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Citing at-home tests, Allegheny County officials warn case counts could be higher than data suggests

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
An at-home COVID test.

Allegheny County officials are sounding the alarm about "high" community spread of COVID-19 in the region while cautioning that the increase reflected in the most recent numbers available to them may not show the entire picture.

In a joint statement Tuesday, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen pointed to a 73% increase in new cases between the week ending Dec. 18 and the week ending Dec. 25.

That data represents the most recent figures released by the county as of Tuesday.

There were 6,340 new infections reported during the week of Dec. 19 through Dec. 25, with cases split almost evenly between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. About 7% of those cases were reinfections, according to the county data.

During the week of Dec. 12 through Dec. 18, 3,663 new cases were reported.

But county officials also warned that the latest case numbers may not fully reflect the scope of current infections because of an increase in the use of at-home tests. Results of at-home tests are not reported to the county.

“We continue to see increasing numbers of new infections reported to the Health Department, including reinfections and breakthrough cases. We know this number is an underreporting because many people are using home tests,” Bogen said.

Officials first detected the omicron variant in Allegheny County earlier this month.

“We know that the omicron variant spreads efficiently and is the likely cause of the rapidly rising case numbers. I anticipate that the number of cases will continue to rise in the coming weeks,” said Bogen.

Fitzgerald called for residents to wear masks in public and to get vaccinated.

“The omicron variant is extremely contagious, and we can best protect our community and our friends and family by taking precautions to limit the spread of the virus,” Fitzgerald said. “We have said this for weeks as well, but we urge residents, regardless of their vaccination status, to wear a mask in public, indoor settings to limit spread.”

Bogen noted high case counts are affecting local businesses and organizations, with companies experiencing short staffing due to the virus and exposures. She cited the national impact on airlines as an example and called on businesses to enact mitigation measures.

“The business community can help slow the spread and protect their workforce by requiring masks in their businesses,” she said.

Bogen and Fitzgerald urged residents to get vaccinated.

“I’m thrilled to see that nearly 918,000 county residents have received at least one vaccine shot and almost 300,000 more have received their booster,” Fitzgerald said. “We know that the vaccines are effective at preventing infection, hospitalization and death, or in the event of a breakthrough infection, are less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 than an unvaccinated person.”

Bogen called on residents to take responsibility for slowing the spread.

“I ask everyone to take this seriously and do their part to slow the spread of this virus. Most importantly, please get your vaccines or your booster vaccine,” she said.

Bogen echoed Fitzgerald’s calls for masks in public and added that residents should choose the best-fitting mask they have. She encouraged residents to consider double-masking with a surgical or KN95 mask covered by a cloth mask.

“Follow the other mitigation measures that we all know by heart at this point. Practice physical distancing. If you don’t need to be out, stay home,” she advised. “If you are sick, stay home. Get tested if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. If you have been a close contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID, get tested five-seven days after that exposure.”

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.