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Data Are Sparse As County Prepares To Ease Social Distancing Restrictions

Allegheny County
Dr. Debra Bogen speaks at a press conference announcing her new position as head of the Allegheny County Health Department on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.

State and county officials have started to discuss relaxing social distancing mandates, though the head of the Allegheny County Health Department says there are still many unknowns.

“Remember, this is a novel virus, and all of those who have not yet been infected are at risk,” said Debra Bogen, the Health Department's director. “We don’t know what proportion of our community has had the virus, and therefore might be protected by immunity. But we think it’s very low, no more than a few percent based on our hospitalizations in our region.”

Only about 1 percent of Allegheny County residents have been tested for COVID-19, which means the data that officials will use to decide when or how to relax social distancing is limited.

Bogen said not only must there be more testing, but results need a quicker turnaround. Recently the large health systems in western Pennsylvania increased testing capacity, but Bogen said she would like to see this expanded further to pharmacies and independent community health centers.

As people begin to move more freely, the chance of the virus spreading will increase. Therefore, the Health Department will need to expand its ability to contract trace, or, the process of identifying people who have had contact with an infected person.

The county said its practice is to notify anyone a COVID patient had contact with in the 48 hours before they started exhibiting symptoms. So far, the county reports that 15 additional cases have been uncovered through contact tracing.

“As we have closed down our society…the contacts we have had to reach have been reduced,” said Bogen. “When we start opening up society again…we’re developing a plan to figure out how many [contact tracers] we need to hire.”

Even after social distancing is relaxed, people will be directed to continue to stay six feet apart from each other, frequently wash their hands and wear masks. Concerts and large sporting events won’t be resumed anytime soon. Shift work may become more common, so as to not have too many people congregate at an office or factory at a given time.

But, even as restrictions are eased, it may still be too dangerous for people who are elderly or those with underlying health conditions to leave home.

“During this time, while we are physically distancing, we need to stay socially connected more than ever,” said Dr. Lyn Weinberg, director of Allegheny Health Network’s Division of Geriatrics. “Anxiety, stress, feeling overwhelmed or overloaded with information are very common emotions at this time, especially for older adults.”

Weinberg said that older adults should try out new technology to stay connected with loved ones and health care providers. And that caregivers need to do more frequent check-ins, even though it might be hard to physically distance in those situations.

WESA receives funding from Allegheny Health Network.