Virus Outbreak Pennsylvania

A shopper looks over basil at the Farmers Market on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Thursday July 16, 2020. (Mark Moran/The Citizens' Voice via AP)

Just a few weeks ago, Mercer County appeared to have had COVID-19 on the run. 

Through the entire month of June, the county had only 30 new cases. It has almost matched that total in the last two days.

Thursday’s report by the state Department of Health included six new cases in the county, and a fatality — the third in 10 days.

The death was the county’s ninth COVID-19 fatality, according to the state’s count, but Mercer County Coroner John Libonati said two of the deaths shouldn’t be included. One was the death of an out-of-state resident who died in Mercer County, and the other never showed any symptoms and was not tested, but a physician listed COVID-19 as a “possible” cause of death.

After 20 new cases Tuesday and six on Wednesday, the county has had 282 total COVID-19 infections, with 247 confirmed and 35 probable. Of that total, more than one-third — 107 cases — have come in the past 10 days, since July 13.

Tuesday’s total of 20 new cases was the highest single-day mark since the virus arrived in Mercer County on March 22. Before the current surge in cases, the largest one-day increase was eight cases, on April 6, May 15 and July 3. 

The county’s caseload has increased by more than eight cases six times since July 13. There have been three COVID-19 fatalities in that span, after no deaths between May 17 and July 14.

Trumbull County

The Trumbull County Combined Health District reported 14 new COVID-19 cases and one fatality Thursday. The county has had a total of 1,236 cases and 90 deaths.

Two people remain hospitalized in the county, and 86 people are in quarantine. Trumbull County residents are in Level 2 (orange alert), and effective 6 p.m. Thursday, everyone 10 years and older is required to wear face coverings in public spaces, including outdoor areas other than residences.

Pennsylvania

The state had 962 new cases in Thursday’s Health Department Report, for a total of 104,358. More than one-third of that total came from Allegheny County, with 147 cases, and Philadelphia, with 311. Philadelphia did not report cases on for Wednesday’s Health Department release, so its report Thursday was a two-day total.

The state reported 16 fatalities, for a total of 7,079.

Surge threatens school reopening

Every region of Pennsylvania has seen an increase in the rate of positive coronavirus cases, and failing to stop that could jeopardize the reopening of schools for the fall semester, the state’s top health official said Thursday.

In addition, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the majority of counties have seen increases in the number of new cases.

“It’s critical to drive down the case counts now in terms of the rise of new cases in order to prepare for schools to reopen,” Levine said during a news conference Thursday. “If we don’t do that now, that would put that in jeopardy.”

In response to the rise in new cases, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration last week imposed a new round of restrictions targeting bars, restaurants, nightclubs and indoor gatherings to slow the virus’ spread.

The order closed nightclubs and reduced bars and restaurants from 50% capacity to 25% capacity, while requiring that alcohol be served only with meals. That meant that some bars must close. Some restaurants did as well, saying they would only lose money at 25% capacity.

Wolf’s order also clamped down on indoor events and gatherings, reducing that limit from 250 people to 25. Places of worship are exempt.

The Democrat’s handling of the virus has drawn harsh criticism from Republican lawmakers. Restaurant and bar owners have questioned why the order was so broad, rather than simply shutting down establishments that were flouting mask requirements and social distancing guidelines.

President Donald Trump’s administration backed up the Wolf administration’s approach in some ways this week.

The White House sent Wolf’s administration a nine-page document Monday that cited rising cases in Allegheny County — a July virus hot spot — and recommended that bars be closed and indoor dining limited until there is a decrease in the positivity rate and new cases.

It also recommended keeping a mask mandate in place. The White House rates Pennsylvania in its yellow zone, the middle-of-the-road rating between its red and green zones for the spread of the virus.

In July, Pennsylvania’s 14-day rate of new cases per 100,000 residents has risen by more than 50%, from below 60 to 90.

The seven-day positivity rate — based on the Health Department’s daily public disclosures of the number of people who are newly confirmed to be positive and the number of people who tested negative — has gradually increased in July, from about 4.5% to 5.8%.

Deaths have declined from June to July, although hospitalizations are on the rise in July, according to state data.

The Department of Health reported more than 960 additional confirmed virus cases Thursday and 16 new deaths. The virus has infected more than 104,000 people in Pennsylvania since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 7,000 have died, most of them in nursing homes.

Levine said the data available to the Department of Health shows that the virus is spreading primarily to people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are getting together in bars, restaurants and nightclubs. It is a trend, she said, being seen throughout the country and backed up by the White House’s observations.

Health officials in Philadelphia and Allegheny County have independently cited contact tracing information in line with that trend, as well.

Levine also warned of rising case counts in states along the East Coast.

“There are obviously significant outbreaks in Florida, in Arizona, in Texas, California now and other states, but we are seeing that come up the eastern seaboard,” Levine said. “There are increases in Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland, and so we’re not immune to the spread of this virus.”

Canceling parades

U.S Attorney William McSwain of Philadelphia told city officials that it is unconstitutional to allow spontaneous protests while canceling parades and large events as a safety measure against the spread of the coronavirus.

In a Wednesday letter, McSwain wrote that the city cannot pick and choose what speech to protect.

“The First Amendment protects peaceful public speech on any topic regardless of the views expressed, regardless of whether the government views the speech as important, and regardless of the popularity of the speech,” McSwain wrote.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced last week that the city would not grant permits to planned outdoor events with more than 50 people or 25 people for indoor events through the end of February. That effectively canceled iconic city events such as the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Mummers’ parade on New Year’s Day.

Kenney’s office disagreed with McSwain and said it hoped that the Trump administration — McSwain is the president’s appointee — is not trying to quell peaceful protests.

“We are trying to save lives, and we are confident that this approach protects the residents of this city from a surge in COVID-19 while safeguarding the Constitutional right to free speech,“ Kenney spokesperson Mike Dunn wrote in an email.