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UPMC not alarmed by rise in cases

Data ‘indicates we’re doing a good job’ protecting vulnerable

The number of coronavirus cases in western Pennsylvania has risen abruptly over the past few weeks, but most of those infected have been young and healthy, and so far there has been no alarming increase in hospitalizations or deaths, according to UPMC officials.

“We don’t take the news (of the increasing number of positives) lightly,” said Graham Snyder, medical director for infection prevention and epidemiology, in a virtual press conference Thursday. “But the data indicates we’re doing a good job” protecting those who are most vulnerable — the frail elderly and those with comorbidities.

Still, it remains critical that everyone follow state Department of Health guidelines for masking when near others not of one’s household, for physical distancing, for washing hands and for staying home when feeling ill, said Snyder, who accidentally illustrated one of those points by forgetting at first to remove his mask to talk, because masking has become a habit.

“Masking all day is not convenient,” Snyder said. “But we need to keep this up.”

While healthy younger people are not nearly as vulnerable as the vast majority of the 6,848 who’ve died of the virus in Pennsylvania, they can still get the virus and pass it on to others in a chain that can infect those for whom the virus is fatal, according to Snyder and Donald Yealy, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine.

There has been an increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19, “but the severe cases are nowhere near” what happened during the initial phase of the pandemic, Yealy said.

“That doesn’t mean it still couldn’t happen,” given the “lag time” between positive tests and severe symptoms, he said.

But if was going to happen, it should have started already, he said.

He’s convinced it won’t happen, if health systems like UPMC work with the public health agencies and everyone cooperates on the “simple” protections, he said.

It may be helping that the strain of virus prevalent in the area seems to be less lethal — though more infectious — than strains prevalent elsewhere, he said.

While testing frequency has increased, it will never be possible to test everyone often enough to know who all may have the virus, so anyone can be carrying it, and asymptomatic — and presymptomatic — people can be contagious, even if the asymptomatic ones aren’t as highly contagious as those with full-blown illness, Snyder said.

For now, the likelihood of carrying the virus without symptoms in UPMC communities remains low, with the positive test rate for patients appearing for procedures and screenings holding at 0.27 percent, Snyder said.

It remains safe to come into the hospital — and it’s unsafe to put off important medical care for potential issues like high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer, Yealy indicated.

Not only should people abide by the DoH guidance, but they should cooperate when contact tracers get in touch, Yealy said.

“We’ve heard about people who won’t respond,” he stated. “But this is beyond Big Brother or personal rights.”

It’s how “we can protect all of us,” he said.

The public health authorities have moved from their initial broad restrictions to “precision interventions” like the recent restoration of an order prohibiting in-person patronage of bars and restaurants in Allegheny County, Yealy said.

Businesses and organizations have been opening for weeks, while others, like amusement parks are opening now, and will abide by their safety plans, even as scientists learn more and try to help society adapt, according to Yealy and Tami Minnier, chief quality officer.

It’s a matter of vigilance, leadership and sustaining the effort, Minnier said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

By the numbers

New/total county cases: Blair 3/93 (1 death); Bedford 1/91 (4 deaths); Cambria 3/113 (3 deaths); Centre 3/235 (8 deaths); Clearfield 0/82; Huntingdon 0/254 (4 deaths, although SCI-Huntingdon has reported 5)

Area new/total cases: 10/868

New/total cases statewide: 719 (down 15 percent)/92,867 (77 percent recovered), 635 positive serology tests

New/total deaths statewide: 36/6,848

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