COVID Infections in Allegheny County Drop To Their Lowest Level in Months
Case counts continue to decrease in Allegheny County, which today saw its first day with fewer than 200 infections since the start of the omicron surge last fall.
It was a time for optimism at Wednesday’s biweekly press briefing with the Allegheny County Health Department, as Director Debra Bogen said COVID case counts are “headed in a favorable direction” after a deadly few months.
“After peaking at over 3,000 cases a day in early January, we are now averaging fewer than 450 new cases a day. Yesterday, we had our first sub-300 per day for the first time since early November, and today, we reported cases below 200,” Bogen said. “Right now, all of the indicators are headed in the right direction. That is, they’re declining.”
Between Feb. 6 and Feb. 13, there were 2,638 reported coronavirus infections. There were also 66 deaths reported during that time and 185 hospitalizations.
These numbers are down significantly from previous weeks, offering a glimmer of hope that the omicron variant’s wave is over and community spread may be waning.
Between Jan. 30 and Feb. 5, there were 3,850 new cases; the week before that, there were 10,455; and a week prior, the county saw 11,921 reported infections. Cases peaked in the Jan. 11 report, which detailed a whopping 23,459 new infections.
Between Jan. 30 and Feb. 5, there were also 230 hospitalizations and 75 deaths.
“We are aware of 284 deaths in January, making it the third-deadliest month of the pandemic behind only December of 2020 and January of 2021,” Bogen said. “I hope and anticipate that February will have fewer deaths, given our declining hospitalizations. But it’s too early to know for sure what the February numbers will be, as deaths lag other indicators.”
She added that the positivity rate has also decreased to around 25% — a 20% drop from the peak. Hospitalizations continue to decrease, too, taking some pressure off of healthcare workers.
Bogen also said that reporting metrics of case counts and positivity rates may no longer be reliable in assessing community risk.
“More and more people are using at-home rapid tests, which are not reported into the state surveillance system,” she said. “For the Health Department, this means that we do not and will not have complete data on cases.”
Limited data may also be biased based on who uses community or laboratory testing versus at-home testing. Because of the ongoing changes in testing, Bogen said the Health Department will increasingly rely on different metrics to monitor community risk — hospitalizations, reports of outbreaks, wastewater surveillance, syndromic surveillance of emergency room use and deaths.
“In recognition that case data are increasingly unreliable, we are re-evaluating our public reporting process and anticipate that in the near future, we will stop providing daily case counts and focus on the weekly reports of hospitalizations and the other metrics I already mentioned,” she said.
More details about these new metrics will be released at the next COVID press briefing in two weeks.
Even though there has been a significant drop-off in case counts, Bogen continued to emphasize the importance of getting vaccinated — something she said is safe and proven — and getting tested when you feel sick or think you may have been exposed. All of the treatments that are most effective against COVID-19 require a positive test result, including a new monoclonal antibody treatment to which the FDA gave emergency use last week.
“Increasingly available treatments, combined with effective and safe vaccines, are essential for keeping people protected from the worst effects of COVID and allowing us all to get back to more social interactions safely,” she said.
The death toll remains high even as cases decline, and the unvaccinated continue to be disproportionately affected by serious illness.
“Please get vaccinated. They could be the difference between life and death,” Bogen added. “And I don’t want to see anyone else die when they don’t have to.”
Word of impending relief from omicron’s grasp comes as institutions around the country lift mask mandates and ease requirements, especially for the vaccinated. Included in these institutions is the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, which announced Tuesday that it will no longer require masks in parishes on Feb. 26, nor in diocesan elementary and high schools as of Feb. 28.
On Feb. 26, priests, deacons and liturgical ministers in the sanctuary, as well as ushers and greeters, will no longer be required to wear masks at Mass. Parishioners will again be invited to share the Sign of Peace, communion will be distributed and all parish events outside of Mass may once again be held in person. Livestream options for Mass and activities will continue for those who are unable to attend in person.
The distribution of wine, representing the blood of Christ, remains suspended at this time, the diocese said.
For area Catholic schools, masking will continue to be required on school buses, as per federal law, and anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 will also be required to mask up for five days after their return to work or school.
“For more than two years, the leaders in our parishes and schools have worked diligently to protect themselves, each other, and our community from COVID-19,” said Bishop David Zubik in a press release. “We have learned to create safe environments and to quickly adapt when outbreaks require us to exercise greater caution. We thank God that local infections have dropped and pray that our anticipated adjustments will be the first of many steps toward resuming ways of worship and learning that we have all missed so much.”
Bishop Zubik has also joined Pope Francis in urging everyone who is eligible to get COVID vaccines and booster shots “as an act of love for all people, especially the most vulnerable.”
“Getting vaccinated is a sign of our concern for our neighbors. It should be done out of love for our Lord who told us to care for the health of others,” Bishop Zubik said in a statement.
If cases surge in a specific county, parish or school, mitigation measures — including mandatory masking — may be reinstated.
But even as cases drop, county officials continue to emphasize COVID-19’s impact. Last week, the county reached what Bogen called “a heartbreaking milestone”: More than 3,000 Allegheny County residents have died from the virus.
“As I’ve noted before, these people are not numbers. They are beloved members of our community — grandparents, parents, children, friends and neighbors,” Bogen said.
She also highlighted the fact that the coronavirus is not just like the flu.
“To put this death toll into perspective, from 2015 to 2022, all together fewer than 100 county residents died from influenza,” she said. COVID has killed 3,136 as of Wednesday.