PublicSource has been tracking COVID-19’s spread on a daily basis since March 2020. More than a year later, in an effort to direct our resources into enterprise reporting on the pandemic and other important issues, we will cover the Allegheny County Health Department’s weekly briefing on Wednesdays and update the numbers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We may adjust as the prevalence of the coronavirus ebbs and flows. If you have questions or comments, please email PublicSource’s managing editor firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key update: On May 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings. The new masking guidelines have been adopted by Pennsylvania and are immediately in effect.
“Today’s guidance from the CDC affects only people who are fully vaccinated,” Pennsylvania's Acting Secretary Alison Beam said. “This is another incentive to get the vaccine that is now easily and conveniently available. Once 70 percent of Pennsylvanians over 18 are fully vaccinated, we can completely lift the masking order.”
For more information on the CDC guidance, visit here.
The new guidance generated quite a bit of confusion because of caveats and applications as local businesses are scrambling to decide whether to follow the new federal masking protocol. Giant Eagle, for example, said that masks are still required in their stores. "At Giant Eagle, the health and well-being of our Team Members and guests remains our top priority. As we actively evaluate the shifts in state and CDC guidance, we will continue to require anyone working or shopping in our stores to wear a mask or face covering," spokesperson Dick Roberts said in a statement.
Port Authority of Allegheny County of Allegheny County also issued a clarifying statement saying "masks are still required to be worn on public transit vehicles."
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh announced on Friday that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask to Masses or any other gatherings on parish property.
Allegheny County Health Department’s May 12 briefing
Amid more vaccine injections and fewer COVID-19 cases and approaching a near-full reopening of Pennsylvania, Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen said the county will soon enter a new phase of the pandemic.
“I wish I had a crystal ball to tell everyone exactly what will happen starting May 31 with the lifting of mitigation orders. Of course, I don’t,” Bogen said in a press briefing Wednesday. “But I do have our shared knowledge from the first 14 months of the pandemic, and that knowledge tells us we are best when we work together.”
By Bogen’s count, the county has braved five different phases of the pandemic, starting with the uncertain, frightening start of the pandemic, then the small returns to travel and gatherings, then the news of the vaccines, followed by the horrible winter and now the current phase, marked by the start of the vaccine rollout. The sixth phase, she said, will begin once the state lifts almost all of the existing mitigation orders at the end of the month.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration announced Tuesday that it will increase occupancy limits at indoor gatherings to 50% and outdoor gatherings to 75%. Then, on May 31, Wolf will lift all mitigation orders other than the mask mandate, which he says the state will eliminate once at least 70% of the state’s adults have been vaccinated.
In Allegheny County, daily case counts continue weeks of steady decreases, now at an average of about 170 a day. Bogen seemed to carefully choose the word “encouraging” to describe this.
“I use the word ‘encouraging’ because, while we certainly can, and I hope will, further lower our daily case counts, we haven’t seen daily numbers consistently under 200 since October of 2020,” Bogen said.
Getting the county’s caseload under control will require more residents to get vaccinated. Among young people in particular, the county has “quite a bit of work to do,” Bogen said. The adoption of the vaccines in Allegheny County differs greatly among age groups:
- 96% of those 65 and older
- 83% of those 50-64
- 62% of those 35-49
- 51% of those 20-35
- 27% of those 16-19
Following authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, the Pfizer vaccine will soon be administered across the country to children 12 to 15 years old.
And some local institutions will soon require vaccinations to enter, including Carnegie Mellon University, which will mandate all of its students be vaccinated in order to return in the fall. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said at the Wednesday press briefing that he strongly supports CMU and any other college requiring vaccination, as it promotes public health and falls in line with advice from medical experts.
While governments have largely avoided vaccination mandates, participating in society will soon become difficult for those who refuse to be vaccinated because of decisions by private organizations like this, he said.
“It’s just gonna be very difficult for individuals to operate through many, many functions of society if they refuse to follow the science,” Fitzgerald said.
(For more information or help with scheduling an appointment through Allegheny County’s Area Agency on Aging, residents can call 412-350-4234.)