Philadelphia remains far from state threshold to begin reopening

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Governor Tom Wolf's plan to reopen Pennsylvania means Philadelphia, the state's biggest hot spot, and the surrounding counties will probably be among the last parts of the state to return to emerge from pandemic restrictions.

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"I'm pretty sure the southeastern part of the state will be among the last places to reopen because of the cases. The goal here is to keep people safe," Wolf said.

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After some confusion on the state benchmark to reopen counties under Governor Tom Wolf's phased reopening - which classifies areas by red, yellow, and green - Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine had this to say on Friday:

"We did revise that on our website and it was really a clarification," she said. That clarification showed Philadelphia is actually far above the threshold.

Action News has learned Philadelphia has a 14-day average number of cases that is seven times the threshold to be classified as yellow, which would begin some easing of restrictions.

The state is looking for an area to be within an average of 50 per day per 100,000 people.

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But when Philadelphia may meet that benchmark, Levine couldn't say Friday.

State officials have said the availability of diagnostic testing, the capacity of the health care system and the ability to quickly identify and contain flareups through what's known as contact tracing will also play a role.

As businesses in the commonwealth remain closed, unemployment continues to soar.

Action News analyzed new data and it reveals that 30% of Pennsylvanians who lost jobs since the outbreak still have not gotten benefits.

RELATED: Pa. residents report issues while filing for unemployment

"We had a record surge of 1.6 million applicants for unemployment compensation. Our unemployment system just wasn't built for this volume," Wolf said Friday.

Wolf said changes have been made, and hundreds of additional staff and retirees have been brought in to help.

Earlier this week, Wolf said he believes two regions - the northcentral and northwest, both of which have seen relatively few cases - will be ready for a limited reopening on May 8, with residents permitted to leave their homes at will, and some retail shops allowed to accept customers.

Even in areas where some semblance of normalcy returns, Levine said she still wants people to wear masks in public and to keep their distance from each other to help prevent a resurgence of the virus.

The Wolf standard is more stringent than reopening guidelines issued by the White House, which only call for a downward trajectory of documented cases over a 14-day period. Wolf, a Democrat, is under pressure from GOP lawmakers to open up more quickly and more broadly.

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PHILADELPHIA NUMBERS

In Philadelphia, Saturday saw 452 new cases, for a total of 12,329. There have been 17 new deaths for a citywide total of 466.

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CONTACT TRACING

Levine said a state plan to do contact tracing to limit the impact of COVID-19 infection is in the works and will rely partly on volunteers.

She said much of the work will be done by public health nurses, along with county and municipal health departments, hospitals and health systems.

Levine said it will also use volunteers.

Contact tracing, which identifies the people that COVID-19 patients have been in contact with, locates those who may be infected so they can be tested and isolated.

Levine did not say when the plan will be released, but a Department of Health spokesman said the agency is starting that work in areas where stay-at-home orders may be lifted first.

The department is still trying to determine exactly how many people will be needed, the spokesman said.

But, he said, with 1,200 new cases per day in Pennsylvania, it would take 7,200 hours each day to conduct contact tracing if each case involves 10 people who were potentially exposed. That would take 600 workers dedicated to contact tracing, he said.

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