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Coronavirus Information and Updates III

Posted on March 20, 2020
Dornsife faculty and staff practice social distancing by holding a meeting via Zoom.
Dornsife faculty and staff practice social distancing by holding a meeting via Zoom.

By Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH

Dear Dornsife faculty, staff, students, and friends:

I hope you are all keeping calm, and safe, and connected to each other in these challenging and unprecedented times. As you know, Governor Wolf ordered the closure of all businesses that are not “life sustaining” to promote even greater social distancing as of March 21, 2020.

As a result, Drexel University will be closed beginning at 5 p.m. on March 20, 2020. Remote work will continue as before. Faculty and staff will be working on preparing for teaching next quarter and on research work, and administrative support activities will continue. I have already seen how everyone at our School is coming together to support and help each other during this crisis. It is wonderful and moving to see.

On March 20, our health department was reporting 67 cases of COVID-19 in Philadelphia and 268 have been reported in Pennsylvania (I am sure those have changed by now, look up updated estimates here). Based on the experience of New York City, we expect to see rapid increase in cases, in part because testing is becoming more available, but likely especially because community transmission from person to person is accelerating as cases increase.

When community transmission occurs an important proportion of the population may become infected. But we do not really know how big that number will be. There are a number of projections that have been developed, but we should remember that there is still much uncertainty about the assumptions in those models.

As noted by Commissioner Farley in his press conference on March 19, 2020, data suggests that as many as 50 percent of infected persons will be asymptomatic, and of those who are symptomatic, 80 percent will have mild symptoms. The 15 percent with severe disease and the 5 percent with critical disease are the ones we of course worry about. Our health department continues to work with health care providers in the region to prepare for the possible influx of cases that may need hospitalization.

The city has also been working on increasing testing availability. More than a dozen testing sites are in operation. A new testing site in South Philly will be directed by our very own Esther Chernak (more on this soon) and will focus initially on health care providers and later on persons 50 years of age and over with symptoms. Because of limitations in testing supplies, all sites will have criteria for testing so that we prioritize the available tests in the most rational way. People with symptoms compatible with COVID-19 will still have to consult their health care provider to determine if they need to be tested. Therefore, if you have symptoms compatible with COVID-19 (fever and dry cough or difficulty breathing), the first step is still to call your health care provider.

As a School and as public health ambassadors during this critical time, it is important that we stay calm and act based on what we know, balancing uncertainty against the need to protect the most vulnerable and minimize unintended consequences of our actions.

The most important public health approach remains identification and isolation of cases and contact tracing. This is why testing is so important: It allows us to identify cases so that we can isolate them and trace their contacts. You can read more about how this approach has believed to have worked in other countries in comments by Bruce Aylward, assistant director general, of WHO. I highly recommend that you check it out.

When community transmission increases, and especially in the context of many asymptomatic cases, social distancing becomes an important strategy to reduce transmission and slow the progression of the epidemic (the famous “flattening of the curve” you have seen so much about).

In an extraordinary development, much of the world is engaging in social distancing right now. This is unprecedented and raises many questions about unintended consequences. An important priority for us is to think about and prevent any adverse health impacts, not just of the virus itself but also of the social distancing and its associated social and economic implications, especially for the most vulnerable. We will be talking more about this in future activities (see below).

What our School is doing

Our School is engaged in several activities to support our teams and also to support the city and contribute more broadly to countering misinformation and spreading the word about the facts and the best public health approach.

We are supporting remote work, research and teaching as much as we can. Departments and faculty are reaching out to organize virtual check-ins and meeting.

We are communicating with students and providing support and information.

We are fortunate to have many experts who have commented in the media. You can learn more on our coronavirus webpage. Also, be sure to follow us on social media during this time:

To highlight just a couple of events, our panel discussion just last week (yes, feels like years ago!) is available here. Esther also did a great Q&A last night with Drexel historian, Scott Knowles, PhD. Check it out here.

Several of us (Marla Gold, John Rich, and myself) are on the Board of Health and have been providing input. As I mentioned, Esther, an expert in infectious disease and emergency preparedness, will oversee the new testing site in South Philly. I have also been in touch with Commissioner Farley and have offered the services of our school for whatever he needs.

We are also organizing a series of Q&A sessions open to everyone and other strategies to get the public health word out. Stay tuned!

Taking action in our community

There are also many opportunities to volunteer and support our local community. A few are below:

  • Volunteer for the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). Contact or call 215.685.6861. Both clinical and non-clinical folks can volunteer. They need all sorts of help.
  • Volunteer to deliver meals at MANNA. Sign up to volunteer at or call 215.496.2662 x 3.
  • Donate to the PHL COVID-19 Fund. Seeded with an initial $6.5 million from United Way, Philadelphia Foundation, William Penn Foundation and others, the fund is accepting donations as low as $25, 100 percent of which will go to nonprofits.
  • Other opportunities for how to help during the pandemic.

Last but not least

The more I talk to people the more I realize how much need there is for a calm, rational message that explains what is happening with all its uncertainties, but that also highlights what we can do. Other countries have managed to stop the spread of this virus, using the tried and true public health approach. We can too.

We as a public health community have a lot to contribute, and all of us will learn a lot from living through this. I leave you today with two beautiful things: a piece in the New York Times on how people come together, sometimes miraculously, under adversity, and a snippet of beautiful opera sung from the balconies of Italy. Both reconcile me with humanity and remind me of all we can do together. Perhaps they will do the same for you.

Stay calm, healthy and connected to each other, and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have ideas about things our School can do to support you or help our community during this time.


Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH
Dean and Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology
Dornsife School of Public Health

Dean Diez Roux shared the latest on the coronavirus outbreak in a March 19 Q&A for Drexel Now:

Read a COVID-19 Q&A With Dornsife Dean Ana Diez Roux