Through the end of August and beginning of September, school openings were not the only thing ramping up: Covid-19 is back on the rise.
The Centers for Disease Control and Protection’s data tracker says for the week of Aug. 13 to 19, Covid hospitalizations were up nearly 19% and deaths increased about 21%. The increases brought mask mandates back to some schools and businesses in other parts of the country.
Jennifer Fiddner, an epidemiologist with the Allegheny County Health Department, says that while Pittsburgh is not immune to an increase in infections, its numbers remain comparatively low.
“We’ve experienced peaks and valleys since our first infections were identified in 2020,” Fiddner says. “The increase in cases that we are experiencing here locally now is pretty modest compared to some of the increases we’ve experienced in past years.”
The county health department reported that between Aug. 13 and 19, 361 per 100,000 citizens had been infected with Covid. Covid Act Now, a nonprofit website that analyzes and tracks Covid-related data, says only 2.3 of 100,000 are hospitalized for the disease in Allegheny County.
Pittsburgh’s low rate of infection has resulted in numerous precaution modifications throughout the summer. On Aug. 1, the University of Pittsburgh officially closed its Covid-19 Medical Response Office following a World Health Organization (WHO) declaration that the disease is no longer a global health emergency. On Aug. 31, Pittsburgh Regional Transit ended its requirement for employees to be vaccinated.
“We’re continuing to monitor all newly reported infections,” Fiddner says. “We look at this data daily; we have weekly meetings where our team looks at the trends. We look at hospitalization data.
“We’re also continuing to reach out to all individuals 65 years and older who have infections reported within five days of their symptom onset, and we’re trying to make sure that they know that they should be talking with their health care provider about available treatments since that can really help reduce disease severity in that population that we’re really concerned about.”
As the region returns to close-quarters, enclosed classrooms for the fall semester, Fiddner says the best way to prevent the spread of Covid and other respiratory viruses is to go back to childhood health basics.
Fiddner and her elementary-aged son are practicing coughing or sneezing into the elbow when a tissue is not easily available and hand washing while singing the “Happy Birthday” song to ensure 20 seconds have passed.
“It’s easy for kids to forget, so that’s definitely something that families can do as they’re preparing to go back to school — talk about how you can empower your kids to protect their health and prevent disease transmission,” Fiddner says.
She adds that college students, who often spend more time physically closer to one another, can benefit by taking the same actions, in addition to testing and isolating if symptoms become apparent.
From the middle of August to the end of the month, 20% of infections were attributed to the EG.5, or Eris, strain of Covid’s Omicron variant, according to Yale Medicine. The Eris symptoms are not atypical of other Covid strains, but it is potentially — as are many new Omicron variants — resistant to current vaccinations and immunizations.
With a new round of boosters expected to become publicly available between mid-September and October, Fiddner says it is important — especially for the older population — to consult a healthcare provider regarding individual needs.
With the start of flu season in October, Fiddner says it is time to start thinking about vaccines.
“For parents with young children, start talking with their pediatricians about RSV [Respiratory Syncytial Virus] monoclonal antibodies, which are available now,” Fiddner says. “And for older and at-risk people, talk with their healthcare provider about RSV vaccination.”
As for Fiddner, she and her son will be adding Covid boosters to their annual “flu shot Friday.”