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Public Officials Are Concerned About COVID-19 Spike, UPMC Is Not

Keith Srakocic

Allegheny County continued its upswing of novel coronavirus infections, with another 45 cases reported on Wednesday. This follows Monday's count of 45 cases, which was the highest daily total in more than a month.

But UPMC, the state’s largest medical system, says it’s important to take a broader look at how the pandemic is progressing.

“As we and others increase testing … and we inevitably see increases in positive among younger, healthier people … we need to change our mindset and focus on severity of illness, rather than just counting the number of new infections,” said UPMC’s Dr. Donald Yealy at a Wednesday morning press conference.

Throughout its 40-hospital system, UPMC reports that the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients is at the lowest since April.

“Today we have 14 COVID-19 patients across our entire system that are on [ventilators] … It’s a four-fold decrease from the speak that we saw in April,” said Yealy, who is the system’s head of emergency medicine.

While numbers at UPMC might be low, the Allegheny County Health Department says hospitalizations are rising, and increases in infections and hospitalizations don’t occur simultaneously, as it takes time for a patient’s conditions to worsen.  

Local and national data do show that COVID-19 patients are now skewing younger. Statistically, younger people have better COVID-19 outcomes.

“That means collectively, we have acquired some more immunity without the harms that go along with the infection,” said Yealy. “Infections have come and gone since the beginning of time, and they go for a great many of reasons. In part because of recovery from very many people who have acquired the infection.”

Yealy's stance is different from that of Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, who said herd immunity requires at least 60 percent of the population to have been infected.

“We often live in multigeneration homes. We go to places of work with many generations of people from young to old,” said Bogen during the county’s weekly press conference. “My goal is to keep the number of infections really low until we have both a good treatment, and an immunization that can protect our entire community.”

While young people by and large survive COVID-19, people in their twenties and thirties have died from the disease.

“It’s sort of an odds game,” said Bogen. “The more people who get it, the more you get the rare outcome of a bad outcome.”

Bogen said she wasn’t aware of large case clusters and that most people recently infected aren’t sure where or how they contracted the virus. That means people who don’t know they have COVID-19 are spreading the virus to others.

Bogen's concerns are shared by other public officials, including County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, state Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine and Gov. Tom Wolf.

Throughout the pandemic, UPMC has offered a rosier outlook than public health officals. The medical system defiedthe state health department's ban on elective surgeries, which was enacted to prepare hospitals for potential surges of COVID-19 patients and preserve supplies of personal protective equipment. 

Despite their differing opinions, Bogen and Yealy unequivocally agree on at least one thing: masks. Both urged the public to not only wear face coverings, but to make sure they properly cover both the mouth and nose.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.