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The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in Allegheny County hits an all-time high

Cars line up outside the Central Outreach Wellness Center on the Northside of Pittsburgh Monday, March 16, 2020, for drive-by testing for COVID-19.
Gene J. Puskar
Cars line up outside the Central Outreach Wellness Center on the Northside of Pittsburgh Monday, March 16, 2020, for drive-by testing for COVID-19.

The percentage of positive COVID-19 test results in Allegheny County is at a record-breaking high, according to the county health department, which reports that the seven-day positivity rate is at 30%.

“We’ve never seen positivity rates in this range before throughout the pandemic,” said health department director Dr. Debra Bogen. “So this is … of course, very concerning.”

Currently, the county is seeing nearly 2,000 new cases a day, most of which are likely due to the less deadly but more contagious omicron variant since the current surge has been sudden and severe. This is corroborated by wastewater surveillance which finds that the level of omicron in Allegheny County sewage has climbed steeply since early December while the presence of the delta variant continues to decline.

Data suggests omicron causes less severe illness compared to previous variants. But Bogen warns that because omicron is so infectious the sheer number of patients might overwhelm local medical systems.

“We have about four to five times the number of cases than a month ago,” said Bogen. “The next couple of weeks are going to be challenging.”

Despite the aggressive spread of omicron, vaccination rates in the county continue to taper. Some argue that the breakthrough cases that are common with omicron prove that vaccinations are useless, but county data shows that the COVID-19 vaccines are very successful at preventing severe illness and death.

For example, an unvaccinated Allegheny County resident is 10-times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, and 12-times more likely to die. For unvaccinated 60- to-69-year-olds, those odds jump to 30-times the vaccinated hospitalization rate and 49-times the vaccinated fatality rate. The overall fatality rate climbs with age, and for unvaccinated people who are 70 or older, they’re 14-times more likely to be hospitalized and 21-times more likely to die due to COVID-19.

WESA has the latest charts detailing the impact of COVID-19 on Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

Younger Allegheny County residents are less likely to be vaccinated. Black residents also have lower vaccination rates, and this racial disparity is most stark among the county’s youngest residents.

Just 7% of Black children between the ages of five and nine are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In comparison, 30% of white and 33% of Asian & Pacific Islander kids have gotten both doses of the Pfizer vaccine — which is the only option available to this age group.

Bogen said she doesn’t think the issue is access but rather vaccine hesitancy. The county has reached out to organizations to figure out how to address this problem. “So I ask anybody out there who’s a community member, really think how we can help address the concerns that clearly parents are experiencing.”

Corrected: January 5, 2022 at 5:40 PM EST
An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of white children between the ages of five and nine in Allegheny County who are fully vaccinated.
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.