The number of COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County continues to spiral upward. The county’s Department of Health reported 61 new cases of the disease Friday, the highest one-day total since April 23.
Friday’s number continues a surge in local diagnoses, which began a week ago. Since last Friday, the county has averaged 33 new cases per day, with Monday and Wednesday each seeing 45 new cases. Until now, the biggest daily jump took place on April 4, when the county announced 76 new infections.
County health officials have already expresed concern about this week's trend.
The recent increase in COVID-19 cases comes after Allegheny County experienced an overall decline in coronavirus infections, from mid-May to mid-June. On one day just over a week ago, in fact, the county health department reported no new cases of the disease.
"The general population needs to remember that we're still in the middle of a pandemic. You cannot behave as if the virus is not there because it is there. And just because Allegheny County has been given a 'green' designation doesn't mean that you're free from risk from this virus," said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert who serves as a senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security. "We're going to be dealing with this virus until we have a vaccine."
Pennsylvania has seen a moderate increase in infections this week, but other parts of the country are contending with more alarming spikes. Arizona, Michigan, Texas, and Florida have seen especially dramatic surges, with Florida reporting a 9,000 one-day increase in cases Friday. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott opted Friday to put some shutdown restrictions back in place, a day after his state reported nearly 6,000 new cases.
Adalja does not expect a wholesale return to yellow- or red-phase restrictions in Allegheny County, which entered the green phase of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's reopening plan three weeks ago.
“What I think you might see [are] more targeted types of recommendations made, looking at the epidemiology of how this [virus] is spreading,” Adalja said. For example, he said, state officials could reduce the number of people that can dine in a restaurant at a single time in regions where cases rise high enough.
“When you think about public health interventions, they’re usually the least intrusive and the most targeted, the most surgical you can be,” Adalja said. He said governors chose to issue blanket shutdown orders in the spring because they had waited too long to respond to the pandemic and to build testing capacity.
Local contact tracing data suggests new cases in Allegheny County are largely related to out-of-state travel and patronizing recently opened restaurants and bars. New COVID-19 patients are also skewing younger, according to local and national data. Overall, younger people are less likely to require hospitalization if infected.
But, “the concern may be that if those individuals then transmit [the virus] to more vulnerable populations, you might see an uptick in hospitalizations,” Adalja said.
Allegheny County has not yet experienced a rise in hospitalizations. Adalja said that could change in the next week or so because increased hospitalizations usually lag behind a jump in cases.
“There is some period of time that has to pass before the virus can get from healthy young people that are getting infected, for example maybe in bars, to a more vulnerable person, who will then require hospitalization,” Adalja said. And he added, it takes several days for symptoms to become severe enough to require hospitalization.
“The key will be: Can we keep those younger people from infecting more vulnerable individuals?” Adalja said. “And that’s where it’s very important that Allegheny County Health Department’s contact tracing teams are robust, that they’re well-resourced, and they’re prioritized – and that there is basically no impediment to hiring as many contact tracers as we need.”