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COVID-19 hospital admissions rise in Allegheny County, as case numbers show slight increase

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

As COVID-19 continues to thrum across the summer, severe illness is on the uptick again in Allegheny County. Public health officials say that tracking hospitalizations is one of the best ways to assess the danger the virus poses to a community.

The Allegheny County Health Department reports that last week — between June 30 and July 6 — 97 county residents were admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. That marks a 70% increase over the previous week, when there were just 57 new hospitalizations.

And while the number of people hospitalized remains low in comparison to thresholds earlier in the pandemic, hospital admissions have always been a more reliable barometer for the severity of COVID-19 in a region than most other available metrics.

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

For a myriad of reasons, health officials have struggled to capture reliable case counts: Access to at-home test kits has become near universal, and over-the-counter testing is often the norm; while others who are sick with COVID-19 never get tested. And the advent of vaccines and new therapies has made the virus less deadly for many patients.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security who is based in Pittsburgh, said that hospitalizations are the most important metric to understand the threat presented by a respiratory virus that efficiently spreads, and cannot be eliminated or eradicated.

“The goal is to shift disease to the milder spectrum, which means avoiding hospitalizations,” said Adalja, who specializes in infectious diseases. “To me, the most impactful aspect of COVID-19 was its ability to paralyze the health care system.”

For example, the two times hospitalizations exceeded 750 patients occurred during the winter surges of 2020-21, and 2021-22. Both times health care systems were flooded with demand.

Taken in combination with hospitalization data, the direction of reported case numbers can offer a fuller understanding of viral transmission; and like hospitalizations, infections are also increasing, though slightly, in the region.

The county health department last week reported 1,769 new cases last week, 50 more than the previous week. The results come from testing performed at clinics, hospitals and other official sites.

This modest increase is the second week in a row that cases have ticked up after more than a month of declining numbers.

Also over the past week, nine people died from the virus. To date, 3,342 Allegheny County residents have died from COVID-19.

Interestingly, wastewater analysis shows that the concentration of COVID-19 in Pittsburgh-area sewage continues to slowly decline. However, the most recent wastewater data is about a week older than hospitalization and case numbers, so it’s not yet clear whether viral levels have increased since the beginning of July.

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.