It might not be correct to say face masks are back in style in Northampton County, but like it or not, wearing them is once again a requirement in all county buildings.
County executive Lamont McClure last week issued a directive reinstating the face mask policy on Aug. 6, after new COVID-19 cases in the county spiked.
Visitors to county buildings must also submit to temperature checks upon entering them.
“It is unfortunate that the county must re-impose its face mask policy, but with the number of cases rising and the increase in hospitalizations, it is necessary to protect public health,” McClure said in a statement. “I encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated. The sooner we reach herd immunity, the sooner we can break the back of this pandemic.”
The most recent death due to COVID-19 in the county was on Aug. 6, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health dashboard, and seven county residents have succumbed to the virus over the past two months.
As of Tuesday, Northampton County led the state in the average number of new cases per 100,000 residents, with more than 20 cases being reported each day. With a population of 310,000 that means the county is confirming more than 60 new COVID cases a day.
Approximately 59 percent of county residents have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, and roughly 53 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the latest data.
In late July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) changed its guidance regarding masking, which it had previously said could be stopped if individuals were fully vaccinated. Under the new recommendations, even vaccinated people are urged to wear masks in public indoor spaces to help reduce the spread of the highly-transmissable Delta variant.
Unvaccinated people should continue to mask in all public spaces, according to the CDC.
In partnership with Lehigh Valley Health Network, Northampton County operates a drive-thru COVID vaccination and testing center for residents at 3100 Emrick Blvd. in Bethlehem Township. The center is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Tuesday and Thursday from 2 to 6 p.m. Vaccinations are available by appointment only and only for Northampton County residents ages 12 and over. Patients can choose from all three approved vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. Pfizer and Moderna require two shots administered three weeks apart, while the Johnson & Johnson shot is a single-dose vaccine. More information about scheduling an appointment at the county site may be found online.
On Monday, Lehigh Valley Health Network, St. Luke’s University Health Network and Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network jointly announced that all of their employees must receive the COVID vaccine, with the Morning Call reporting that St. Luke’s is requiring roughly 2,200 employees who have held out to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 25, Good Shepherd is requiring all of its employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 15 and Lehigh Valley Health Network is requiring its remaining unvaccinated workers to get their COVID shots within eight weeks of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration fully approving a vaccine.
On Facebook, some Saucon Source readers–including some who self-identified as current or former health care workers–reacted angrily or skeptically to the news.
“Glad I no longer work for them,” said Wendy Kat. “They didn’t make us take the flu shot (you did have to wear a mask if you opted not to get it), but to force people to get an experimental shot that still allows you to contract and spread the disease is asinine.”
And Amy Weikert commented, “What a shame. I work in the ER and I’m still choosing no vaccine! We still have that right even if for a short period!”
An announcement by Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf Tuesday that all commonwealth employees in state health care facilities and high-risk congregate care facilities must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 7 or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing thereafter is only likely to further inflame those who oppose the vaccine. Wolf’s announcement also indicated that as of Sept. 7, “all new external hires in these facilities must be vaccinated before commencing employment.”
“Throughout the pandemic, we have learned that the COVID-19 virus thrives in settings where people live in close proximity such as congregate care,” Wolf said. “These individuals are often our most vulnerable Pennsylvanians who are unable to leave these facilities and rely on the direct care of the staff. … It is our responsibility to do our part to protect our most vulnerable neighbors and stop the spread of this highly contagious virus.”
With the vaccine still not approved for children under 12, and with many older children still unvaccinated, the fight over masking requirements for school children is also heating up locally, with numerous parents denouncing a proposed mask mandate at Monday night’s Southern Lehigh School Board meeting.
One parent who addressed the board compared a possible requirement for children to wear masks at school or on buses to the use of the yellow star by the Nazis to identify Jewish residents during World War II, while others claimed the masks make kids sick.
Another parent warned the board that a group of parents intend to sue the district if masks are required to be worn by students on district-owned transportation.
Other parents–including several who identified themselves as area physicians–urged the board to follow both CDC and health network guidance, which call for masking.
The board, which will next meet Aug. 23 at 7:30 p.m. in the Southern Lehigh High School cafeteria, also received a presentation containing the latest COVID data, which it was told is limited in part due to the fact that Lehigh County lacks a health department.