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Public Health, Medical Experts Say Removing Most COVID Restrictions A Reasonable Next Step

Diners eat outdoors in Oakland on Sunday, May 2, 2021.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Diners eat outdoors in Oakland on Sunday, May 2, 2021.

It’s about time to say goodbye to most of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 restrictions, according to several public health and medical professionals.

On Tuesday Gov. Tom Wolf announced that on Memorial Day the majority of the state’s COVID mitigation orders will expire, including limits on crowd sizes and capacity caps at bars and restaurants. The rollback comes as COVID deaths and hospitalizations continue to decline and more than half of the state’s population is at least partially vaccinated.

“There’s no justification for those types of measures if you cease the public health emergency…We were trying to tame this virus, defang it,” said Pittsburgh-based infectious disease Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar for Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

It’s true that western Pennsylvania’s health care system is not in danger of being overwhelmed by COVID patients, as was the case just five months ago. Additionally, treatment for COVID patients has improved.

“We know what works, and probably more importantly what doesn’t work,” said UPMC’s Dr. Donald Yealy.

One medical advancement includes monoclonal antibody therapy, which former President Donald Trump received after he contracted COVID last October.

Better treatments do not mean the threat of COVID has disappeared. Dr. Debra Bogen, director of Allegheny County’s health department, warned that the county is still reporting around 240 new coronavirus cases a day and many people are still unvaccinated.

“I want people to think very carefully…to really individualize behavior,” said Bogen. “You really have to consider risk levels.”

Such considerations might include an individual's underlying health conditions or vaccination status, the number of people in a certain area, and whether a gathering takes place indoors.

But some experts say, as circumstances become less dire, it is important to weigh the threat of COVID against the toll of keeping restrictions in place.

“For example, what we’ve been seeing in the United States and around the world in the past year or so is increasing number of mental health conditions and decreased access to mental health services,” said epidemiologist Faina Linkov, chair of the Department of Health Administration and Public Health at the Duquesne University’s John G. Rangos, Sr. School of Health Sciences.

Linkov added that it makes sense this transition will take place on Memorial Day, which many consider to be the unofficial start of summer. Transmission of respiratory diseases tends to be lower during warmer months, in part because people are more likely to socialize outside.

“It’s hard to tell what will be happening in the fall because things do tend to get worse towards the late fall, winter. Especially with this pandemic,” she said.

One mitigation order that will remain is the indoor masking mandate, which Linkov, Adalja and Yealy each said they support. Wolf said the order would expire once 70% of adult Pennsylvanians are fully vaccinated.

Due to vaccine hesitancy levels, experts doubt this threshold is attainable. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent find that just 42% of adults in the state are fully vaccinated.

But based on what has been seen in Israel, Adalja said the spread of COVID might drastically fall even if the “bold goal” of 70% is not reached. The Times of Israel reports that more than 60% of the population is fully vaccinated, and that less than 100 people in the county of nine million are hospitalized with COVID.

“We can quibble about whether 70% is the right number, I don’t honestly know,” said Yealy. “What I know is we have to reach more, and you have to set thresholds or benchmarks to help get people motivated.”

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.