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Introducing the Philadelphia COVID-19 Vulnerability Tool

Icons of the social vulnerability index

July 14, 2020

Guest Post Written By: Felice Le-Scherban, Amy Carroll-ScottSamantha Joseph, Danny Galpern

As of July 8, nearly 27,000 Philadelphians have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 1600 have died. While the health and financial effects of the pandemic are being experienced throughout the US and the world, not all communities are being affected equally. In Philadelphia, as in other cities, Black, brown, and poor neighborhoods have a long history of intentional economic exclusion and social disinvestment that have placed them at greater risk for both the disease and the pandemic’s economic impacts. Residents in these socially marginalized communities experience higher occupational exposure, more crowded living conditions, higher rates of underlying chronic conditions, and limited access to testing and quality health care that contribute to higher rates of COVID-19 infection and deaths. 

As a result of these social and structural disadvantages, these communities will need more support and resources to recover from the health, economic, and social impacts of this pandemic. In the short term, this means access to testing and healthcare resources, and assistance fulfilling their basic needs while abiding by social distancing regulations (e.g., masks, food/meal distribution, rental assistance, eviction moratorium). Over the long term, this means financial and operational support for the nonprofit and community-based organizations who serve as their community’s safety net. These vitally important organizations serve a critical role in supporting communities during and after the pandemic and are financially vulnerable even in the best of economic times. Supporting the residents and the neighborhood systems that were most vulnerable before the pandemic is what a health equity approach to COVID-19 recovery needs to look like.

Our new Philadelphia COVID-19 Vulnerability Dashboard is an interactive online data tool designed to inform COVID-19 response and recovery efforts in these hardest-hit neighborhoods. The dashboard displays neighborhood-level indicators prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in order to demonstrate communities’ vulnerability to the immediate and longer-term effects off the crisis. The indicators are adapted from the Social Vulnerability Index developed by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), which uses 15 indicators from the US Census related to demographics, socioeconomic conditions, housing, and transportation access to assess vulnerability and resilience of communities when faced with natural or man-made disasters. We adapted this index to include indicators that are most relevant to the COVID-19 context and Philadelphia communities. The indicators are displayed at the census tract level to help local officials identify neighborhoods or sections of neighborhoods that will need targeted support in preparing for or recovering from the crisis. For example, the dashboard shows that 1 in 10 households in parts of North Philadelphia experience crowded housing conditions, which not only makes it difficult to practice social distancing for residents who contract the coronavirus to self-isolate from other household members, but also increases the risk of transmission to neighbors.

In the coming weeks, we are working to incorporate additional indicators demonstrating how current vulnerabilities (e.g., occupational risk for essential and frontline workers, chronic disease, and access to resources during the pandemic) are distributed throughout Philadelphia neighborhoods. We also plan to incorporate indicators of impacts of the pandemic on economic and social life. Documenting community-level vulnerability—as well as resilience, its flip side—is important not only to inform our immediate response, but also for an equitable planning process for the future. As public health researchers David Williams and Lisa Cooper have described, ensuring that the COVID-19 pandemic and future disasters don’t exacerbate existing inequities requires “a new kind of herd immunity,” where a sufficiently high proportion of individuals, and communities, are protected from negative social determinants of health. 

Our dashboard translates this important health equity lens to COVID-19 recovery by putting practical information into the hands of Philadelphia decision-makers and community leaders to ensure limited resources are being allocated to those who need it most.

View the dashboard.