Threat Of Coronavirus In Allegheny County Is Low, But Officials Are Preparing For Local Outbreaks

Mar 2, 2020

Allegheny County says it is preparing in case coronavirus makes its way to western Pennsylvania, though there are no confirmed cases in the state.

The county health department said the threat of coronavirus in the Pittsburgh region remains low, and there is no evidence people are transmitting the virus to each other locally. But as testing becomes more common, it’s increasingly likely some coronavirus cases will surface.

"There's no way to know with any certainty when we're going to see transmission here," said Dr. Lee Harrison, chair of the Allegheny County Board of Health. "The general notion is that there's probably a lot of transmission going on in the country, not necessarily here, that we don't know about yet."

Officals declined to disclose if or how many county residents have tested negative for coronavirus. 

At this time, first responders and school crossing guards are being supplied with personal protective equipment. The health department said these items aren’t necessary for the general public.

“We would appreciate if people didn’t hoard face masks, and leave them for when people are sick,” said department epidemiologist Dr. Kristen Mertz. “The people who need to wear them are patients who have respiratory symptoms and they wear them to keep from spewing germs out.”

Instead Mertz advises people to thoroughly wash their hands, frequently clean surfaces, practice good cough and sneezing etiquette, avoid handshakes and stay home if sick.

In addition to making sure that public safety officials have adequate personal protection, the county plans to increase the number of deployed medic units.

“We may also put, in addition to the medic units, an assessment team to be able to go out and assess individuals that are complaining of signs and symptoms of either the flu or the coronavirus,” said Wendell Hissrich, head of the city's public safety department.

The health department said it has been in touch with long-term care facilities in the area, as older adults and those with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill after contracting coronavirus. Protective measures at these facilities are similar to those for the flu.

“[These include] reducing activities. Keeping ill people in their room. Checking staff. Keeping ill staff out of work. No visitors. Signage,” said Mertz.

One of the six coronavirus fatalities in the U.S. is a Washington State man who resided at a skilled nursing facility, where a number of cases have been confirmed.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County is recommending riders wash their hands and stay home if sick. While riding on a bus or in a lightrail, the authority said people should sit, ideally with hands in pockets, instead of holding poles or handle strapes. And, "If you notice someone near you who appears to be visibly sick, move away from them if possible." 

Public health officials also recommend county residents get their flu shot if they haven’t yet this season. The flu and COVID-19 can present similarly, including cough and fever. Getting vaccinated might prevent significant panic and help to not overwhelm local health systems in case there is an eventual outbreak.