PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) — COVID-19 cases are declining in Pennsylvania, which state health leaders have said is moving into a “new phase” of the pandemic. The CDC also recently updated its masking guidelines. These changes put more COVID-19 safety decisions in the hands of individuals, so which metrics should you be watching to determine your risk of catching COVID-19 and the mitigation steps you should be taking?

“I think that people should be looking at two metrics,” said Dr. John Goldman, infectious disease specialist at UPMC, “One is the number of cases…and two is the number of hospitalizations.”

The number of cases in the area indicates how likely someone is to be exposed to COVID-19, Goldman said, and the number of hospitalizations indicates the severity of the illness caused by the circulating strain of the virus.

According to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the moving average number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Pennsylvania peaked at 7,111 on Jan. 21, 2022, during the latest omicron surge. As of March 10, that number was down to 1,219.

The number of daily new cases peaked during the omicron surge at 33,397 on Jan. 7, 2022, according to DOH data. Between March 1 and March 10, cases hovered around 1,000 each day.

Combining information about new cases, hospital admissions, and available hospital beds, the CDC recently released a new map, which can be viewed here, that indicates whether U.S. counties are at low, medium, or high risk for COVID-19.

The map is updated periodically. As of the March 3 update, here is where Midstate counties stand:

Low COVID-19 Community Level

  • Adams
  • Cumberland
  • Dauphin
  • Lancaster
  • Lebanon
  • Perry
  • York

Medium COVID-19 Community Level

  • Franklin

High COVID-19 Community Level

  • Juniata
  • Mifflin

According to the CDC, individuals in the “low” designation areas should stay up-to-date on coronavirus vaccines and get tested if experiencing symptoms. Additionally, those in “medium” areas should consider masking and other precautions if they have an elevated risk of severe illness. And in “high” areas, the CDC says everyone should wear a mask in indoor public spaces and high-risk individuals may consider additional precautions.

This CDC Community Level map differs sightly from the one that shows coronavirus community transmission levels, as it integrates hospitalization information rather than just looking at transmission rates. Goldman noted that as more people develop immunity to COVID-19 through vaccinations or natural infection, the risk of developing severe illness and requiring treatment in a hospital decreases, so the new system may provide a clearer picture of COVID-19 risks.

After consulting the statistics, Goldman says people also have to consider their personal risk factors when deciding which safety measure to take.

“If you’re vaccinated, even if you’re exposed you’re much less likely to get ill. If you’ve had COVID before, even if you’re exposed you’re much less likely to get ill. And if you are older, have medical conditions, you have to be a little more careful,” Goldman said.

Considering one’s individual risk factors is part of the equation, Goldman said, as is considering the risk posed by different activities. “It’s different to be in a restaurant than it is, for example, to be in the Giant Center among literally thousands of people,” he noted.

Essentially, with the exception of those who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, have tested positive for COVID-19, or are on public transportation or in other spaces that require masks, it comes down to individuals to monitor risk levels and decide which precautionary steps to take, the CDC has determined.

And Goldman pointed out that masking doesn’t have to be like an on-off switch — people can choose to wear a mask in some settings or under certain conditions, and they can comfortably ditch the masks at other times (provided case counts and hospitalizations remain low).

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Many may recall the brief window last summer when COVID-19 restrictions eased before cases bounced back up and wonder whether the same thing could happen again now. Goldman says that this is a possibility if mitigation strategies are relaxed too quickly, but added, “I think it’s a very reasonable thing to do with cases declining, to also relax masking and social distancing, but if cases go up, become a little more careful again.”

“We’re all tired of this. Everyone’s sick of wearing masks, everyone wants to see their friends, everyone wants to go to their favorite restaurants, and so there is a cost to continuing masking and social distancing,” Goldman said.