Montco Commissioner Arkoosh: Coronavirus 'could peak in the middle of April'

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Nationwide social distancing guidelines will stay in place until April 30, and that's a good thing, according to Montgomery County Commissioner Dr. Val Arkoosh. 

The commissioner spoke with Brandon Brooks on KYW Newsradio on Monday morning about when the coronavirus is expected to peak in southeastern Pennsylvania, if Montgomery County has enough personal protective equipment to deal with the pandemic, and why four more weeks of social distancing is necessary.

A transcript of the interview follows:

Q: Dr. Arkoosh, you've said it's too early to ease up on social distancing restrictions. Do you have any sense of when we might see a peak in infections?

It is definitely too soon to ease up on restrictions. Here in our region of Southeastern Pennsylvania, we have not yet seen the peak of the disease. There is some modeling that suggests that it could peak in the middle of April. If that is when we see the peak, then after that point, hopefully, the number of new cases that are diagnosed every day will start to go down.

And then we still need about two weeks to go by. Once those cases are down to a low level, a manageable level, we need another two weeks so people can get through that quarantine period.

We know that some people are exposed, and it's 13, 14 days before they actually get symptoms. 

So, people should take a deep breath, continue doing what they're doing, which is staying home. That is what they can do to make this go away as quickly as possible. But we're looking at least another four weeks, if not a bit longer here in southeast Pennsylvania.

Q: Last week you said there were some early indications that social distancing is starting to work in Montgomery County. Is the curve indeed flattening?

We are hopeful that is the case. We are still not getting lab tests back as quickly as we need to say that with any certainty. ... At our community-based testing site that the county has been running at the campus of Temple in Ambler, we've tested 2,363 people — which is a solid number — but we've only gotten as of yesterday 44% of those lab tests back. 

We are saying pretty consistently about 16% - 17% of those individuals test positive for the disease. That's compared to places like New York City, where I think in some areas as many as 30%, or maybe even higher at this point, of people who are tested, test positive. So we have a much lower rate of positives here, but we still don't have even half of those tests back.

Once we start to get that level of data back, we'll get a clerer picture of how we're doing. 

Anecdotally, I certainly see a lot fewer people out and about, which is great. But I still do see kids playing basketball and things like that. It just has to stop everywhere in southeastern Pennsylvania if we want to get past this disease as quickly as possible. 

Q: With more test kits becoming available as time goes on, is there any plan underway to widen the list of those who can get tested?

If we can get more tests available, we will absolutely widen the number of people who can be tested. And that is critically important to helping everyone understand when we can start to lift restrictions and how we move forward, say, in the next six months. 

The more ability we have to quickly test people, get those results back right away — maybe even in that same day — and get those people into isolation and quarantine their close contacts, the easier it will be for us to let other people continue about their daily business. 

But right now, today, we just don't have that kind of availability of tests, and the rapid results of tests. But hopefully that's coming. It looks like there has been some new tests that have been approved.

Just late last week there was what's called a point-of-care test approved, which is similar to what people have experienced if they ... take a child in to get a strep test. The doctor can swab their child's mouth or throat of nose and then come back 15, 20 minutes later and tell you if that rapid test was positive or not.

If we can get that type of thing widely available, that will go a long way to helping us know can be out and who still needs to be in isolation, and start to get our communities back to work and our kids back to school.

Q: Are any other steps being contemplated in Montgomery County to get people to stay put?

Most important thing everyone can do is stay home, limit their trips. They can help an elderly neighbor do their grocery shopping for them, leaving bags on their doorstep. All of those things are incredibly helpful.

What we're doing at the county is ongoing surveillance of this disease. We are working on surge planning. As I said, we think the peak will hit our area in about two, two and a half weeks from now. So, we're working closely with our hospitals, working to try to make sure we have beds available for any increase in hospitalization. 

The school at Glen Mills school is working with several of the counties to make more hospital beds available there. And we are looking at other possibilities for surge planning. 

We are working to get more personal protective equipment into our region. It's really tight. It's tight for our first responders. It's tight for our hospitals. And it's tight for our long-term care facilitates. 

We are also looking at ways to get testing more widely available here in the county.

Q: Can the hospitals handle the surge that is expected?

That is a question that we are on every single day. The goal is to get enough PPE in here to do that. There is a lot of materials on order, and hopefully they're going to start arriving this week. Today we are tight but OK. 

People should understand that the CDC has guidelines for the reuse and extension of equipment during a pandemic. And people are following those guidelines making every piece of equipment go as far as they can. But hopefully we can get more in. We definitely need more.

Q: You mentions Glen Mills Schools as an alternative site. Philadelphia is setting up the Liacouras Center. Any possibilities of a temporary hospital coming to Montgomery County?

We are working on that, but I don't have anything to announce yet.