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Region prepared for virus uptick

Saturday marked the 19th consecutive day Pennsylvania has reported more than 1,000 new positive cases of COVID-19, and area health care officials said the surge is being felt locally.

“Those numbers are indicative of what we are seeing across the Lehigh Valley,” said Dr. Alex Benjamin, Chief Infection Control Officer for Lehigh Valley Health Network. “Businesses are opening back up and allowing indoor dining, kids are back at school, and large gatherings tend to be taking place again. There are a number of factors at play.”

Locally, the biggest impact is being felt in Schuylkill County, which has seen 359 new cases over the past two weeks. That spike, as of Friday, has led to a 150.6 incidence rate per 100,000 residents and a 7.5% PCR positivity, putting it at the “substantial” level for community transmission, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Schuylkill is one of 11 counties listed as a “county to watch” for COVID-19 cases by the governor’s office.

“In April and May, Schuylkill County was not impacted to the level that we saw in Northampton or Lehigh County,” Benjamin said. “Given that, one thing that could be happening is that areas who saw bigger numbers at the start may be more hesitant now about not participating in measures such as social distancing or mask wearing.”

As of Monday, Pennsylvania reported 1,104 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 and 115 patients on ventilators. According to the COVID-19 dashboard, there were 66 patients hospitalized in Lehigh County with seven on ventilators, 22 patients hospitalized in Schuylkill County, three patients hospitalized in Northampton County, four patients hospitalized in Monroe County and one in Carbon County.

“There has been a slight uptick in intensive care patients, but it is nothing that is overwhelming the network or that has spurred the need to open more ICU beds or buy more ventilators,” Benjamin said.

In fact, he added, LVHN has been preparing for the current surge in COVID-19 cases since June.

“As soon as the original numbers started going down, we were getting ready for what you’re seeing right now,” Benjamin said. “We started to make sure we stocked up on things like personal protective equipment, sedatives to keep people comfortable if they are on the ventilators, sterilizers, disinfectants, etc. We partnered with HNL Lab Medicine to help increase the testing capacity and can now do that rapid testing in our emergency rooms.”

Pa. Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine added, “We expect those numbers to increase as hospitalizations normally rise a few weeks after an increase in cases.”

She said the state is well below the numbers in spring at the peak when more than 3,000 were hospitalized.

“Our health care systems are also much better prepared to address the virus than they were in the spring,” Levine said.

Time has proved helpful in the battle against COVID-19 and has also seemed to ease people’s concerns about seeking treatment for other issues. In the spring and early summer, health care providers urged patients not to neglect non-COVID-19 conditions and that advice, Benjamin said, is taking hold.

“In April and May, people with other conditions thought twice about coming to the hospital,” he said. “But now we’re seeing patients no longer ignoring chest pains, heart failure, asthma and things like that. We now know we can control COVID inside the hospitals so our numbers for other issues are going up as well.”

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? The U.S. CDC has asked states to be prepared for the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine by Nov. 1.

“We have to be prepared,” Benjamin said. “That includes things like getting the ultra cold freezers to store the vaccines when available. But we do have to look at things like side effects. There will be a process. It is not just about saying well let’s distribute it to all of the candidates and lets get everyone vaccinated. There have been 5-6 vaccine candidates in phase three trials since the summer and that gives me optimism, but we can’t rush to judgment.”