Morgan Snook, editor/reporter, NorthcentralPa.com, contributed to this article.
Lycoming County, Pa. – The Lycoming County Commissioners held a press conference Thursday to address what they described as the “rising” and “ballooning” COVID-19 numbers in the county.
The 15-day average test positivity rate in Lycoming County is 43%, Pa. Department of Health data show. By comparison, the statewide 7-day average is 11%. A percent positivity rate of 5% is considered "too high" by some experts.
“These are phenomenally high numbers and underscore the current gravity of the pandemic in Lycoming County,” Dr. Caleb Alexander, professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said about the graph shown above.
“It’s more important now than ever for people to use the public health measures that work – social distancing, masks, frequent hand washing – while we await the distribution and scale-up of COVID vaccines,” said Alexander.
Leaders from county government and UPMC Susquehanna emphasized the need for public health measures, almost to the point of begging the community to take this virus seriously.
They united in a common message: Wear a mask when you are not in your home, practice social distancing, wash your hands frequently, and don’t gather with people outside of your household if you don’t have to.
Jeff Hutchins, Director of Public Safety in Lycoming County, said there are 68 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in county, 16 in ICU, and 9 on ventilators. The coroner reports 54 deaths from the virus. However, the most alarming statistic is the rise of cases in the last 30 days:
“One month ago, we had 1,022 cases since the start of the pandemic. In the last 30 days we’ve seen a 1,488 case increase,” said Hutchins.
“It's vital that we do not become complacent,” said Chairman Commissioner Scott Metzger. “It's easy to become COVID-fatigued. We do not have control over this virus. But we do have control over how we can fight it. We need everyone, I repeat, everyone to cooperate with those measures.”
Selling the public on the absolute necessity of mask-wearing might be difficult, as the county has not always taken a hard stance on mitigation efforts. On June 26, the commissioners announced masks were optional in all county buildings. And still, Commissioners Metzger and Tony Mussare insist the economy and its residents cannot endure another shutdown.
“This is our alternative,” said Metzger, about wearing a mask everywhere outside of the home. “The government is going to make the choice for us if we don’t make the choice now,” he said.
To do their part, the county is putting tighter restrictions on accessibility to public buildings and services. To enter any county facility, a person must be masked. “We are not making exceptions,” said Lycoming County Sheriff Mark Lusk. “We're going to ask you to go back to your vehicle. We'll give you a sheet to make the calls that you need to make to make an arrangement with the particular office in the courthouse, to discuss how you want to transact your business.”
Visitors to the courthouse will have to make appointments before arriving. No extra family members will be permitted into courtroom proceedings. Essentially the courthouse will be operating on a “call before you come” basis.
Proactive steps to fighting the virus
Mitigation efforts can and should be repeated, often. Mask, distance, hygiene, and avoid gathering with people outside of your household. “I'm of the view that the best defense we have at this time is a strong offense,” said Commissioner Rick Mirabito. “And what I mean by that is to use some of our federal COVID-19 money to literally hunt down the virus, isolate it, and prevent it from infecting more human hosts.”
The commissioner emphatically advocates asymptomatic testing--finding the asymptomatic individuals we know are positive, who show no symptoms, but are capable of spreading the virus. “And we all know it's very difficult to get a covid test,” Mirabito said.
The good news, he said, is that with the $10.2 million the county received from the federal government, “we have financial resources left to provide this life-saving service.”
An individual can spread the virus for up to two days before they show symptoms. And many people are not showing symptoms at all, and can spread the virus for a full 10 days. This, said Mirabito, is where Lycoming County, like other countries, and other places in the United States, are performing asymptomatic testing.
One example close to home is Lock Haven University’s asymptomatic testing program. “LHU tested 2,320 students, staff, and faculty, and they found that 115 were positive, with the majority of them being asymptomatic, meaning they had no symptoms but they were positive and capable of spreading the virus,” said Mirabito.
“This is what's amazing: of the 115 cases that were reported positive, they had over 1,000 close contacts who would have had the opportunity to potentially spread the virus. But through contact tracing, were asked instead to quarantine for 14 days.” Mirabito noted the CDCs change in quarantine guidelines since.
Related reading: CDC lowers 14-day quarantine guideline to a shorter 10-day period
Mirabito said asymptomatic testing is within reason now because the tests, which used to cost upward of $120 for a test, are available at $20 per test when bought in bulk.
“Some critics will say the sensitivity of the antigen test may result in 10% false negatives. No test is perfect. And frankly, we're not going to find a silver bullet,” he said.
Another hope is a successful vaccination. Emergency approvals for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may come this month, and Lycoming county “has been looked at as a potential site for the vaccine,” said Metzger. The first doses would go to residents in nursing homes and to frontline healthcare workers.
Dr. David Lopatofsky, Director of Administration at UPMC said storing the vaccine--specifically the Pfizer vaccine which requires storage temperatures of below 70 degrees celsius, should not be a problem because it is shown to store well in dry ice.
What is a problem, Dr. Lopatofsky said, are patients who are ready to be discharged to a nursing home who won’t be taken in because of concerns of COVID-19 spread. These patients are “clogging up the hospitals” which are otherwise well prepared, he said, to care for the increase in COVID-19 patients.
Facing a virus that has seemingly defied understanding, county leaders are at last standing united in their message to take COVID-19 very seriously. Mussare, who himself is recovering from COVID-19, said he does not know how he got it, but that the experience has changed his perspective.
Mirabito agreed. “We have to put the collective good ahead of what we perceive as our individual rights.”
One more time for good measure. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands frequently. Avoid gathering with people outside of your household.