Although social distancing and other measures instituted by state authorities have helped flatten the curve of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 outbreak, the disease is still spreading, particularly in eastern counties where the most cases–and deaths–have been recorded.
On Sunday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 1,295 new cases of COVID-19 statewide, bringing the total number of cases since the pandemic began to 56,611.
In Lehigh and Northampton counties nearly 100 new cases were confirmed over the 24-hour period ending at 12 a.m. Sunday, with Lehigh County adding 72 cases to bring its total to 3,241 and Northampton County adding 24 cases, which brought its total to 2,453.
Counties directly to the south of the Lehigh Valley saw even larger gains in terms of their caseloads from Saturday to Sunday:
- Berks County added 114 cases for a new total of 3,371.
- Montgomery County added 144 cases for a new total of 5,260.
- Bucks County added 114 cases for a new total of 3,966.
Accounting for population may provide a clearer picture of how widespread the disease is within each county.
After Philadelphia, Lehigh County has the second highest number of cases per capita in the state, with approximately 894 cases per 100,000 people (about .9 percent of its population) as of Sunday. That is approximately double the state per capita rate of 4,691 cases per 1 million residents (.46 percent). Northampton County’s per capita distribution is slightly less than Lehigh’s, with a rate of 813 cases per 100,000 residents as of Sunday.
Northampton County, however, is further from meeting a crucial reopening target for new cases set by the state, according to an analysis of data by Lehigh Valley Live.
One of the criteria laid out by Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine for easing restrictions in counties that remain under a stay-at-home order is for them to have 50 or fewer new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people over a 14-day period.
The news site crunched the numbers for the period from April 23 to May 7 and found that Lehigh County had averaged 169 cases per 100,000 residents, while Northampton County averaged 209 cases per 100,000 residents.
And while Lehigh County’s number declined significantly (from 232 cases per 100,000 residents on April 23), Northampton County’s changed little, decreasing by only about eight cases (from 217 to 209) over the 14-day period. Meanwhile, Bucks County went in the wrong direction, with its number of new cases per 100,000 residents increasing from 187 to 212 during the same period.
The Saucon Valley is located in Northampton County, but is also close to where all three counties meet, and several local zip codes span at least two of the three counties.
The 18055 zip code, for example, includes Hellertown borough and the eastern half of Lower Saucon Township, but also a small portion of Springfield Township, Bucks County, in addition to a sliver of Williams Township, Northampton County.
As of Sunday, the total number of confirmed cases in that zip code to date was 47, per the Department of Health; an increase of 10 cases since April 27, when we last reported the total.
The adjacent 18015 zip code includes communities in both Northampton and Lehigh counties, and as of Sunday there were 220 cases in it, or 61 more than there were April 27.
The increase in the 18015 zip code during that time is equivalent to about a 38 percent increase, while the rise in the 18055 zip code during the same time period is equal to about 27 percent.
Given that Northampton County has a population of approximately 300,000 people, in order to meet the state’s goal of no more than 50 new cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period it must report no more than roughly 150 new cases in two weeks’ time.
Although the 18015 zip code is partly in Lehigh County, its new cases together with those in the 18055 zip code over 13 days represent nearly half the number the entire county should be reporting in order to meet the state’s guideline.
State officials, however, have stressed that the 50-case threshold is not the only factor being considered when evaluating whether a county can move from the red to the yellow phase of Wolf’s plan for reopening Pennsylvania.
Nevertheless, some county officials in south central Pennsylvania are expressing frustration that their counties will remain under the stay-at-home order until at least June 4, even though they already have fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents.
Locally it remains to be seen whether pressure from elected officials such as state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-18), who told Wolf Friday that she wants Lehigh and Northampton counties to be moved to the yellow phase of his reopening plan, will have any impact on the decision-making process at the state level.
As of Sunday, more than 3,700 Pennsylvanians had died from COVID-19, including two Hellertown residents. About two-thirds of the deaths have occurred in nursing homes.
Boscola in her letter to Wolf cited infectious disease experts from St. Luke’s University Health Network and Lehigh Valley Health Network in arguing that it is now safe to at least partially open the Lehigh Valley economy back up, with some restrictions in place.
To search interactive maps and view other information about COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, visit the Department of Health website.