East Falls topped a chart no neighborhood wants to be on.
For a few troubling days in December, East Falls had the highest rate of increase in new COVID-19 cases of any neighborhood in the city, according to a database by Sew Facemasks Philadelphia, a grassroots nonprofit.
The cause of the spike from Dec 18-21 remains unclear, but the report about it came as a shock to neighbors, generating spirited discussion on local social media platforms. Some expressed disbelief, others called for action by community leaders – but the fact that the information came as a surprise to all was understandable to Eugene Desyatnik, one of the co-founders of Sew Facemasks and creator of the infection tracking database.
“The limitation really is with the way the city reports COVID data on the Department of Health website,” he said. “They provide daily numbers, but not historical numbers, which means people can’t compare today’s rate with yesterday’s.” Furthermore, without day-to-day tracking, it’s hard to see trends as they occur in real time. That’s not very helpful if your group’s mission is to combat the active spread of COVID with their face masks.
The lack of context prompted Eugene to take action. “We were being too reactive to COVID data,” he said, so he created an Excel spreadsheet to track the infection rates over time (usually in 48- or 72-hour snapshots). “That enabled us to proactively see the trends, especially on a zip code basis, and respond to them as they developed. We could then provide masks to areas as their rates were rising, rather than after the rates had already spiked.”
The masks also provided an opportunity to alert residents in those areas about the rising trend of infections in their neighborhoods, harnessing word of mouth to encourage people to be careful. “Public education is a big part of our mission,” said Eugene whose wife, a healthcare worker, is one of many in the healthcare field who belong to Sew Philadelphia (along with scientists, sew hobbyists and crafters in what Eugene calls a “multidisciplinary group”).
“We founded Sew Philadelphia in March when there were no guidelines to even wear masks from the city or the CDC. So we try to provide information on what to do, and what to avoid, to protect yourself and your community.” He believes the infection database can be a valuable tool in helping people assess the risk on a daily basis for certain activities in their neighborhood, like dining. “Depending on the trend in your neighborhood, what might have seemed safer a week earlier might not be so smart when the rate is rising.”
And vice-versa. At the time we’re posting this, East Falls appears to have contained its spike: the City’s new “hot spots” are now in South Philly. While our flare-up seems to have been a flash-in-the-pan, it’s important not to let our guard down. Experts warn the biggest wave is coming this winter — we could be dealing with this problem again if we’re not careful.
Meanwhile, Eugene hopes Philadelphia will join other cities in providing historical data. In some areas they even maintain data “on a block-by-block level.” In those places they “have tried a more tactical approach to shutdowns, rather than closing whole industries or the city in general. It’s like using a scalpel instead of a broadsword” to fight COVID outbreaks, with the added benefits of avoiding lockdown fatigue for residents and unnecessary economic damage for businesses.
So what can residents in our area do to protect themselves?
First, email email@example.com to get on Eugene’s list that tracks COVID numbers in context. Every time the city shares their neighborhood COVID data, he adds it to a convenient spread sheet where you can see at a glance any changes in infection rates from day-to-day in each area.
You can also track the data yourself. According to Eugene, “It’s very low tech. All you have to do is visit the city site regularly and add new data as you go.” Sew Facemasks Philly also tweets the City’s top five infections neighborhoods every week, providing another easy way to keep informed.
Whichever tack you take, don’t forget to spread the word to your neighbors, friends, and family members.
Second, be especially aware of the general risk of activities like dining. We all love to go out for a nice meal but unless you can eat outside, do takeout. Those heated tents and “plastic patios” may look cozy, but be careful. “When you have an enclosed space – I think city regulations define it as having three walls or more and a roof – shared by multiple diners, it’s really no different from an indoor dining scenario,” he said.
A recent study in South Korea underscores the need for caution — COVID can be far more infectious than we thought at the beginning of the pandemic. “Scientists in the study detected infectious spread in as little as 5 minutes from a distance of 20 feet in an enclosed environment,” Eugene explained, “You want to be very wary of those spaces.”
There are exceptions, however, as in the case of small pods, like the yurts they have at Zahav, which he believes are much safer because they’re independent of each other. “Although they are fully enclosed, you are not interacting with other people and sharing the same air.”
Whether it’s a large tent or a yurt, waitstaff are exposed no matter what. “You can separate the patrons from each other, but you can’t separate the staff.” It’s a hazard many diners don’t consider when they’re weighing the risks of patronizing an establishment.
“The risks are far greater for a server who’s wearing non-medical grade PPE around unmasked patrons, than it is for a healthcare professional like my wife even though she’s in a hospital setting, because she’s wearing medical-grade PPE and has masked patients.”
Any other tips for staying safe?
It’s nothing most of us haven’t heard before. “Practice physical distancing – we use the term physical rather than social, because we’re all socially connected. We can maintain social contact, but there are other ways we can keep in touch with each other and help each other through this with physical distancing and avoiding crowds.
“But most of all, just wear a high-quality mask when you’re out and about. It should fit snugly, so the air does not flow around it, cover both nose and mouth, and be made of at least two layers of 100% cotton, with an optional filter insert or over top a disposable procedure mask in higher-risk situations.”
Visit sewfacemasksphilly.com for more guidelines and tips about masks (click the “Safety” tab) as well as updates on the latest COVID research. If you’d like to lend a hand, check out their “How to Help” section for info about donating masks, materials or your sewing skills to the cause. (They accept money too!)
Remember: Philadelphia’s stringent COVID restrictions have been extended through January 15th. The City continues to suspend what is deemed the riskiest activities: indoor dining, indoor gatherings/large events, theaters, casinos, colleges and organized sports. After January 4th, the city *may* begin opening up some activities with safe guidelines: museums, gyms, outdoor sports, in-person high school classes and outdoor catered events.
About Sew Facemasks Philadelphia
Founded in March 2020 in response to the COVID pandemic, SFP is dedicated to ensuring that quality, handmade facemasks should not be a barrier for anyone. Community groups, organizations, clinics, schools, and individuals facing a hardship can request masks at no cost.