Nights are getting longer, temperatures colder, and the spread of the coronavirus is accelerating across Pennsylvania.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Health reported a record-breaking daily total of new cases with 4,361 additional infections. The new figures continue a recent trend of surging infections after last week saw four separate days of record-breaking numbers.
In early October, Allegheny County had been doing better than much of the state. But infections are now surging here, too. For example, Allegheny County on Tuesday reported 317 new cases. With the exception of one day in July, when a large backlog of positive test results was reported, this is the first time the county has exceeded 300 new cases in a single day.
Some argue that framing Pennsylvania’s current case counts as “record-breaking” is misleading because testing capacity is now far more robust than in April when cases last peaked.
But what is certain is that, since the summer, the percent of positive cases has increased, as have hospitalizations.
And the virus shows no signs of slowing--a trend that's especially concerning as the holiday season approaches.
Many of these cases reported attending parties and gatherings, including several Halloween parties. ACHD encourages people not to attend parties or gatherings while case counts are high and to take precautions such as wearing masks and keeping physical distance if you do.
— Allegheny County Health Department (@HealthAllegheny) November 10, 2020
“Many of these [recent] cases reported attending parties and gatherings, including several Halloween parties. ACHD encourages people not to attend parties or gatherings while case counts are high,” tweeted the Allegheny County Health Department. “Without changes to personal behaviors…cases will continue to rise. The Health Department is concerned that increases in serious hospitalizations and deaths will follow this span of consistently high cases.”
Some have wondered if the state should issue another shelter-in-place or “stay-at-home” order. The Wolf administration says, for the time being, that’s not on the table.
“It’s impossible to predict the future…but right now we’re going to focus on containment, we’re going to focus on the mitigation orders that are currently in place,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, during a Tuesday appearance on WESA’s The Confluence.
Levine noted that such orders bring significant societal and economic impacts. Allegheny County reports that its case investigation data show that small group gatherings are likely the main source of transmission. Therefore, forcing schools and businesses to close may have just a modest impact on curtailing new infections. The real challenge is convincing uncompliant members of the public to adhere to mitigation practices.
“We’re calling on people to avoid even small gatherings,” Levine said. “That’s going to be really difficult as we enter the holidays…but that’s where we’re at right now.”
In line with the sharp rise in cases, severe COVID-19 illness have also risen steeply since early October. More than 1.900 people are hospitalized statewide. In April hospitalizations hit 3,000, a figure that could be surpassed in the coming months.
“It usually takes about two or so weeks after we see [case] increases where we seem more hospitalizations,” Levine said. “We have quite a robust [medical] system in Pennsylvania with fantastic hospitals and health systems. But they will need to be prepared for the increases that we will be seeing over the next weeks and months.”
State data show that less than 20 percent of normal hospital beds and about 33 percent of airborne isolation units are available statewide.
Deaths from COVID-19 are less frequent now compared to this spring when a rash of outbreaks hit Pennsylvania nursing homes. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s fatalities are among long-term-care-facility residents, who are more likely to be elderly and medically frail.
Now younger people, who have better chances of surviving COVID-19, are more likely to contract the virus. Also, researchers and doctors continue to find better therapies to help patients recover.
But the long-term health outcomes of COVID-19 remain unknown.
In particular physicians and scientists worry about the so-called "long-haulers," or patients who still experience effects of the illnes months after their symptoms first appeared. For this group, COVID-19 has resulted in potentially lifelong medical complications.