Epidemiologist Says There's Reason For Western PA To Be Optimistic About Future Under Coronavirus

May 12, 2020

On Friday big changes are coming to southwest Pennsylvania as the region will transition from the red to the yellow phase of COVID-19 reopenings.

The stay-at-home order will lift, retail can resume, and gatherings of fewer than 25 people are permitted. But with these additional freedoms comes increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus, which has infected nearly 60,000 Pennsylvanians.   

David Dausey, an epidemiologist who specializes in helping governments prepare for pandemics, said it appears that social distancing has worked relatively well in the Pittsburgh area as there hasn’t been a large surge of COVID-19 patients needing hospitalization.

“I think there is at least some optimism that easing these restrictions is a reasonable thing to do at this point,” he said. “As long as people don't get carried away.”

Dausey, who is provost and vice president for Duquesne University, said that if people follow public health guidelines, there is a good chance the region won’t see an increase in infections of the coronavirus in the coming weeks. But he cautions that if people revert to their normal habits, infections could signficantly increase. 

However, some of the state's instructions for how to coexist with the coronavirus under the yellow phase are less than clear. For example, gatherings of fewer than 25 people will be permitted. But does that mean a gathering of this size is safe?

“It’s really a probability game,” said Dausey. “The larger the group and the more diverse the geography of the group, the greater the probability that some member of that group may actually be an asymptomatic carrier.”

For his part, Dausey plans to continue to isolate at home. He won’t be hugging people he hasn’t seen in a while just because the shelter-in-place order is lifting.

“If I do get together with family or friends, it will be a very different gathering,” he said. “It will likely be outside. It will likely have seats that are spaced appropriately apart. In part because many of the loved ones that I want to spend time with are also those at greatest risk for potentially becoming severely ill if they were to get the disease. And I wouldn't want to put one of them at risk.”

All in-person interactions will have some level of risk, until a vaccine or some other time of medical innovation comes along that makes COVID-19 less deadly or the coronavirus less contagious. Tolerance for this risk various from person to person.

“Some people, I think, have too great of a tolerance for risk, and they end up putting other people in harm's way with or without the other people's permission,” said Dausey. “I've always said that the most common-sense thing to do at this point is for high risk people to take greater precautions than people who are at lower risk.”

The good news is that most of western Pennsylvania, including Allegheny County, have had a limited number of cases.

“If we play our cards right and we do test and we do contact trace and we do isolate the cases of people who have been in contact with sick people, we could potentially contain it,” he said.

WESA recieves funding from Duquesne University.