Pennsylvania won’t mandate face masks in public despite rising COVID-19 rates
The Pennsylvania Department of Health has no immediate plan to reinstate face mask mandates or other restrictions despite new updated federal health guidelines and rising COVID-19 infections in the state.
Amid slowed vaccination rates, public health and medical communities continue to push vaccines as the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID among people who are under or unvaccinated, who account for the vast majority of new infection cases.
Pennsylvania saw nearly 1,000 more new COVID cases confirmed between Monday and Tuesday, the highest one-day jump since mid-May. The prior week, 569 new cases were reported between July 20 and 21.
So far this month, more than 9,700 new COVID cases have been reported in the state compared to 8,844 for the first 28 days of last month.
Pennsylvania is not currently examining vaccination status among newly infected residents, but it intends to do further analysis of the impact, health department spokeswoman Maggi Barton said.
“We have no reason to believe that Pennsylvania would differ significantly from the national trend cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the vast majority of new cases are among unvaccinated or partially vaccinated,” she added.
The number of confirmed COVID cases in the state jumped from 1,542 to 2,393 in the last two weeks. Positive rates increased from 12 per 100,000 residents to nearly 19.
The number of residents testing positive for COVID-19 with PCR tests — considered the most accurate testing measure — jumped from 1.7% to 2.6% in seven days, according to health data.
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The medical community and scientists maintain that the vast majority of new infection cases are among individuals who indicated they are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. Estimates are 97% of COVID-related hospitalizations are among people who are unvaccinated, according to the CDC.
While available studies suggest people who are fully vaccinated are at a low risk of contracting COVID, even the highly contagious and widely circulating delta variant, they can spread the illness.
Fully vaccinated people who test positive for COVID — a phenomenon known as breakthrough illness — typically experience mild or no symptoms, according to scientists.
But they have a similar viral load to infections in unvaccinated people and they can spread the illness, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has said.
Available scientific data has shown a correlation between increased vaccination rates and lower COVID-19 case counts, according to the CDC. Create Account
As of this week, 61% of Pennsylvania residents eligible for a vaccine were fully vaccinated, health data shows. The number reflects only residents who were vaccinated in the state.
Most scientists consider herd immunity, which slows opportunities for virus spread and mutation, is achieved when 70% of the population is fully vaccinated.
The closest Pennsylvania counties to reaching that threshold are Montour, Lehigh, Chester, Allegheny, Lackawanna and Forest counties, which each have at least 60% of residents fully vaccinated.
As of July 22, the counties with the highest percentage of positive PCR tests for COVID are Crawford (16.2%), Cameron (12%), Lawrence (7%), Wyoming (6.4%) and Monroe (6.4%), according to health data. Wyoming County is the only one of those counties with more than 50% of residents fully vaccinated.
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While the Wolf Administration is not considering mandating face masks in public places, that doesn’t prevent local public and private sectors from requiring them. The CDC now is recommending even fully vaccinated individuals where masks indoors.
“Businesses, and local governments may adopt stricter COVID prevention strategies,” the health department’s Barton said.
Some businesses across the state already are doing so.
Earlier this month Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, the parent company of hospitals in the Philadelphia region, including St. Mary Medical Center in Bucks County, joined a growing number of health care providers in announcing it would require most employees and those doing business in its facilities to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
COVID infection rates among Pennsylvania health care workers have more than doubled this month, according to an analysis of health data. Among all health care workers, there were 192 new positive cases reported over the last two weeks compared to 68 in the first two weeks of July.
St. Mary Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Trina Abla confirmed the hospital has seen an increase in COVID-19 patients this month, which it attributes to the spread of the delta variant. The number of positive COVID patients has more than tripled in the last six weeks, though the hospital did not provide numbers.
“An overwhelming majority of these patients are unvaccinated, and while the increase is small, it is concerning,” Abla said.
In Bucks County, a little more than half of residents are fully vaccinated as of this week. The county saw the number of new cases more than double from 169 the first two weeks of July to 430 for the most recent two weeks, according to county data. The county had 309 new cases of COVID for all of June.
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The number of residents with positive PCR tests increased from 1.7% to 2.3% in a week.
Under age 18 are averaging two to three new COVID cases a day, a slight increase from one to two new cases daily last month, said county spokesman Larry King.
Bucks County has no immediate plans to require face mask requirements be reinstituted.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ronak Bhimani of Lower Bucks Hospital in Bucks County said there is no question that vaccinations have reduced COVID-related hospitalizations and ventilator use.
“We can’t say this enough — everybody needs to be vaccinated,” he added.
Bhimami anticipated more private and public employers may require workers to get vaccinated, if the rate of transmission doesn’t slow down.
In the southern U.S., where Bhimami said he has colleagues, fewer than 50% of residents are vaccinated and hospitals there are getting slammed with new COVID patients, he said. He has heard stories about unvaccinated patients hospitalized with COVID requesting the vaccine.
“It totally shows people we’re not done with this yet,” he added. “It’s certainly come a long way and we’re not out of the woods yet.”