Allegheny County Fitzgerald said it’s no surprise that Allegheny County wasn’t among two-dozen counties where COVID-19 restrictions will be eased starting next week. But he’s optimistic it won’t be much longer.
“I was not totally surprised” by Gov. Tom Wolf’s Friday-afternoon announcement that a swath of northern Pennsylvania will move from “red” to “yellow” going forward, Fitzgerald said. “But I would not have been totally surprised had we made it into the yellow as well. And I think we were obviously very close.”
It has long been clear, after all, that the number of positive cases reported over 14-day periods in Allegheny County was running below the 50 cases per 100,000 people threshold set by the state. (Under that threshold, the county could post roughly 600 new cases in a two-week period -- roughly twice its current rate.) And at Friday’s press conference, Wolf himself said that “We’re already looking at other counties to move from red to yellow categories. In particular we have our eyes on counties in the southwest.”
“I think if these numbers continue to where they are, as the governor indicated we will be next, and I'm guessing we're -- I would hope May 15th would be the day that we would go from red to yellow,” Fitzgerald said.
Wolf made clear that being moved into the "yellow" category would still leave many restrictions in place, especially on businesses where social distancing is impossible. But communities have been anxiously awaiting relief from restrictions that went into effect last month, and which health officials largely credit for "flattening the curve" and limiting the spread of the virus.
Fitzgerald speculated that the state simply focused on more rural counties to the north, where case totals are sometimes in the single digits. But the state has cited other factors.
On Friday, Wolf’s secretary of health, Rachel Levine, said that restrictions were not being eased in the state’s southwestern corner “particularly in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh because of population density. We have certainly learned from our modeling and our experts that population density is one of the main factors that can lead to significant spread of COVID-19.”
Population density has been cited as a factor in the disease’s spread, with urban areas like New York City and New Orleans seeing some of the most serious outbreaks.
Sounding slightly rueful, Fitzgerald said “That’s the first time I’ve heard that comment made in this entire time since mid-March. There have been other factors” cited as challenges.
One requirement the county has yet to meet is the state’s threshold for testing. Testing for the disease, which can be transmitted even by people who don’t show symptoms, is considered essential. The state was low to spell out a requirement but recently posted a policy that seems to mandate testing 2 percent of an area’s population every month. For Allegheny County, with its population of over 1.2 million people, that works out to 800 tests a day. The county has typically been testing around half that.
County officials have said recently they have the capacity to test upwards of 2,000 people a day: “I don’t see that being a problem at all,” said Fitzgerald. He acknowledged the county wasn’t testing at the level required by the state, but said that had more to do with the test’s limited availability – and perhaps a lack of more widespread need.
Due to a nationwide lack of test capacity, he said, “Nobody has been able to just show up and get a test without a prescription. One of the things you probably have to do is open up some of the factors.” He noted too that fewer than 10 percent of county residents had tested positive: Public health experts say a positive test rate of over 10 percent suggests many more cases are being missed.
“We’ve been very healthy in this region, and that’s probably part of the reason why our test numbers have been where they are,” said Fitzgerald, who said he was “not sure” the 2 percent target was “an absolute metric or not. … I think it might be more of a goal.”
Fitzgerald said that in the wake of Wolf’s announcement he had heard from some local businesses who were “disappointed" not to be among the first counties to see requirements eased. "But my message is: We’ve got to continue what we’re doing, and maybe we’re only talking about being a week behind.”