The Wolf Administration on Saturday released a third iteration of language it’s using to describe the initial benchmark that areas of the state must meet in order to be considered for reopening during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The administration now says an area must have “fewer than 50 new confirmed cases per 100,000 population reported to the department in the previous 14 days.”
The new language came amid confusion about how many new cases of COVID-19 a county or region can have and still qualify for consideration to move into the “yellow” phase of reopening. When the Process to Reopen Pennsylvania plan went live on the governor’s website last Wednesday evening, it stated that an area must have “an average of less than 50 cases per 100,000 individuals over the course of 14 days to return to work.” One day later, it was changed to say an area must have “on average for the past 14 days, had 50 or less new cases per 100,000 residents per day.”
The difference between those two metrics is whether the “50 cases per 100,000” standard is applied daily or bi-weekly. In Allegheny County, with 1.2 million residents, it’s the difference between having about 600 cases per day versus over the course of two weeks.
Now the administration says it won’t be working with averages at all, despite the fact that the first two versions of the metric included that specific word. Instead, the state will add up the total number of new cases for the previous 14 days; that number must be equal to or less than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents.
Though the Wolf administration has made no indication that Southwestern Pennsylvania will be included in the first round of limited reopening expected to begin on May 8 – the northwest and northcentral regions are expected to be the first to reopen. Allegheny County does currently meet the initial benchmark, with 348 new cases over the past 14 days.
Another point of confusion revolves around the geographic areas for which the state’s qualification metric will be applied. The plan references both counties and regions. For example, “all indicators could point to opening a specific county, but other factors such as population density around a hotspot, availability of supplies to ensure workers are protected, either PA DOH criteria or proximity to a hotspot in another county could make the county unfit to open.”
The plan also divides the state up into size regions: northwest, southwest, northcentral, southcentral, northeast and southeast.
“The opening will be region by region, and of course, the regions are made up of counties,” said state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine last Thursday. Levine did not specifically respond to an inquiry asking whether all counties in a region must be recommended for reopening before any county in a region can reopen.