Philadelphia is in the midst of an increase in COVID-19 cases, and, with the potentially more virulent Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreading and cold days ahead, the city's top health official is urging residents to stay vigilant in preventing the spread.
The city is not yet seeing a surge of coronavirus cases at hospitals at levels that would draw a red flag, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said at a briefing Wednesday.
Still, she urged residents to abide the city's ongoing mask mandate for public indoor spaces and to keep practicing social distancing to prevent a surge in the near future.
"In the past two weeks, Philadelphia and the surrounding counties continue to see a sharp uptick in cases of COVID-19," Bettigole said Wednesday. "It'll be another week or so before we see the full effects of the Thanksgiving holiday on these numbers, but with the colder weather and the recent spikes with a new variant on the horizon, this is a time to be very careful."
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The Omicron variant that was first detected last week in southern Africa, and has since been identified in Europe and Hong Kong, has caused health officials in the United States to reiterate social distancing and mask-wearing measures as well as receiving COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.
A first case of the Omicron variant was confirmed in the United States on Wednesday, hours after Bettigole's briefing in the morning.
Medical experts believe the variant could be more transmissible than previous strains, though more conclusive research needs to be done.
Bettigole said Philadelphia's increase in cases does not match the severity of those in other states, particularly in the Midwest and West, or in some European countries.
In the past two weeks, 3,174 Philadelphians have tested positive for COVID-19, with a two-week rolling average of 258 new cases every day, Bettigole said. The number of positive tests is up to 4.8%.
Everyone over the age of 5 is now eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. Booster shots are available at hundreds of pharmacies like CVS and Rite-Aid across the city.
"The situation around the world and in other parts of our country is becoming increasingly dire," Bettigole said. "Some countries in Europe have completely shut down due to the large numbers of people who are sick."
City officials, she said, are monitoring the number of hospital cases related to COVID-19 and the biggest concern at the moment is related to non-COVID illnesses that are filling hospital beds. If COVID cases in Philadelphia continue to rise, Bettigole said there could be an overload.
"The much larger problem with Philadelphia hospitals right now is they are very full of people with other kinds of problems," Bettigole said. "We're not in a crisis mode in Philly, but we're trying to stay out of a crisis mode."