The Pennsylvania Department of Health has announced changes to its face mask mandate to reflect new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, but the relaxed restrictions only benefit individuals who are already fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and come amid a rise in new case numbers in parts of the Commonwealth.
Under the state’s amended health order, fully vaccinated individuals may now forego masks and physical distancing if they’re visiting with other fully vaccinated individuals or visiting “with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease” indoors. Fully vaccinated people may also refrain from quarantining and testing following a known exposure to COVID-19 if they are asymptomatic under the revised order, which took effect March 17.
Fully vaccinated individuals are defined as individuals who have received the second dose of a two-dose COVID vaccine or a single-dose COVID vaccine at least two weeks ago.
Fully vaccinated people should continue to wear a mask and practice physical distancing in public, and continue to avoid medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings the news release cautioned. They should also be tested if they experience COVID-19 symptoms, follow employer-issued guidance and follow travel requirements and recommendations.
“The vaccines that are currently available across the state and country are highly effective at protecting vaccinated people against severe and symptomatic COVID-19,” Acting Pennsylvania Secretary Alison Beam said Monday. “Research has shown that fully vaccinated people are less likely to have asymptomatic infection and potentially less likely to spread the virus that causes COVID-19 to others. However, there is still more to learn about how long protection lasts and how much vaccines protect against new variants of the virus, so some prevention measures will continue to be in place for all people, regardless of their vaccination status.”
Changes to the face mask mandate represent just the latest relaxation of restrictions in Pennsylvania, as more of the state continues to receive the vaccine. According to the website Covid Act Now, as of March 21 approximately 12.5 percent of Pennsylvanians were fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus and approximately 24.5 percent of state residents who are eligible had received at least one dose. Pennsylvania currently ranks 31st out of all 50 states in terms of the percentage of its population that has received at least one dose, and with the exception of Ohio, lags behind its neighboring states in terms of how many shots have been administered to its residents.
The Commonwealth is still in the first phase of its vaccine distribution effort–known as Phase 1a–which means many state residents are not yet eligible to receive it, even though new case numbers have begun to rise again, particularly in heavily-populated counties like Lehigh, Northampton and Bucks in the southeastern part of the state.
According to Covid Act Now data, as of Sunday the state was reporting an average of 2,927 new cases a day; a number that is based on seven-day rolling average of case counts. That’s approximately 500 more new cases per day than were reported March 8, when the average bottomed out at 2,432 new cases a day. The peak number for the metric came on Dec. 16, 2020, when the state average totaled more than 10,500 new cases a day.
Both Lehigh and Northampton counties are once again reporting new daily caseloads of more than one hundred, after their numbers fell earlier this month to levels not seen since early November. Along with Bucks County, both counties are categorized as “very high risk” under Covid Act Now’s risk assessment guidance due to rising new case counts.
“The number of new cases has slightly increased, and so has the statewide percent positivity, which is still concerning,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a news release about the latest numbers Monday.
The news release noted that substantial community transmission of COVID-19 is occurring in 25 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, including Lehigh, Northampton, Bucks, Montgomery, Berks, Carbon and Monroe.
For information about COVID-19 vaccinations in Pennsylvania, visit the Department of Health website.