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Bogen Explains Why She Hasn't Ordered A Shutdown, Despite Rising Coronavirus Infections

Volunteer loads a box of food into a car at a distribution event, April 10, 2020.

November was a very bad month for coronavirus infections in Allegheny County.

The 12,608 new coronavirus cases reported to the county health department last month account for more than 40 percent of all cases reported since the start of the pandemic. State data show that the county’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled in the last two weeks, now reaching past 640 patients.

Hospitalizations will continue to grow and public health officials worry that western Pennsylvania’s medical system could soon be dangerously overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

“County hospitals have thoughtful and robust plans to expand bed capacity for more patients. The bigger challenge is to staff those bed to care for those patients. … In some hospitals in our region our health care workers already quite stretched,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the county health department, at a Wednesday news conference.

Bogen noted that in addition to doctors and nurses, hospital operations also rely on nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, radiology technicians, as well as food services and cleaning staff. All these people are at higher risk for coronavirus exposure due to increased community spread; or are more likely to be needed at home to care for a family member who is ill or in quarantine.

Despite the surging coronavirus infections and risk to the medical system, government officials have yet to enact a stay-at-home order, like the state did in March.

Bogen said that the economic fall out of the pandemic has created additional public health issues—including around food and housing security. A shutdown to prevent the spread of the virus will exacerbate these problems.

“Closing business now comes with more pain than in March. Gone is the financial assistance and extra unemployment to laid off workers,” she said.

Minority and economically marginalized populations are the least likely to work remotely, which means they are more likely to bare the brunt of economic consequences  of a shutdown. These groups are already more likely to contract the virus and die from COVID-19.

It appears unlikely Congress will pass anything to ease the economic burden of the pandemic before the new year. Additionally, the federal moratorium on evections ends on Dec. 31, though some are occurring already. When people move in with relatives or into homeless shelters, these more cramped living arrangements put them at higher risk of contracting the virus.

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.