Pennsylvania is not ruling out further restrictions to stop the rising case counts of the coronavirus, which are surging in the state due to community spread but also more widespread testing.
The state's health department reported 5,488 daily new cases Thursday, for a total of 248,856 since the beginning of the epidemic.
“We are now seeing the highest case counts of COVID-19 from the beginning of the pandemic across Pennsylvania, and across the United States,” Health Secretary Rachel Levine said in a virtual news briefing.
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“With case counts at 3,000, 4,000 and now more than 5,000 new cases per day, it is more important than ever for Pennsylvanians to do their part," Levine said. "For Pennsylvanians to answer the call. First to literally answer the call if the Department of Health is calling for case investigations and contact tracing. But also, more broadly, to answer the call to do their part, to wear a mask, to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer, to social distance, to avoid large gatherings and now actually to avoid small gatherings."
Besides case counts, the positivity rate is up, and 52 of the state's 67 counties have a positivity rate above 5%. Statewide, the positivity rate is near 7%.
There was no news of further restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus, but Levine said the state looks at the positivity rate as one of the measures to judge whether to impose restrictions. "The kind of cutoff that we've used in the past is 5%...and then of course we look at the incidence rate, the number of new cases per 100,000 per capita, and we look at that per week and over 2 weeks."
Another consideration is the load on the hospital systems. The state reported 142 new hospitalizations Thursday. In total, 2,080 people are now hospitalized from the virus in Pennsylvania, a number that Levine said has been “steadily climbing."
There are 438 patients in intensive care units and 193 patients on ventilators.
"Our health systems are not overwhelmed by any means at this point," Levine said, but the state is keeping in touch with hospitals "to make sure that no particular hospital is overwhelmed."
She also shared some optimism, saying the state and hospitals are better equipped to treat the virus than the spring, and the state's rate of patients on ventilators - 9% - is less than the national average of 12%.
"We also have therapeutics now that we did not have before. We have remdesivir, we have dexamethasone, a steroid used to decrease inflammation. We have the new release of monoclonal antibodies, and we are working to distribute those this week to hospitals and health systems. That'll actually be pre-hospital care for those who are sick but not that ill."
The state and hospitals also have far more personal protective equipment stockpiled than last time, after states were competing for PPE in the spring and the national stockpile was stretched thin.
Pennsylvania, like many others, is seeing challenges with people not answering the phone with contact tracers, or not being forthcoming with information if they do speak to a tracer.
Dr. Michael Huff, who heads the state's contact tracing program, reminded the public that tracers respect patient confidentiality, and they only ask their questions to make sure they reach everyone who may need to quarantine due to virus exposure.
In a 14-day quarantine, someone should wear a mask when around others and keep a distance of more than 6 feet. Someone who doesn't know they were exposed may then spread it to someone else, such as a person with serious health needs who is at a higher risk of severe illness or death.
“You might save a life by being honest about the places you’ve been and who you’ve visited" when talking to a contact tracer, Levine said.