By: Nick Santangelo

With Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf hoping to begin gradually reopening parts of the state starting May 8, understanding COVID-19's spread is of crucial importance right now. The City of Philadelphia has created a website to show city residents how that spread has developed in Philly, and Julia Wolanski, CST '16 and CLA '17, is one of the professionals formulating the data.

After completing her Environmental Science bachelor's degree and her Geographic Information Systems master's degree in successive years, Wolanski worked as a geographic information systems (GIS) project manager at an engineering firm. But just last month she began her new role as a geospatial research associate with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH). She gravitated to the role after deciding the private sector wasn't for her and reflecting on how much she enjoyed her time working as a park ranger when she was an undergrad and as a Temple research assistant while in grad school. 

It does look like the numbers have kind of evened out a little bit

Performing research and working for the public interest just felt right to Wolanski, and she says her Temple liberal arts education has been "wildly helpful" in empowering her to follow that path. Specifically, Wolanski says her research work as a grad student helped her land her current job that's tasked her with performing a risk analysis of which areas of the city might get hit hardest by COVID-19. 

"It taught me much of the reasoning that has gotten me a lot further in many situations," she explains. "If I'm having a problem, I know how to work through it a lot better because of how you're a lot more independent during grad school, so I think that's really helped."

Wolanski, PDPH's only dedicated GIS professional, has been outsourced to the Emergency Operations Center where she and an analyst have worked to track the spread of the novel coronavirus in Philadelphia. Cautioning that she's not an epidemiologist, Wolanski is careful to point out that she can't remark on whether or not the COVID-19 pandemic is peaking in Philly.

"It does look like the numbers have kind of evened out a little bit," she says, "but that could be because of people reporting late because of the Easter holiday with testing sites and stuff, so it's not really certain yet."

Philadelphia is well-known for being majority-minority and a city of neighborhoods. As such, many residents are likely wondering if COVID-19 has affected certain ethnicities and/or neighborhoods more harshly than others.

"I wouldn't necessarily say ethnicities. I would say neighborhoods, like more densely populated areas are transferring viruses quicker," says Wolanski. "But I think a lot of this has to do with the chronic illness sort of rates and considering people who have asthma and stuff like that, and that's not really kept to one race necessarily. 

"But I would say lower incomes might be more affected. But then again, like population, density plays such a big role in this, so pretty much everywhere in Philadelphia is at a high risk because of that."

A simple walk around town, something Wolanski says she's been doing every afternoon during the coronavirus shutdown, offers all the anecdotal evidence needed to understand how hard it is to avoid potentially infected individuals in Philadelphia even with social distancing in place. But are social distancing and the nonessential businesses shutdown having a positive impact on the virus's spread?

"The curve has definitely flattened. I don't know if you've seen any of this stuff that [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo has put out there, but he's had some really great graphics that describe how much the curve has flattened in New York.

"And I think that New York is a really great example because it's so much higher there than it is in Philadelphia, but they're still seeing the same reductions, which is helpful. So yeah, I think social distancing is definitely helping. We could have had significantly more deaths at this point than we do, which is amazing."

Wolanski's work could also help combat coronavirus's spread in Philly. The data she's parsing will help determine where the city should or should not take actions like setting up more clinics and food pickup areas. And while the CLA alumna acknowledges that the stay-at-home order and subsequent economic fallout has brought hard times upon everyone, she's hopeful that it will continue to slow the spread and protect as many lives as possible.