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Due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia, Penn Medicine has reinstated masking requirements. Credit: Diego Cárdenas

Penn Medicine and Wellness at Penn clinical offices have reinstated masking requirements amid a COVID-19 case increase in Philadelphia.

While Pennsylvania and Philadelphia both stopped reporting weekly COVID-19 case counts in May 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that wastewater surveillance can provide an early indication of COVID-19 case trends within a community. Philadelphia's recent wastewater surveillance data shows an increase in the presence of COVID-19 in water samples from Philadelphia’s three wastewater pollution control plants. 

As of December 2023, each of the three treatment plants reported approximately 400,000 gene copies of the virus per liter of water — compared to an average of 29,575 gene copies at the end of September 2023. Despite the rise of COVID-19 presence in wastewater, hospital admissions and deaths resulting from COVID-19 have remained low.

“As we enter cold and flu season, Quakers should take the appropriate steps to care for themselves as we return to campus life for the spring semester,” Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Under the new guidelines, patients and visitors for Penn Med appointments are highly encouraged to wear a mask within Penn Med facilities — and similarly, masking is currently required for all students and staff in Wellness at Penn facilities, including the medical care office and counseling office.

Penn Med patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 10 days or with symptoms of COVID-19 are required to wear a mask. Visitors who have recently tested positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms of the virus are not allowed to enter facilities. Masking remains required for patients and visitors aged two and older in high-risk areas such as the emergency department. 

Wellness at Penn told the DP that it plans to revisit its masking policy as it continues to monitor its own public health data and data from the Philadelphia health system.

Other hospital systems in the Philadelphia area, including Temple University Health, Cooper University Hospital, Main Line Health, Jefferson Health, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have also reinstated masking requirements.

When the federal Public Health Emergency for COVID-19 expired in May, many hospitals in Philadelphia relaxed their masking policies. Penn Med announced that masking would be optional for patients without respiratory symptoms in all Penn Med facilities.

Wellness at Penn distributed COVID-19 rapid tests and cold care packs to all college houses prior to winter break, and provided hand sanitizers and COVID-19 rapid tests to the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life the week of Jan. 15.

Judith O’Donnell, the section chief of infectious diseases at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, told PhillyVoice that holiday travel and decreased masking compared to previous years of the pandemic may account for the current surge in COVID-19 cases. O’Donnell added that vaccinations, community immunity, and decreased routine testing for patients admitted to hospitals could all be factors resulting in low rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Executive Director of Public Health and Wellbeing Ashlee Halbritter recommends that all eligible members of the Penn community receive a flu and updated COVID-19 booster shot, stay home if they experience symptoms, and practice good hygiene habits.

“Individual responsibility is key to help protect the health of the Penn campus and our surrounding communities,” Halbritter said.