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Blair County COVID-19 cases surge

Doctor: Masks, distancing essential for containment

Picture a bowl of 100 pieces of candy, two or three infused with a poison that would kill you.

If you wanted something sweet, would you take the chance?

People who continue to flout the COVID-19 masking, social distancing and handwashing directives from the state are doing just that, not only for themselves but for others they may not know, according to Dr. George Zlupko of Altoona Lung Specialists. Zlupko was asked to comment on a recent surge of cases in Blair County — 60 in the past week, the most since the pandemic began.

“I see a ton of people not paying attention to any of this,” Zlupko said, speaking of trips to the supermarket or farmers markets. “Not nearly enough.”

About 30 percent of people here and nationwide are compliant with mitigation guidance, but 70 to 80 percent is necessary “to see impact on the spread of the disease,” Zlupko said.

People are entitled to their opinions about COVID-19, but it’s a fact that 5 million people in the U.S. have been infected and 160,000 have died, based on data collected by government agencies — not someone spreading rumors “on the odd internet channel,” Zlupko said.

“What about that is a hoax?” he asked rhetorically.

People may believe the coronavirus is not much different from the flu, but the death rate from the flu is about 0.1 percent, while the death rate for COVID-19 is 2 or 3 percent, he said.

People may think it’s a violation of their “civil rights” to be ordered to wear a mask, but “they don’t have the right to make me sick,” he said.

Beyond that, it would behoove people to wear a mask and socially distance if only to be “interested in helping their brothers and sisters,” he said.

People sacrificed before

COVID-19’s mitigation demands are clearly painful, especially for businesses that have had to close, according to Zlupko.

But people in the U.S. had to sacrifice during World War II, with rationing of gasoline and other products and shortages of meat, he said.

“It’s truly unfortunate for a lot of people what has to be done (now), but it has to be done,” he said.

It won’t last forever, he added.

Currently, it’s hard to tell the prevalence of COVID-19, due to testing shortfalls, according to Zlupko.

Additional testing that has been done in Blair County has ferreted out more cases, but the picture is hardly growing definitive, especially given that an estimated 40 percent of those infected are asymptomatic, Zlupko said.

One testing problem is the five- to seven-day wait (and longer) for results, which, coupled with limitations on employee vacation and sick days has created disincentives for many to get tested, Zlupko said.

One person he talked to recently isn’t allowed to take more than 10 consecutive vacation days, and so would be reluctant to get tested, because that would mean taking off for the time it takes to get a result — and then an additional two weeks at least, if the result were positive, Zlupko said.

That would likely mean getting fired, he said.

Another person he talked to declined a test to avoid the possibility of disrupting an upcoming vacation, he said.

Others may lack health insurance and couldn’t afford the care.

“For many people, (there’s) an incentive not to know,” he said.

It would help if an accurate test that gives quick results becomes available, he said.

But even with such disincentives, it’s still irresponsible for people who think they may have the disease to forego testing and behave as if they are fine — thus potentially infecting others, according to Zlupko.

Common sense should prevail

While there’s no law, “common sense and our duty to ourselves and our families and our community” should prevail, he said.

Only six counties statewide saw more new cases than Blair last week, although Blair’s positivity rate is 3.5 percent over the past seven days, “which is still a low number,” said state Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle, when asked to comment on the surge.

Authorities generally say that a positivity rate over 5 percent is a concern.

UPMC continues to be “prepared and well-equipped to care for any patients who need it, for any medical reason,” stated UPMC Altoona spokeswoman Danielle Sampsell in an email commenting on the surge.

“Across UPMC, the number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization occupy less than 2% of our bed capacity,” she wrote.

In the U.S., UPMC is treating 158 COVID inpatients — 97 in southwest Pennsylvania, 10 in northwest Pennsylvania, five in northcentral Pennsylvania and 46 in southcentral Pennsylvania and Maryland, according to Sampsell.

UPMC’s Altoona specimen collection site on Pleasant Valley Boulevard has generated 6,139 COVID-19 tests — 143 of them positive, for a 2.3 percent positivity rate, Sampsell said.

The positivity rate for patients coming to UPMC facilities for procedures — every one of those is asymptomatic — is 0.25 percent, meaning that 99.975 percent of such tests are negative, according to Sampsell.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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