With 24 counties of Pennsylvania days away from beginning the reopening process, questions abound with what life will look like in the “yellow zones.”
The state health department has a three-phase process, with red being where the entire state is now, with stay-at-home orders and business closures. This Friday, the northcentral and northwestern parts of the state, including McKean, Elk, Potter and Cameron counties, will be permitted to move to the yellow phase, which includes aggressive mitigation and stores reopening with safety restrictions in place.
In response to a question, health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said masks will not be required, but are strongly urged to be worn in public spaces in yellow counties.
“The governor has said all along he believes Pennsylvanians will do the right thing,” Levine said. “The right thing to do is to continue to practice social distancing and to continue to wear a mask when you are in public. We are strongly requesting individuals who are working in retail (and other places where there are numerous interactions with others) to wear masks.
“We all feel confident … people will continue to do that,” she said. However, guidance released later in the day said businesses must require masks to be worn by members of the public and by employees.
If there is a spike in positive cases, the state may have to shut an area down again.
“The real important thing is to prevent the community spread and transmission of COVID-19,” Levine stressed. “In the yellow zones, you can go out to stores, people can go to work. We are still asking that people telecommute as much as possible.”
Order things online, pick them up at curbside, she suggested.
“We want people to wear masks. We want people to continue the things I discuss every day — handwashing, not touching surfaces,” Levine said.
Other questions posed to the secretary were about the response to the pandemic: Was it misguided in that not enough was done to close down nursing homes, or was it too strict in closing down the entire state when hospitals were not overwhelmed?
“No, it was not misguided,” Levine said. It would be impossible to close the nearly 700 nursing homes. The majority of COVID-19 deaths have been in senior citizens with comorbid conditions, which is a “great example of the type of seniors in nursing homes,” she said. Most seniors there have multiple conditions. Levine said the health department and the state have been working with nursing homes from the beginning, making efforts to keep the residents and staff safe.
Counties are asking to have nursing home numbers excluded from countywide data in an effort to reach the yellow phase quicker. Levine said that can’t happen.
“What we have certainly learned in this global pandemic is that we are all interconnected,” she said. “One section of our community such as a nursing home or personal care home impacts a community, and the community impacts that facility.”
She added, “It is very important to include those settings in an overall count.”
Regarding the overall response, she said Pennsylvania has done exactly what officials hoped would happen — prevented a huge spike in cases which would have overwhelmed the health care system.
“The goal was to prevent the … exponential rise in the curve,” she said. “We were successful. The mitigation efforts (worked).”
Yet lifting restrictions too soon could cause a spike in cases, maybe even a higher spike than before the mitigation efforts were implemented.
“All of our modeling suggests if we release the mitigation efforts too soon in areas heavily affected, then we would go right back to that exponential rise,” she said.
On Monday, the health department said there were 825 additional positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 50,092.
There were six positive cases in McKean County, all in the Kane ZIP code, four each in Potter and Elk counties and one in Cameron County.
On Monday, the department reported 14 new deaths, bringing the statewide total to 2,458 in Pennsylvania.