The Pennsylvania Department of Health is urging residents to keep up the mitigation efforts as the fall wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pick up speed and break record case counts in the commonwealth.
The DOH confirmed that the Keystone State’s two-day total for COVID-19 reached a count of 6,311 additional positive cases, with 3,402 reported Monday, in addition to 2,909 cases reported on Sunday. Nine deaths linked to the coronavirus were also reported over those two days.
Increased case counts struck the commonwealth heavily over the past week, reaching a high-water mark with a report of 4,035 cases on Saturday, and officials are speculating that rates will continue to rise as the fall segues into winter.
“We don’t know exactly how long (until) the fall resurgence becomes the winter resurgence, and how long that’s going to last. I’m afraid I do not think that we have peaked,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said Monday, adding that the case increases seen in Pennsylvania reflect those observed across the country.
As of Monday, Pennsylvania has reported a statewide total count of 234,296 cases of COVID-19, with 9,024 deaths attributed to the virus.
“We are now seeing the highest case counts of the COVID-19 pandemic across Pennsylvania that we have seen since the beginning,” Levine said. “This is a sobering look at our current reality, as COVID-19 continues to impact our state and our country. What we are seeing in Pennsylvania is a direct reflection of what is occurring across the country, in almost every state.”
According to the DOH’s weekly Early Warning Monitoring Dashboard update, as of Nov. 5, Pennsylvania has seen a seven-day case increase of 15,989 cases. The previous seven-day increase was 13,486 cases, indicating 2,503 more new cases across the state over the past week as compared to the previous week.
The secretary of health also noted the increase of percent positivity in testing, which jumped from 6% last week to nearly 7% as of this week, according to the COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring Dashboard.
“That is one indicator how we know that the increase is not just due to increased testing, it’s due to an increased number of cases of COVID-19 in our counties and in our commonwealth,” Levine said.
Furthermore, another 12 counties reported a percent positivity rate in excess of 5% on Monday, elevating the statewide total to 52 counties with a concerning rate.
Community spread of COVID-19 is being observed across Pennsylvania, Levine added, with 47 counties on a watch list for increased cases, and 54 counties reporting increased case counts over the past week.
While increases have been noted at particular locations – correctional institutions, schools, colleges, nursing homes and so on – community spread that cannot be “pinpointed to one activity or one location” appears to be the norm.
“It is just prevalent in the community, and it is spreading in the community, and that is why the mitigation efforts that I am discussing, such as the masks, such as the hand washing and the social distancing, is so important everywhere in Pennsylvania to stop the spread,” Levine said.
The secretary of health reported 73% of the total COVID-19 cases in the commonwealth are considered recovered, “meaning that it has been more than 30 days past the patient’s positive test, or onset of symptoms,” though she noted “that number will naturally decrease with the high number of cases.”
Conversely, reports of COVID-19 “long haulers,” or those that deal with symptoms and effects of the virus even months after onset, continue to be reported.
Levine also pointed out that 1,735 individuals have been hospitalized in Pennsylvania due to COVID-19, a number the secretary said has been climbing, and had increased by over 500 patients as compared to last week’s figures.
“A CALL TO ACTION”
The secretary of health indicated that with the pandemic’s fall resurgence underway, it is integral that Pennsylvanians work together to prevent further spread of the virus.
“This is a call to action for everyone in Pennsylvania,” Levine said. “COVID-19 is right here, and we are at a critical point. We all need to take steps to prevent the spread of this virus, and if we don’t, we put ourselves, our families and our communities, and our health systems, at risk.”
Levine encouraged Pennsylvanians to adhere to the recommendations of public health professionals – including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams – including mask wearing, social distancing, and using the COVID Alert PA app. She also called upon Pennsylvanians to respond to information requests from contact tracers and investigators, as fewer and fewer individuals have been engaging in the information-gathering practice “that might just save a life.”
“We can through this, but it requires each of us working together, united, regardless of other differences,” Levine said.
Unfortunately, that does mean medical officials are suggesting that families avoid large or small gatherings, and opt instead to celebrate the upcoming holidays remotely.
“It’s a really challenging message, now that we’re entering November,” Levine said. “We’re getting closer to Thanksgiving, and then the holidays, with Christmas and Hannukah and Kwanzaa, but we are asking people to not get together, actually, with their loved ones and their friends. And I know that is really challenging, and it is a sacrifice, but it is not only large gatherings that contribute to the spread, it is actually relatively small gatherings.”
As far as areas where residents appear to be bucking mitigation efforts – sometimes as a form of political protest – Levine stressed that the DOH is working alongside officials and members of the community to work on those factors.
“This is not a partisan issue, this is not a political issue,” Levine said. “This is a public health issue. Wearing a mask is not a political statement, it’s a public health measure to protect yourself, to protect your family, your community, and eventually, the whole state.”
THE PFIZER VACCINE
The secretary of health also reiterated some elements of the commonwealth’s vaccine distribution and administration strategy, which was introduced last week, in light of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s Monday announcement that their formula has shown itself to be 90% effective in preventing the virus.
“We don’t know exactly when we’re going to see it, but it was a very positive announcement from Pfizer that their vaccine has been shown to be very effective – they said up to 90% effective,” Levine said. “They have finished their efficacy studies; they still haven’t finished all of their safety studies. They’re anticipating that maybe by the end of November, beginning of December.”
Once those studies are completed and the data is submitted to the federal government and the FDA for review and approved, the torch will be passed on to the DOH for the next steps of the process. However, as previously noted, some of the potential vaccines, including the Pfizer formula, will require special consideration for storage and distribution.
“We stand ready to distribute and administer the vaccine,” Levine said. “Now, the Pfizer vaccine is the one that is ultra-cold – that’s the one that (must be stored at) minus 70 to 80 degrees centigrade. It has to be kept on dry ice or in ultra-cold refrigeration units, so that poses challenges, but we’ve already reached out to hospitals and health systems to be able to accomplish that.”
Last week, Levine released information on the three-phased strategy that will be implemented once a vaccine is ready for release. The first phase to receive vaccinations will primarily consist of health care personnel, followed by vulnerable populations and the general public.
Levine noted that the DOH has its eye on half a dozen potential vaccines, including five which are in phase three trials. Pfizer and Moderna appear to be leading the pack, with Pfizer on track to seek an EUA by the end of the month.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, noted that Pfizer’s results were “just extraordinary,” exceeding even the wildest expectations.
“It’s going to have a major impact on everything we do with respect to COVID,” Fauci said in an Associated Press interview.
But while the commonwealth, the United States and the rest of the world await the arrival of an effective vaccine to fight COVID-19, medical experts continue to encourage mitigation efforts and information sharing in the quest to defeat the pandemic.
“We are all together united – answering the call when we wear a mask, when we wash our hands, when we social distance, when we avoid large and small gatherings, and we download the COVID-19 app,” Levine said. “We must all stand united in our fight, our collective fight, against COVID-19.”