Is it the result of increased testing? Is it because restrictions on gatherings have been loosened and more businesses have opened under guidance from state health authorities? Is it because people are bringing the virus home with them from vacations?
Nobody seems to know the answer why, but the fact is that new COVID-19 case counts continue to creep up in parts of Pennsylvania; a trend that is also occurring nationally, prompting concern that the coronavirus pandemic’s so-called “second wave” is about to strike. Evidence of this may be found in the fact that Allegheny County officials ordered bars to close and liquor service in restaurants to cease as of Tuesday, after the county witnessed a large spike in new cases over the past week. Statewide, declining case counts that were a decided trend earlier this month have been replaced by a very slow uptick in new cases, as reported daily by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Over the past week the New York Times–which monitors coronavirus case counts for its interactive tracking maps–moved Pennsylvania from its list of states where new cases are decreasing to its list of states where new cases are “mostly the same,” and then finally–over the weekend–to its list of states were new cases are increasing. Approximately two-thirds of the 50 states are on that list as of Monday, and some–such as Arizona, Texas and Florida–are reporting astronomical increases in the number of new cases of COVID-19. In fact, the governors of Texas and Florida have reversed some reopening measures, as a result of the dramatic spike in new cases that’s occurring.
Pennsylvania has not seen such a spike, however many of the state’s most populous counties–including Lehigh and Northampton–only moved to the less restrictive ‘green’ phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan on Friday. As a result, inside dining areas and bars in the southeastern part of the state have only been open for several days. Inside and outside, in the Lehigh Valley and other newly-green counties gatherings of up to 250 people are now permitted, although individuals are encouraged to wear face masks if they cannot maintain a safe social distance of six feet from other individuals. By contrast, Allegheny and other western Pennsylvania counties have been designated green for nearly a month, and that is where the biggest spikes in new cases are now being seen.
In a news release Sunday, Wolf voiced support for the actions of Allegheny County officials in response to the increased caseload.
“I commend Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen for the decision to shut down bars and restaurants for on-premises alcohol sales in Allegheny County effective June 30,” Wolf said. “This was the right move to work to stop the recent spike of COVID-19 cases in its tracks and to remind all residents and businesses that the best defense we have in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping Pennsylvanians safe is to continue to follow the mask-wearing requirement, practice social distancing and follow safety guidelines even and especially during the green phase of reopening.”
“We cannot become complacent in practicing the measures we know can protect everyone from the spread of this very contagious virus,” he added, but made no request that officials in other counties experiencing significant increases in new cases follow Allegheny County’s lead.
Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine have continued to request compliance by all Pennsylvania residents with Levine’s April 15 order that requires employees and customers in businesses to wear face masks, unless they are unable to do so for medical reasons.
No proof is required if an individual asserts that they have a medical condition, and whether to ask someone why they’re not wearing a face mask has been left to the discretion of business owners. Many business owners are reticent to approach customers who are not wearing masks, since there is no state system in place to enforce the order.
As of Monday, the New York Times highlighted 16 counties in Pennsylvania where case counts are now increasing at various rates: Allegheny, Washington, Beaver, Mercer, Butler, Westmoreland, Somerset, Bedford, Centre, York, Lancaster, Dauphin, Northumberland, Lackawanna, Monroe, and Lehigh.
The news company bases its county-by-county analyses on a 14-day trend that compares the current seven-day average for new cases in the county with the seven-day average for new cases two weeks ago.
In Lehigh County, new cases have increased by 50 percent since June 15 (from an average of 12 per day to an average of 18 per day), while in Monroe County new cases have increased by more than 300 percent (from an average of 1.3 per day to an average of 4.1 per day).
In Allegheny County, new cases have increased by approximately 500 percent since June 15.
In Northampton County the new caseload now compared with the new caseload two weeks ago on June 15 is flat, with an average of 11 new cases being reported daily in both cases. New case counts in Bucks County are also essentially flat.
Statewide, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 492 new cases of COVID-19 Monday; 508 new cases on Sunday; 495 new cases on Saturday; 611 new cases on Friday; 604 new cases on Thursday; 584 new cases on Wednesday; and 492 cases on Tuesday, June 23. That equates to an average of approximately 541 new cases per day over the past week. Two weeks ago, on June 15, the average number of new cases reported during the prior week was 403 cases per day. The increase from 403 cases per day to an average of 541 cases per day represents an increase of approximately 34 percent, according to the methodology that is being used to monitor increasing case counts at the county level.
According to the tracking site Worldometer, in terms of the number of COVID-19 tests conducted per capita in Pennsylvania, the state ranks 46th out of 50 states. Only Kansas, Colorado, Oregon and Idaho–all of which have had far fewer cases and deaths linked to coronavirus–have conducted fewer tests on a per capita basis.
As of Monday, per the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there have been a total of 85,988 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, along with 6,614 deaths from the disease to date.