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Penn State, community leaders worried as COVID-19 cases tick up, more infectious variant detected

  • Min Xian/SpotlightPA
A COVID-19 collection site at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, Pa.

 Min Xian / WPSU

A COVID-19 collection site at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, Pa.

(State College) — In a livestream Friday, leaders at Penn State and from the surrounding community voiced concerns about the recent uptick in coronavirus cases and a new, more infectious variant found in State College.

State College Mayor Ron Filippelli said police have been responding to more gatherings recently and he sees a relaxation of precautions across the board.

“This is not a matter of students being more lax or community members or visitors, it’s about everyone,” Filippelli said. He added the local situation is mirroring trends statewide and nationwide.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been rising in recent weeks on the Penn State University Park campus and in the county. The positivity rate for the last seven days from University Park campus testing stands at 3.7% and more than half of the quarantine and isolation space is filled, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.

As of Friday, Mount Nittany Medical Center has 22 inpatients who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, ranging from age 18 to 88.

“We are seeing our highest number of COVID-19 patients in six weeks, and is a trend that has us highly concerned,” executive vice president of patient care services for the health system, Tiffany Cabibbo, said in a statement.

University President Eric Barron said the nicer weather and ongoing vaccinations are not reasons for people to let their guard down when it comes to masking and physical distancing, especially with a new variant of the virus becoming prevalent in the area.

“Our wastewater monitoring confirmed this week that we have detected the presence of the B.1.1.7 variant,” Barron said. “That’s not a surprise given its presence elsewhere in the country including Pennsylvania for a while now.”

Matthew Ferrari, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State, said the variant was detected this Tuesday, using a sample collected on March 7. He said the variant is more contagious and up to 50% more deadly, even though the overall mortality rate is still low. All three vaccines currently available in the U.S. are effective against the variant, he said.

Ferrari said numbers are going up across various measures, suggesting “a general, broad scale increase in the prevalence of COVID in the Penn State community.”

Rutgers University announced Thursday that it will require students to get COVID-19 vaccines to attend the fall semester. Penn State President Eric Barron said the university isn’t making vaccination a requirement for students at this time, in part because current vaccine options lack full FDA approval.

Barron said the in-person Penn State graduation planned for May can still be done safely, but they have plans for changes if things get worse.

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