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Surge Of Coronavirus Infections Continues In Allegheny County

Matt Rourke

Allegheny County reported Monday that another 83 residents have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. These new cases comprise nearly 17 percent of all cases reported in Pennsylvania on Monday.

The news continues a concerning trend that began less than two weeks ago, with Allegheny County reporting dozens of new infections a day. Earlier in June it was common for the daily case count to be in the single digits.

Based on the percent of positive cases out of the total number of tests, the spike is not the result of increased testing capacity. Earlier this month, the daily positivity rate hovered between 1-2 percent. Now the number fluctuates between 5 and 9 percent, and preliminary data puts Saturday’s positivity rate at 19 percent.

In an effort to slow down the virus’s spread, the county health department issued an executive order on Sunday banning on-site consumption of alcohol at bars and restaurants. It goes into effect on Tuesday at 5 p.m.

“When people drink alcohol, they tend to lose inhibition... and can’t adhere to the physical distancing and mask recommendations,” said department director Dr. Debra Bogen, when announcing the ban.

University of Pittsburgh social epidemiologist Christina Mair said she’s been thinking for weeks that the county needs to close bars.

“Once you have a beer or two, you tend to get what’s called alcohol myopia. You tend to get very distracted by everything else going on around you,” said Mair.

Though people won’t be able to drink at bars and restaurants, they can still purchase beverages to go. The atmosphere of these venues makes transmission more likely, especially if people are drinking indoors.

“People tend to be crowded together, talking, mingling with a greater number of people,” said Mair. “Because there's a lot of ambient noise they're talking in louder voices,” which results in an infected person releasing more aerosols.

Mair acknowledges this decision will have economic repercussions. But she said it might help keep infection rates low enough that kids can return to school in the fall.

“It’s the risk-benefit,” she said. “Where are the places where allowing more risk because they're more important?”

Despite the increase in cases, there has not been a large uptick in severe illness.

On Monday there were no new deaths, and just four additional COVID-19 hospitalizations. However, indicators of severe illness lag behind new cases numbers.

Elderly and immunocompromised individuals are more at risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes. This is part of the reason why outbreaks at nursing homes have resulted in many fatalities. Of the newest cases, the county says the age of patients ranges from 9 to 83, with 26 being the median.

While the hope is that this big increase in cases won’t correlate to a big increase in deaths, any uptick in the infection rate puts everyone at risk. Though rare, children and young adults have died from COVID-19. The more the virus spreads, the more likely younger Allegheny County residents will face severe illness or even death.

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. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.