Here’s How Philadelphia Is Preparing to Fight a Possible Coronavirus Outbreak

With recent news of a possible COVID-19 case in the Philly area, the city is readying to combat the virus. 

An electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19 | Photograph: Niaid Rml/NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH HANDOUT/EPA

This is a developing story. 

The appearance of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the United States is prompting cities across the country to take measures to fight the virus. Philadelphia announced on Tuesday evening that a possible case of the virus in the area is under investigation. As of Wednesday afternoon, the city department of public health hadn’t yet confirmed the results of the investigation. 

Though many details about the new virus remain unknown, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have released information about how the virus can quickly infiltrate a community, pointing to person-to-person spread and infected-surface contact as the leading modes of contagion.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles became the latest city to declare a local state of emergency. A Bronx high school shut down on Tuesday after news of New York City’s first confirmed case of the virus. Public health officials in Fort Worth, Texas, set up a war room to provide a home base for local action and communication about the virus. Here’s what Philadelphia is doing to prepare.

No Local State of Emergency, Yet

As of Wednesday afternoon, the City of Philadelphia said it has no plan to declare a state of emergency. James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia department of public health, told Philly Mag in an email that the department has long had a strong pandemic influenza response plan that the city will adapt to use against COVID-19. 

Mayor Jim Kenney stresses that there’s no need for panic, especially since the city has yet to officially confirm a case of the virus in the area. 

“The fact is, the city has been preparing for this sort of situation for years,” he said in an email. “I’m confident that should cases develop, the health department and our city’s great medical institutions would work diligently to limit its spread.”

The city and the health department encourage Philadelphians to keep up with the latest local updates on the virus on the city’s website and to read over a recently published Special Edition Health Bulletin on the virus. 

Even if a Philadelphia-area case of the virus is confirmed, the city’s response will remain the same. “We are still working to identify cases and isolate folks who may have the disease,” Garrow said. “That’s been the plan all along.”


According to Garrow, Philadelphia doesn’t have the capacity to respond to possible shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) — masks, gloves, and other bodily safeguards — across partner agencies and currently can only perform COVID-19 testing according to CDC guidance and lab availability, though the department expects to soon conduct testing in state labs as well. 

While there are no plans to set up mass quarantine sites in the city for those infected with the virus, Garrow wrote that the health department “has discretion to cancel or curtail public events in the case that that would slow the spread of disease.”

The health department also recommends that those who suspect they’ve been exposed to the virus and begin to show symptoms call their health-care facilities ahead of time and ask what to do, as opposed to showing up without warning. “This applies at city health centers and other outpatient health-care settings,” Garrow wrote in response to a question about what uninsured patients should do in the case of infection. 

Hospital Readiness 

Some local hospitals have released statements and protocols addressing how they’ll screen and isolate patients infected with the virus. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) established a new clinical pathway for emergent COVID-19 cases, including isolation precautions for patients with potential exposure to or symptoms of the virus. 

Temple Health launched a 40-person emergency task force to respond to the virus and ensure that its hospitals meet the standards outlined by the CDC’s COVID-19 Hospital Preparedness Assessment Tool

Medical Partners

As hospital workers get ready for what could be an overwhelming influx of new patients, member organizations of the Life Sciences Pennsylvania trade association continue to ramp up research to develop treatments and a vaccine for the virus. 

Local biotech company Inovio Pharmaceuticals — in collaboration with the Wistar Institute — is in a race against the clock to develop a vaccine for the virus using its DNA medicine platform. GlaxoSmithKline has made its adjuvant vaccine technology available to some research groups to help increase the strength of the immune response in future patients receiving the eventual vaccine. But the series of clinical trials required before a vaccine can be made available to the public means it could be months, or even a year, away from widespread administration. And without a viable treatment for the virus, the vaccine could only protect those who haven’t already been infected.

Travel and Transportation

SEPTA issued an announcement to its riders and employees this week with tips for hand hygiene for protection against the virus but plans to continue business as usual, for now. 

In an email to Philly Mag, SEPTA chief press officer Andrew Busch wrote that SEPTA is “continuing to follow regular schedules for all daily operations.” The transportation service is in conversation with state health authorities, the City of Philadelphia, and the city health department to coordinate the best public response should the local situation worsen.

Florence Brown, director of communications for Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), told Philly Mag that “there are currently no plans to close parts of the airport” but that airport representatives are in close communication with the CDC, the local health department, and the Philadelphia office of emergency management to continually monitor the situation. In late January, PHL announced that it would enact a health screening process for those whose travel itineraries included time spent in Wuhan, China, within 14 days prior to their arrival here.


Monica Lewis, a spokesperson for the school district of Philadelphia, told Philly Mag on Thursday that additional hand sanitizer supplies have been ordered for schools. The supplies have not been implemented and set up at stations at every school yet. The shipments of supplies should be out everywhere by Friday morning, Lewis told Philly Mag. The hand sanitizer stations will be available in school hallways, entryways and cafeterias. Though there are no current plans to close schools, Lewis noted that the district is in touch with the city health department and continues to implement recommendations from the CDC. 

“It’s pretty difficult to know what the worst-case scenario looks like right now,” she said. “But we’re taking guidance from the city as much as possible and keeping all families, staff and students updated as the situation changes.”

Local colleges and universities have announced travel restrictions and recommendations for students, especially during the spring-break season. Temple University made the decision to close its Rome campus for the remainder of the spring semester, encouraging students to return home as soon as possible. Arcadia University, Rutgers University, La Salle University and Penn State canceled all upcoming university-affiliated study-abroad trips for students.

Drexel University increased its travel restrictions to include Italy, South Korea and China. The University of Pennsylvania followed suit, including Iran in its restrictions and travel suspension as well.