Rising infections in southwest Pennsylvania prompt concern

Coronavirus in Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Renewed pandemic restrictions appeared possible in southwestern Pennsylvania on Tuesday as virus infections in Pittsburgh and its border counties surged, driven in part by people frequenting bars and restaurants, according to health officials.

Already, Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located and the recent spike in new infections is centered, is in the midst of a one-week ban on in-person service at bars and restaurants as health officials try to contain the spread. Allegheny County also ordered the casino there to close and banned gatherings of more than 25 people for the week.

There were indications Tuesday that restrictions could be reimposed in surrounding counties that are also reporting rising infection numbers. Increased viral transmission in southwestern Pennsylvania is largely responsible for a 37% jump in the rate of new infections statewide over the past four weeks, according to an Associated Press analysis of state data.

“There will be targeted mitigation efforts that the commonwealth will announce tomorrow,” Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan told the AP on Tuesday evening.

Washington County officials — who joined a federal lawsuit filed in May against Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide shutdown of businesses deemed nonessential — are opposed to closing them again, she said.

“Our preference would be to allow businesses the opportunity to make decisions based on specific circumstances,” she said. “The secretary and the governor are well aware of our objections to the closing of businesses.”

The state Department of Health confirmed it has reached out to the southwestern counties and is working on a “deep dive” into data on rising case numbers, but spokesperson April Hutcheson said she had no information Tuesday about whether the state is looking at reimposing restrictions in the counties.

“We’re concerned about the entire region,” she said.

Gov. Tom Wolf has said that he prefers to let Pennsylvania’s local governments handle further coronavirus restrictions, as opposed to broader statewide shutdown orders he imposed this spring.

Allegheny County, meanwhile, delivered another caseload of more than 200 infections again Tuesday, as health officials there attribute a spike in cases, in part, to residents frequenting bars and restaurants or traveling out of state to beach towns and other locales.

The state Health Department said there were “significant increases” in the number of COVID-19 cases among younger people, especially those 19 to 24. In the southwest, 5% of infections in April were among people in that age group, rising to nearly 30% so far this month.

Even so, Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said she is considering relaxing some of the restrictions she imposed last week. An announcement was expected Wednesday.

“I’m trying to be very strategic,” she said at a news conference. “I really don’t think it’s great to shut down our entire society again. I don’t think that’s likely effective. I think people don’t want to have that, and we would like to not be able to do that.”

More than 91,000 people statewide have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 or are considered probable to have had it.

Wolf is stressing the importance of wearing masks while, across the state, Philadelphia has postponed plans to allow indoor dining, bars, gyms and fitness centers to reopen, with officials worrying about a growing epidemic elsewhere in the country.

Philadelphia’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, said Tuesday that positive coronavirus cases are holding steady despite increases in neighboring Delaware and other parts of Pennsylvania. However, he said, of the cases, there’s an increase in positives in people younger than 40.

Also, the city’s superintendent said plans for re-opening schools this fall will be announced next week.

In other coronavirus-related developments Tuesday:

CASES

Pennsylvania reported its highest single-day caseload of new infections since early May, although state health officials said Tuesday that backlogged or delayed test results accounted for a significant portion.

Of the 995 new infections reported, about 400 are backlogged cases from Philadelphia or delayed results that were not reported electronically to the department’s system, an agency spokesperson said.

Another 33 coronavirus-related deaths were reported, the Health Department said, bringing the statewide total to nearly 7,800 since the beginning of the pandemic.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

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