Burke talks about how Pittsburgh’s virus success fizzled in crowded bars, eateries


AP – By his estimation, Stephen Santa took Pennsylvania’s coronavirus lockdown seriously: He pretty much went only to grocery stores and picked up takeout once a week to help Pittsburgh’s restaurants. Whatever Santa and everyone else in Pittsburgh did, it seemed to work: The city racked up a fraction of the coronavirus cases during the spring shutdown, while the other side of Pennsylvania flared up into a hot spot.

With a state-mandated masking order in place, Pittsburgh’s gyms, salons, bars and restaurants got permission to reopen in early June, ahead of many parts of Pennsylvania, as part of the so-called “green” phase in Gov. Tom Wolf’s three-step stoplight-colored reopening plan. Barely three weeks later, officials in Allegheny County — home to Pittsburgh and 1.2 million residents — raised the alarm over a spike in COVID-19 cases.

The culprit? Primarily, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who told contact tracers that they had been visiting bars and restaurants or working in them, county officials said. Thus began a cascade of orders in July shutting down bars and restaurants, or curtailing dine-in service, as Allegheny County battled to keep its outbreak from becoming a full-blown surge like those across southern and western states.

Dr. Donald S. Burke, a professor of epidemiology and dean emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, said a preliminary review of Google mobility data shows no spike in people visiting businesses in June. That is consistent, he said, with an outbreak that is fueled by a narrow demographic: for instance, younger people going to bars and restaurants.

Pittsburgh could be considered in a second tier of hot-spot cities, like those in southern and western states: less densely packed than New York and Philadelphia, but still fertile ground for the virus after reopening, Burke said.

“The real question is, are we going to overwhelm the hospital capacity in our region, are we going to have the number of ICU beds and ventilators?” Burke said. So far, coronavirus-related deaths in Allegheny County are stable, slightly above June’s pace, and hospitalizations, despite tripling from mid-June, are not yet eliciting concern from county or state officials.

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