exposed to tetanus. There is some evidence that a booster dose [of a COVID-19 vaccine] offers additional protection against the omicron variant.”

Why is it important for people who are already fully vaccinated to receive a booster shot?

A booster shot is recommended for people who are fully vaccinated since it helps lengthen your body’s immunity to COVID-19. 

Early research shows a booster shot was highly effective at preventing COVID-19 related hospitalizations during waves of COVID-19 where delta and omicron were predominant, according to a January report from the CDC.

This means being fully vaccinated and boosted is the best way to stay protected from severe COVID-19 symptoms which could result in hospitalization, according to the City’s health department.

“We know that those who are up to date on their vaccines fare better than those who are not vaccinated,” Rankin wrote in an email.

What if I’ve already been infected with COVID-19 before? Aren’t I already protected?

A person who recovered from COVID-19 can become infected again; infection-induced immunity decreases over time, according to the CDC. Therefore, the CDC also recommends COVID-19 vaccination for those who have been previously infected.

“The level of protection people get from having COVID-19 may vary depending on how mild or severe their illness was, the time since their infection, and their age,” Rankin wrote in an email.

Why is it possible for me to still be infected with COVID-19 and possibly have symptoms, even if I’m vaccinated? 

According to the CDC, COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing most infections and severe illnesses, but like other vaccines, they’re not 100% effective. Still, the latest research has shown being vaccinated can provide two benefits, according to the City’s health department.

First, you are much less likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 complications if you are vaccinated. According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, 82% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state from Jan. 1, 2021, to April 11, 2022, were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated people. 

Second, being vaccinated can significantly reduce your chances of having severe symptoms of COVID-19. 

“Most of the people who are fully vaccinated and test positive for COVID-19 tend to have mild symptoms that resolve quickly,” Rankin wrote in an email.

Miguel Diaz, the food coordinator at The Simple Way, assists people who are seeking COVID-19 testing in Kensington on January 18, 2022. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

Testing

What is the difference between a rapid antigen test and a PCR lab test? How do I decide which one to take?

According to the City’s health department, considering COVID-19 testing supplies are in such high demand, residents should use whichever test is available to them. 

Still, a lab test versus a rapid test offer different degrees of certainty. Both COVID-19 tests require you to collect a sample in the same way. However, the way those samples are processed is different, according to Yale Medicine.

A molecular lab test, often referred to as a PCR or diagnostic test, takes longer to process but provides more accurate results. These tests are less likely to provide false-negative results. This means that a negative result from a PCR test is more reliable than a negative result from a rapid antigen test. An antigen test, often referred to as an at-home rapid test, can give you results within 15 minutes. However, the accuracy of an antigen test depends on the stage a person is at in their infection, and the tests are more likely to produce false-negative results. Still, it is uncommon that these tests produce false-positive results. This means that a positive result from a rapid antigen test is in most cases truly positive. 

“One thing to be aware of with testing is that tests only tell you if you’re negative when you take the test,” Rankin wrote in an email. “Testing negative three or five days ago does not necessarily mean that you’re still negative.”

To order free at-home rapid tests through the U.S. Postal Service, click here.

Where can I get tested for COVID-19 in Philadelphia?

First, if you have been exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, the City health department recommends that you quarantine yourself from others and assume you are positive until you are able to get tested and find out the result.

“Even if you have mild symptoms, residents should consider their neighbors and loved ones. They are highly capable of passing the disease off onto someone else who may not be so lucky,” Rankin wrote in an email. “Those who test positive should quarantine for five days and stay away from others as much as possible.”

A federally funded program that reimbursed providers for costs of testing uninsured people for COVID-19 ended on March 22. City-run testing sites will continue to be free, as will other providers, but some may begin charging uninsured patients fees for testing. 

To find testing sites near you, click here. To find a mobile testing site near you, click here. To learn where you can receive an at-home testing kit, click here.

Gatherings

What should I keep in mind if I attend gatherings outside the household?

According to Garrow, the most important rule is not to go out if you’re feeling sick. But if you’re feeling well and go to a gathering, you have the right to change your mind and leave or wear a mask to feel more comfortable. 

“Nobody wants to be the person that gets other people sick or potentially puts them in the hospital,” Garrow wrote in an email.

Is there a full list of precautions in effect for Philadelphia?

The City encourages residents to check www.phila.gov/covid for updates and press releases. Currently, the City’s health department provides weekly updates about COVID-19 through press briefings. Residents can watch briefings every Wednesday at 10 a.m. on the health department’s YouTube channel

To receive the City’s COVID-19 updates on your phone, text COVIDPHL to 888-777. You can also find information on COVID-19 and guidance from the City, here. For updates and press releases, you can check the City’s COVID-19 dashboard. For updated COVID-19 guidance for Philadelphia schools, click here


Editors: Christopher Malo, Zari Tarazona / Designer: Zari Tarazona

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