Some health experts say standards for deciding when to open Pa. back up are problematic | Coronavirus Info Center

Some health experts say standards for deciding when to open Pa. back up are problematic | Coronavirus Info Center

The eastern region of Pennsylvania has been repeatedly considered the hardest hit in terms of its rate of coronavirus cases.

In particular, the southeast and northeast region have seen higher case numbers. The state’s Department of Health has said it’s also keeping a close eye on particular cities of concern, including Allentown, Reading and Hazleton.

Data collected by the state will help policymakers and health officials determine when and how to open particular regions.

Comparing our region to others, it would appear the Lehigh Valley could be one of the last to be given the go-ahead to transition toward reopening some businesses and see its stay-at-home order lifted.

A little more than 1,700 positive cases have been reported in Allentown. Some statistical analysis has shown the city to be one of the hardest hit places per capita.

“It is accurate from data coming in,” said Vicky Kistler, the director of Allentown’s Health Bureau, noting that data has been limited, so drawing conclusions is difficult. “We don’t have a good handle on our infection rate because we haven’t had widespread testing.”

Kisler said that the because data is limited, it’s really not known if Allentown has higher rates of infection compared to places like Philadelphia.

Though, she added Allentown has a variety of vulnerabilities that would make it susceptible to community spread. Nearly 80% of the city’s population travels outside city limits for work, including jobs in high-risk settings like warehouses and meat packing facilities. One of the area’s largest employment sectors is healthcare, another high-risk population for contracting the virus. On top of that, the region is densely populated and socially connected to other hot zones like New York City.

In just a few days, several sectors of business are set to return to work and Governor Tom Wolf anticipates parts of the state will see stay-at-home orders lifted in about a week. The state will be analyzing several regions that include a few counties each. Our region includes Lehigh, Northampton, Carbon and a few others.

Wolf has said the criteria for that will be partly based on access to testing and the number of cases in the region. The governor said the benchmark will be less than 50 cases per 100,000 people over a two-week span before a region can move into the next phase of reopening.

“To base a huge decision whether or not we’re going to reopen on numbers that are really, essentially, not meaningful, I think is a really poor public health practice,” said Chrysan Cronin, director of public health at Muhlenberg College.

On Tuesday, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said she didn’t anticipate a region would be able to open if cases are above that ratio.

“We’re not even close to that right now,” said Cronin said, commenting on the Lehigh Valley’s proximity to meeting that requirement.

Cronin said the commonwealth’s benchmark puzzles her.

“I’m not aware of any cardinal rule of epidemiology that says this is the magic number,” Cronin said. “And really, it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s almost like they pulled that number out of thin air.”

Cronin said part of the problem goes back to the very issue Kistler mentioned access to and lack of continuity in testing.

“This one confuses me,” Cronin said.

Cronin said relying on those numbers poses two issues. If access to testing becomes more widespread, meeting that threshold could be nearly impossible.

“If you ramp up testing we are going to find more and more people that are testing positive. And we’ll never reach that benchmark,” Cronin said.

Kistler echoed similar logic.

“The more you test, no matter where you are, the more you may find, so it’s a double edged sword,” Kistler said.

Conversely, less testing would result in fewer positives. Some regions have seen access to testing decrease over the last few weeks, as places shifted toward focusing on only testing older populations and those with serious underlying health risks.

“If you don’t look, you won’t find, and what we don’t want is to not look in this pandemic,” Kistler said.

On a call with members of the press Tuesday, Wolf said the state did not yet have a testing capacity benchmark. Dr. Levine said the commonwealth is still working on that and planned to have more information by the end of the week.

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