Philly Is Getting Hit Hard by COVID-19. Now a Nearby Suburb Is Too.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

By Kimberly Lawson

April 14, 2020

Willingboro, a township in South Jersey across the river from Philadelphia, is seeing an alarming surge in coronavirus cases that has officials scrambling to figure out a solution.

The novel coronavirus has hammered the Philadelphia region, and new data indicates that the outbreak is now causing a surge in cases across the river, in New Jersey. 

Willingboro, a township in South Jersey across the river from Philadelphia, is seeing an alarming surge in coronavirus cases that has officials scrambling to figure out a solution. Willingboro has a population of only 31,887, consisting of predominantly veterans, seniors, and African Americans, but there are 202 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the township—a number that has more than tripled in just 11 days. Five people have died so far: two men, ages 58 and 79, and three women, ages, 59, 65 and 68.

Willingboro Mayor Tiffani A. Worthy has been actively enforcing social distancing in her township—even going so far as to call the police herself to report a gathering—but believes that the surge is due to the essential workers that reside in Willingboro who are still actively working on the frontlines against the pandemic in harder-hit communities. 

Many township residents commute to work in Philadelphia—and even New York—using public transportation via a bus stop located in the town center. There are more than 106,000 cases in New York City and 9,000 confirmed cases in Philadelphia and neighboring Montgomery County, Penn., and Willingboro officials are worried that those outbreaks are directly causing a surge in their township. 

“We have a large contingency of people in Willingboro who work as essential workers, and are on the front lines of COVID-19,” Worthy told the Inquirer. New York City is in the thick of catastrophe with coronavirus cases overwhelming the healthcare system, and Philadelphia isn’t far behind, according to Vice President Mike Pence

The surge in cases means that Willingboro now accounts for 18% of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Burlington County, despite making up only 7% of the population. Out of all the municipalities in South Jersey, Willingboro has the largest number of coronavirus cases at 57.7 cases per 10,000 people, according to an analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Only two townships in Montgomery County—Ambler and Springfield—have a higher rate. 

“I’ve talked to a physician in the area who says without a doubt they’ve seen a surge in recent days in numbers in our areas,” New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim told the Inquirer. Kim’s district includes Willingboro and he expressed concern about the trends he was seeing. 

“Willingboro has a large senior community and a large veteran community, which would be very vulnerable to this. I worry for them,” Kim said. 

With so many Willingboro residents traveling to and from both of these major cities, officials like Worthy and Kim are concerned. African Americans in particular have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic—Willingboro is two-thirds African American.

For his part, Kim has called on FEMA to set up a testing site in South Jersey based on the number of cases coming out of the township. Currently, there is only one county-run testing site in Westampton, New Jersey, which is by appointment only. 

“This just is exactly the reason I’ve been pushing for more testing, to have a third FEMA site,” Kim said. “We need to get ahead of this.” 

Kim also expressed concerns about senior communities and skilled nursing facilities. “These are the types of places that could be disastrous,” he said. “We need a lot of resources to stay ahead of it and protect those most vulnerable. We don’t want to see what happened in the New York metropolitan area happen here. [The numbers] definitely are warning bells.”

Additional reporting by Keya Vakil.

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