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Allegheny County Now Seeing A 'Substantial' Rate Of Coronavirus Transmission

Gene J. Puskar

There is now a “substantial” rate of coronavirus case transmission in Allegheny County, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Monday, new data released by the CDC showed that transmission rates within several Pennsylvania counties have moved from “moderate” to “substantial,” meaning that over the past seven days there were 50 or more cases per 100,000 residents. The Allegheny County Health Department reports that the rate here is 58.5 per 100,000.

When cases reach this level, the CDC recommends that everyone, including vaccinated people, wear masks indoors. Both the Wolf administration and the Allegheny County Health Department say they are not considering another masking mandate at this time.

“Vaccination continues to be the most important public health action that we can take to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” said an email statement from Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the county health department. “We know that the delta variant spreads more easily from one person to another, so it makes sense to take more precautions. Our goal is to prevent it from spreading further in an effort to keep our community safe.”

Because of the vaccine, there generally aren’t concerns that the number of COVID-19 patients will overwhelm Pennsylvania’s entire medical system. This was a grave possibility in late 2020, when many hospitals were pushed to their absolute limits.

“I think that would be extremely difficult for something like that to happen in Allegheny County where you do have OK vaccination rates," said Dr. Thomas Walsh, an infectious disease specialist at Allegheny Health Network. "But in areas with 30% vaccination rates, those areas can get overwhelmed very quickly.”

But while 61.7% of all Allegheny County residents are fully vaccinated, the percentage of fully vaccinated residents in counties such as Bedford, Bradford, Fulton and Potter is under 35%. These are all rural counties, which tend to have fewer medical resources such as hospital beds and doctors.

“It doesn’t take that many severe cases to overwhelm those local resources,” said Matt Ferrari, director of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.

Statistically, any one person infected with the delta variant spreads the virus to five additional people. In comparison, those who were infected with the strain of the virus that was circulating in spring 2020 were only likely to infect two additional people.

It’s hard, however, to compare this stage of the pandemic to last year as so many things are different. While the virus is more infectious and masking mandates are gone now, more than half of all Pennsylvanians are protected by 1 of 3 highly effective vaccines that drastically reduce their chances of severe illness and death.

Before the delta variant arrived here, it seemed that Allegheny County was winning the war by inoculating people faster than the virus could spread. In June, the county health department was reporting about a dozen new cases a day. Now that number is well over 100.

“It’s like we’re running the hurdles with the vaccine, and the virus just called in Usain Bolt to run the 100 [meters,]” said Ferrari. “We need to step up our game and use new strategies to get the vaccine out to more people faster.”

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 where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
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