Brett Sholtis is WITF’s Transforming Health reporter, covering health care policy and community health issues affecting Pennsylvanians. His work often focuses on mental health policy and how it interacts with policing and prisons. Sholtis’ 2019 profile of a young woman with schizophrenia was recognized with a regional Edward R. Murrow Award. In 2020 a follow-up to that story helped to get that woman moved from county jail to a psychiatric facility. He is the host of Transforming Health’s annual “A Summer Read” book series, where he has led public conversations with Sheryl Sandberg, Sue Klebold and Sam Quinones. Sholtis also has reported extensively on Pennsylvania’s response to the coronavirus, election-year social unrest in Harrisburg and the opioid epidemic. He is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the NPR/Kaiser Health News team. Previously he worked as a business reporter at York Daily Record, where he was recognized with Associated Press and Keystone Awards for his work on nuclear waste and food safety. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.
(Harrisburg) — As Pennsylvania businesses are set to loosen public health measures, an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations has some public health officials concerned.
The increase in these two key markers of how well public health efforts are working come after three months of declining new illnesses and hospitalizations in the commonwealth.
Daily case counts began inching upward in March. The state has seen an average of 3,626 new cases each day over the past week, state data show. That’s up 53% from the first week of the month, when Pennsylvania had an average of 2,370 new cases each day.
The commonwealth is not alone. The U.S. is seeing a 12% increase in COVID-19 cases compared with a week ago, according to a CNBC report. Daily cases are growing by at least 5% in 27 states. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning of the potential for a “fourth surge” of cases.
The state is closely watching the numbers but still supports the plan to ease restrictions April 4, said Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam. “It heightens our vigilance, in making sure as cases increase, we’re always watching our hospitalization rate,” she said.
That rate is also up, state data show. As of Monday, 1,640 people were in hospitals in Pa. due to COVID-19. That’s up slightly from 1,495 on March 21 — the last day of a nearly three-month long decline in hospitalizations.
In the midstate, WellSpan Health, Geisinger, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Penn State Health all reported recent increases in people hospitalized with the virus.
Geisinger hospitals have gone from about 50 COVID-19 patients to more than 70 in the past two weeks, said Dr. Stanley Martin, an infectious disease specialist. That’s nowhere close to where its hospitals were in December and January, but still signals a concerning trend.
One reason for this is what you’d expect, Martin said. People are tired of the restrictions. Warmer weather has people wanting to go out. And with the perception that many vulnerable people have been vaccinated, people feel like there is less risk of getting sick.
He said people are right to be hopeful about the vaccine’s ability to help end the pandemic, “but we have to have enough people become immune to the virus in order to curb its spread. We still have a very large majority, if you will, not immune to the virus.”
Additionally, more infectious variants of the virus, such as the so-called “U.K.” strain also known as “B117” have been identified in Pennsylvania, Martin noted.
All this adds up to the need for people to keep following the guidelines, Martin said.