coronavirus file

HARRISBURG — State officials say they believe the state may be nearing a plateau in this new surge, even as COVID cases continue to climb.

In a call with reporters to discuss updates on school COVID issues, Wendy Braund the Department of Health’s COVID Response Director said Wednesday that while the increase in new cases "remains a concern," it appears to be slowing.

“We have seen that the rolling average of cases, the seven-day average of cases has stopped increasing,” Braund said. “Practically speaking, what that means is we are reaching a plateau,” she said.

The number of new COVID cases increased by 3,332 last week, about 5 percent more than the week ending March 25 when the number of new cases had increased by 3,179 over the previous seven-day period, according to state data. From March 18 to March 25, the number of new cases had more than doubled, state data shows.

The Department of Health announced that 4,643 new COVID cases on Wednesday.

The increase in cases, plus concern about COVID variants reinforces the need for the public to take mitigation efforts like social distancing seriously, Braund said. Health officials also stress that everyone eligible for a COVID vaccine should get one, she said.

Schools update

The state moved to vaccinate 112,000 educators before most other members of the public in order to allow more schools to reopen for in-person instruction, Braund said.

Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega, who said the initiative to quickly vaccinate 112,000 educators was a “heroic effort.”

The state’s guidance for how long schools must remain closed due to COVID outbreaks — which take into account the size of the school and the amount of community spread around the school district — took effect Monday.

“It’s our hope that with the changes we have made to our guidance in the past couple weeks that have come in line with many of the CDC recommendations, we’ll create the conditions for more students to continue to engage safely in in-person instruction,” Ortega said.

Under those guidelines schools in areas of low or moderate community don’t have to close for one case in small schools, or for 1-3 cases in medium-sized and up to five cases in large schools. Schools must close for 1-2 days for cleaning and contact tracing when there are 2-4 cases in small schools, 4-6 cases in medium-sized schools, and 6-10 cases in large schools.

For larger outbreaks, schools must close for five days.

Those guidelines were rolled out at the same time that the state announced it was following federal guidance and reducing the amount of space required for social distancing between students in class from six feet to three feet.

Under the state’s guidelines, schools with low community spread of COVID should offer in-person instruction, while schools in communities with moderate COVID spread are supposed to offer in-person or hybrid learning instruction. Schools in communities with the substantial spread of COVID are supposed to remain closed to in-person instruction, though Ortega noted that the decision to close is up to the local school district even as state officials have called on schools to move back to in-person instruction.

There are only five of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties that have a low community spread of COVID — Cameron, Forest, Fulton, Potter and Sullivan.

Seventeen counties have moderate community spread of COVID — Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Clarion, Crawford, Erie, Fayette, Indiana, Jefferson, McKean, Mercer, Snyder, Somerset, Tioga, Union, Venango and Warren counties.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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