In Allegheny County and elsewhere, the end of 2020 brings worries that COVID-19 cases will rise due to holiday celebrations, but also hope that a new vaccine will finally curb the pandemic.
Infections appear to have declined in the county since Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered extra mitigation measures three weeks ago. On Wednesday, Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen said the county has reported an average of 570 new COVID-19 cases each day over the past week, with 12.4 percent of tests coming back positive.
“These are both improvements from previous weeks but still quite high,” Bogen said during the county’s weekly coronavirus news conference. “And I’m not sure what the case numbers will look like over the next couple of weeks as more testing resumes and we see the results of any potential holiday surge.”
Despite that concern, Wolf said on Wednesday that his latest COVID-19 mitigation measures will expire on Monday, as planned. Those rules have halted indoor dining and put new limits on gatherings.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said that Wolf is making the right call, considering that most businesses and schools have diligently followed health guidelines.
“And [COVID-19] cases have been very, very minimal in operations like that,” Fitzgerald said.
He urged residents to patronize those locations, instead of bars and restaurants that have ignored the restrictions.
While “most of the restaurants have really, really done a good job and cared about their staff and their customers,” Fitzgerald said “there are a handful” that have defied the governor’s orders and “put their community at risk.”
Bogen said her department has ordered nine eateries to close for repeatedly flouting COVID restrictions. The department ended up suing six establishments that continued to operate, Bogen said.
She expressed optimism, however, about the county’s vaccination efforts. As of Wednesday, nearly 10,000 people in the county had received the first of two COVID-19 vaccinations, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Bogen said that number includes about 500 vaccinations her department has administered in the last week. The agency gave the shots to health care workers at urgent care centers, the county jail, and the county medical examiner’s office, along with researchers working on COVID clinical and vaccine trials, Bogen said.
She acknowledged that some are frustrated that the country has been slow to roll out the vaccine. But she predicted the pace will pick up as vaccine providers hit their stride.
The rollout “has to be careful and intentional … and it takes a while to build a system. So we have seen a ramping up of vaccine administration in our county,” Bogen said. “I think, after the new year starts, you’ll see that the vaccination efforts will really kick into gear, and our efficiency and effectiveness in distributing them will get better and better.”
But in the meantime, she advised residents who choose to celebrate the holidays to do so virtually or by gathering outside in very small groups while wearing masks and keeping a safe distance.
“To say 2020 has been hard is really an understatement,” Bogen said while giving her last COVID-19 update of the year. But she added, “We have a lot to look forward to in 2021, including the opportunity to celebrate … holidays like we’re accustomed to.”