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State’s COVID-19 cases show signs of slowing

HARRISBURG — Christmas has come and gone, and while we won’t know for at least a week or two if Pennsylvanians heeded government warnings about the COVID-19 risks of large and small gathering during the holiday, the state’s virus-related numbers vastly improved through this past week and weekend.

For the week of Dec. 18 through Dec. 24, the state Health Department’s COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard, updated Friday afternoon, showed the seven-day total of new cases was 10,321 fewer than the prior seven-day period of Dec. 11 through Dec. 17, which reported 4,371 fewer new cases than the prior seven-day period of Dec. 4 through Dec. 10. Pennsylvania is still experiencing sizable numbers of new cases — for the most-recent seven-day period recorded by the dashboard, a total of 47,813 new cases were reported — but the latest reported seven-day total is the lowest since the start of December.

Even into the weekend, daily case totals continued to be smaller than prior weeks, with Saturday’s report showing 4,728 new virus cases, the lowest daily total reported since Nov. 29, when the total was 4,400. Prior to the slowdown in new cases of the past two weeks, daily totals were routinely in excess of 10,000, with several days above 11,000 and 12,000.

The accelerated slowing of reported new cases helped to drop the state’s seven-day test positivity (the number of people testing positive divided by the number of people tested) for Dec. 18 through Dec. 24 to 15.1% compared with 15.8% a week earlier. Health experts have said a test positivity level in excess of 5% indicates substantial virus transmission, though higher levels could also suggest the need for more testing.

Testing has continued to drop off compared to the highs seen during the early days of December, with the most-recent seven-day period reported by the early warning dashboard having had a bit more than 394,000 tests conducted; that’s down from the prior week’s more than 435,000 tests and the more than 449,000 tests from the week before that. Some of the recent case total slowdown could be attributed to the decline in testing, but with test positivity still dropping, reduced testing doesn’t appear to be the primary contributing factor.

And, as noted by Capitolwire in recent weeks, the impact of slowing new cases is being seen in the slowing of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

For the first time in a while, the early warning dashboard illustrated a reduction of the seven-day average for hospitalizations, statewide, of 59.5. While the growth in hospitalizations has been slowing for the past couple of weeks, this is the first decline of the seven-day average since late September.

A similar trend is illustrated by the 14-day average, as reported on the state Health Department’s main COVID-19 data dashboard: As of Sunday, Dec. 27, the 14-day COVID-19 hospitalization average is 6,091.4, which is slightly higher than the 5,962.3 of a week earlier (Dec. 20), but reflects a second-straight day of declining hospitalizations, with Friday’s average having been 6,105.6 and Saturday’s having been 6,096.

The improvement has been statewide, with the state Health Department showing on its “Reduction of Elective Procedures Dashboard” that each of Pennsylvania’s seven health coalition regions is reporting a decline of COVID-19 hospital admissions during the past 48 hours.

With total virus hospitalizations as of Sunday, Dec. 27, sitting at 5,905 (which is 169 fewer than a week earlier, when it was 6,074), it appears the declining trends for the seven-day and 14-day average have room to continue, though that won’t last long if the daily total starts to climb.

The improving hospitalization situation has even begun to have a positive impact on the 14-day moving average of the number of available intensive care unit beds statewide, with that total having increased to 585.5 as of Sunday, up from 577.4 a week ago and a low of 571 reported on Christmas Eve; there are currently 4,564 staffed adult ICU beds statewide and 1,145 are being used by COVID-19 patients.

Apparent concerns regarding the state’s hospitals being overwhelmed in December, based on some statistical models, seem to have been, as they were in the spring, overestimated, though some individual hospitals and health systems are definitely under significant stress. One model that Pennsylvania officials said they are relying on — the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation — forecast the state could run out of ICU beds in early December. On Nov. 30, prior to the virus case surge state officials are associating with Thanksgiving, the 14-day average of available ICU beds was 755.6.

Sunday’s statewide COVID-19 hospitalization total is about 2.6% of the total number of active COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, which is down from last week’s 2.8%, the 2.95% it was two weeks ago, and the 3.1-to-3.2-% range it was early in December.

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