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Allegheny County Isn't Getting A Mask Mandate 'Yet,' Officials Say

Matt Slocum

Allegheny County doesn’t need a mask mandate yet, according to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

“We’re going to closely monitor to see where [the case numbers] go. The CDC has come out with their recommendations and we think people should certainly follow those recommendations,” he said at the county’s regular Health Department press conference Wednesday. “But as far as a mandate… I don’t think we’re there as of yet.”

The Centers for Disease Control said Tuesday it now recommends all people, even those fully vaccinated, wear face coverings indoors in areas with a high rate of COVID-19 cases.

According to the Allegheny County Health Department, the region is seeing a rate of 17 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. That puts Allegheny County in the CDC’s moderate category. The new mask guidance applies to regions seeing at least 50 cases per 100,000 people.

While the majority of Pennsylvania is experiencing a moderate transmission rate, six counties in the Commonwealth meet the threshold for the new guidance. But state officials declined to specifically recommend masking in those areas. Pennsylvania officials aren’t currently considering a statewide mandate.

But the state health department did endorse the new direction.

“We recommend Pennsylvanians, including schools, follow CDC guidance,” a department spokesperson said. “Businesses and local governments may adopt stricter COVID prevention strategies, including mask requirements.”

Despite Allegheny County’s moderate transmission status, Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at UPMC, argues residents should be paying closer attention to the exposure risk of different activities.

“I think it would be prudent to be prepared,” said Snyder, who has co-led UPMC’s COVID-19 response. “I would be prepared to see more [virus spread] and see it soon because of the nature of the Delta variant, its transmissibility and because transmissions are happening around the world and in our country and in our state.”

The delta variant first reached Allegheny County in April. The recent uptick in cases locally is likely due to the variant.

Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department said Wednesday she understands the frustration expressed by some regarding the evolving nature of CDC guidance about COVID-19. But she argued public health guidance needs space to evolve as we learn more about the virus.

“Because this virus is unpredictable and has the ability, even the predisposition, to evolve and become more dangerous, we must adapt our behavior and our recommendations accordingly,” she said.

Snyder agreed, saying the pandemic has forced health officials to think on their feet and readjust previous assumptions.

“From the very start of the pandemic, we knew that things would wax and wane,” Snyder said. “This is a moment when the virus has changed and we have to respond to that.”

Many Republican officials have already decried the new guidance, which they characterize as a reversal of previous guidelines. But Snyder said the need to add another layer of protection against the spread like masks isn’t a surprise.

“I know it’s frustrating, because so many felt that this moment in time, this summer, we [could] see a light at the end of the tunnel… so this feels like a step back,” Snyder said. “[But] in truth, we saw this coming. We knew that delta was going to emerge in the United States. Even if it wasn’t delta, it will be another variant. Things will continue to ebb and flow.”

That ebb and flow makes it hard to issue rigid public policies that account for the nuanced nature of the virus and new ways to protect against it.

But strong opposition to the new mask guidance could be the result of the poor communication strategy of the CDC, according to Baruch Fischhoff, professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy.

“One thing they've done wrong is allow it to be framed as a reversal,” said Fischhoff, who studies public perception of risk and human decision-making. He criticized the CDC for not doing a better job of explaining how the data informs their recommendations. “You and I can’t tell what tradeoffs they’re making. You and I can’t tell how contingent these decisions are on a particular situation.”

Fischhoff said earlier guidance that allowed vaccinated people to go maskless in most environments led people to think the worst was behind us and things would only improve.

“[The CDC] knew better than that,” he said. “But they allowed themselves to be caught in what is plausibly interpreted as a reversal which erodes confidence in them,” from the public, he said. “It makes it easier for their foes and more complicated for their friends.”

Fischhoff commended the efforts of the Allegheny County Health Department to explain how CDC guidance affects residents on a local level.

Neither Gov. Tom Wolf nor Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has issued state or city-level guidance about masks in the day since the announcement was made. In an interview with KDKA Radio before the new guidance was issued, Wolf said he did not plan to issue another mask mandate.

Peduto could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but an office spokesperson said:

“We are working closely with the Allegheny County Health Department, [Pennsylvania] Department of Health and CDC to monitor all numbers and recommended guidelines. We will continue to follow medical advice to do all we can to protect our employees and the public.”

The state Health Department did not specify how residents of the six Pennsylvania counties experiencing substantial or high spread of the virus should alter their behavior, apart from pointing to the CDC guidance.

Lawrence, Adams, Wyoming and Northampton Counties are listed by the CDC as places with substantial community transmission. Crawford and Cameron Counties are listed by the agency as experiencing high community transmission.

On Tuesday, the CDC also recommended all students, faculty and staff mask up before heading back to the classroom this fall. Pittsburgh Public Schools had already announced it would require all people over the age of two to wear masks while indoors at PPS facilities. Exceptions are allowed for eating and while outdoors.

Mask policies at other school districts have been mixed. It’s unclear if the CDC guidance will change policies that have already been announced. Wolf said he won’t require masks in Pennsylvania schools. The Wolf administration has allowed school districts to take the lead on COVID-19 policies throughout the pandemic.

Still, government and health officials both argued that the strongest protection against COVID-19 is a vaccine.

“We cannot stress enough the importance of eligible Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the health department said. “Pennsylvania has made tremendous strides in vaccinating individuals aged 12 years and older. Additionally, data has shown that there is a correlation between increased vaccination rates and lower COVID-19 case counts.”

Bogen’s comments Wednesday echoed the the state health department in urging people to get vaccinated.

“This is really a pivotal moment in the pandemic. The latest in many pivotal moments,” she said.

“The difference between this moment and previous moments is that this time, we have the solution. This time we know exactly what we need to do to protect our community. The question is, are we united and brave enough to do the right thing?”

Updated: July 28, 2021 at 6:02 PM EDT
This story was updated at 5:55 p.m. to include comments from the Allegheny County Health Department.
Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
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