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Amy Ranker needed to restock her pantry, so she headed to her local Giant Eagle in Hempfield. She picked a Tuesday afternoon, when the supermarket is usually less crowded.
She took her time wheeling a full cart through the produce department. Taking care with her shopping selections, she used a phone app to scan product bar codes and check prices.
She also took care to wear a mask.
One of her daughters contracted a breakthrough covid infection two weeks earlier.
“We went through a period in the summer where it felt safe,” said Ranker, 58, an engineer who works from home. “We were all vaccinated, and everybody seemed to be out doing their thing. When omicron hit, I started wearing my mask in places like this again.”
The continuing drop in new covid-19 cases in the United States is an encouraging sign.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a daily average of 121,665 new cases for the week ending Wednesday , down 43% from the previous week.
In Pennsylvania, for the week ending Thursday, there were 15,742 confirmed new cases, down from 22,986 new cases during the previous week, according to the state Department of Health.
But, as the covid pandemic enters Year 3, there will be no well-defined finish line to signal the end of this ongoing health crisis. No final horn. No buzzer. No ticker tape falling from the heavens.
For many in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, the pandemic — or at least their reaction to it — has seemingly ended, including mask wearing, social distancing and gathering in crowds, both large and small. Others remain steadfast in following covid guidelines from government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Ted Pallas, 60, of New Kensington and his wife, Jen, exercised last week by walking laps around Pittsburgh Mills mall in Frazer. They were among those not wearing masks.
Shingles recently struck the Marine veteran, who sports a grizzled beard and tattoo on his neck. He intends to get vaccinated to prevent a painful recurrence.
A vaccine for covid is not in his plans.
He argued that he believes covid death rates have been inflated, failing to account for existing medical conditions of people who died. He feels covid has “consumed” many.
“It pulled the fear out of people who didn’t realize they had it in them, that they could be driven that wildly by fear,” he said.
Laid off from a seasonal construction job, Pallas doesn’t believe masks are effective, though he wore one while working indoors — “which is only respectful of others,” he said.
People need to decide what precautions they want to take, Ranker said.
“Vaccinations are important for public safety,” she said, “but it is certainly each individual’s prerogative to do what they feel is right for them.”
End of the tunnel?
Worldwide, there have been nearly 421 million covid cases and 6 million deaths documented in the past two years, according to Johns Hopkins University. The United States has accounted for about 80 million cases and 930,000 deaths.
Pennsylvania’s first presumed positive covid case came on March 6, 2020. The state recorded its first covid death nearly two weeks later, on March 18, with the passing of a Northampton County man who had ties to horse racing in Washington County.
Allegheny County announced its first death three days later, with Westmoreland reporting its first on April 8.
Over the past two years, Pennsylvania has had more than 2.2 million confirmed covid cases and 42,000 deaths — roughly the population of Penn Hills in Allegheny County, Hempfield in Westmoreland County, or the combined total population of Arnold, Natrona Heights, New Kensington and West Deer in the Alle-Kiski Valley.
Allegheny County reported 1,788 confirmed new covid cases for the week ending Thursday, down from 3,850 cases during the week ending Feb. 5, for a drop of 53.5%.
Over the same period, Westmoreland County saw weekly cases fall from 1,544 to 522, representing a 66% decrease.
As of Friday, the daily covid case average in Allegheny County had dropped by 91%, to 310 cases from a peak of 3,534 on Jan. 12. Westmoreland County’s daily average fell by 84%, to 113 cases from a peak of 703 on Jan. 18.
The latest spike came from the omicron variant, which has proven to be more readily transmissible than previous versions of the virus but has caused less severe symptoms for most people.
“I think the emergence of omicron will be considered a hallmark event, because it really brings the light at the end of the tunnel,” UCLA Health clinical microbiologist Shangxin Yang said in a recent article. “We potentially can see how the pandemic might end and become endemic.”
Covid hospitalization rates are a key concern for Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“What transitions us out of the acute phase of the pandemic is not case numbers but decreasing hospital capacity concerns,” Adalja said. “There are many high-risk individuals who are not vaccinated that can impinge on hospital capacity. The omicron surge was such that many of these individuals have gotten infected, and there is a large amount of population immunity that will hopefully stave off hospital capacity concerns.”
As of Friday , Pennsylvania had 3,542 staffed intensive care beds for adult patients, with 394 of those occupied by people with covid and 684 remaining available for other patients, according to the state Department of Health’s covid dashboard. In all, 2,134 covid patients were hospitalized across the state.
Adalja said key steps in lessening the severity of the pandemic include “getting vaccines into high-risk individuals” as well as getting antiviral drugs and monoclonal antibodies to covid patients who need such treatment.
“These measures keep people out of the hospital,” he said.
Keara Klinepeter, Pennsylvania’s acting health secretary, said her department is focused on ensuring access to vaccines, boosters and antiviral treatment and wants to have teams ready to help staff hospitals temporarily.
“In Pennsylvania, we’re still encouraging people, regardless of their vaccination status, to wear a mask indoors,” she said. “This is still a serious situation, even though the situation on the ground is improving.”
How much that masking recommendation is put into practice varies across the region, seemingly more closer to Pittsburgh and less further out.
Recent visits to major retail centers in the region found more shoppers without masks than with them. The percentage of mask-wearers appeared to be higher in Allegheny County than in Westmoreland. The stark difference was more pronounced in grocery stores than in malls, where weekday foot traffic was relatively light with ample room for customers to stay apart.
Among the Westmoreland Mall shoppers without masks were Uniontown-area friends Kage Laws, 18, a recent Laurel Highlands High School graduate, and Hayden Bryan, 19, an Ohio native and Penn State Fayette freshman.
Bryan and his family had mild cases of covid early in the pandemic. He has since been vaccinated as a job requirement and wears a mask as mandated in class.
Otherwise, he said, the pandemic “hasn’t really affected my life.
“I don’t know what will make it eventually die out. I think it’s just going to become something like the flu; you’ll get a yearly vaccine against covid. It won’t be as bad as it is now.”
Laws is holding out for herd immunity.
Though approved by drug safety officials worldwide, he remains skeptical of covid vaccines.
“We don’t know what the effects of it are going to be 10 years from now,” Laws said.
Attitudes toward masking and covid vaccinations varied among the sparse visitors last week at Pittsburgh Mills.
Friends Lisa Corna of Oakmont and Greg Holt of Harmar met by chance at the mall and decided to share a walk. Though they said they will wear masks in other circumstances, neither bothered because of the lack of crowds and the spacious interior.
“I’m tired of it. We’re all tired of it,” Holt said of covid restrictions. “There are some vacations I’d like to do, but if you’ve got to try to distance and wear a mask, I’m not interested.”
Holt was double-masked when he worked in a nursing home. He said the economic fallout of the pandemic included elimination of his position and two others at the home, prompting him to retire a year ago.
Judy Caric of Pittsburgh’s South Side wore a mask recently as she arrived to shop at Ross Park Mall. She and her immediate family have been vaccinated and have avoided contracting covid, a particular concern since a granddaughter was born in June.
“If we all were vaccinated and all wore masks, we could maybe lick this,” she said of the pandemic.
Sam Wiedner, 53, of Somerset wears a mask at work. His wife, Joni, 53, and daughter, Kiran, 15, donned masks as requested while shopping at an Apple store, but the family remained maskless in the main corridor of the mall in Pittsburgh’s North Hills.
Wiedner noted more people wear masks around Pittsburgh than in Somerset County. The family obtained a waiver so that Kiran doesn’t have to wear a mask while attending school.
“There’s no reason kids should have to wear a mask in school,” Sam Wiedner said.
The Wiedners all fell ill with covid in October, though they said they took extra doses of vitamins C and D instead of seeking medical attention.
“Since omicron is so contagious and everybody is getting it, I think they’re going to have the immunity against the next thing that comes down the line,” Joni Wiedner said.
One goal health officials cited early on in the pandemic was achieving herd immunity — a point at which enough of the population has achieved immunity, through either vaccination or infection, to largely shut down the spread of the disease.
That remains the gold standard for Dr. Stephen Gluckman, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
“Fundamentally, it’s when you have enough people protected that the virus can’t find somebody else to infect,” he said.
Gluckman is among health experts who believe humans will never be entirely free of the covid virus. Rather, it is likely to transition to a less severe endemic stage. At that point, like influenza, it can be managed at an acceptable level with vaccinations and periodic booster shots.
“People who tend to get the worst cases of flu are people who have other risk factors,” he said.
Annual flu deaths in the U.S. over the past decade ranged from a low of 12,000 out of 9.3 million symptomatic illnesses in the 2011-12 season to a high of 52,000 out of 41 million illnesses in 2017-18, according to the CDC.
“It will transition,” Gluckman said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be in one year or three years.”
Tending the flock
At Poke Run Presbyterian Church, Pastor Peter Goetschius’ homily last Sunday touched on the concept of “how will you live your life?”
It was in the context of a Christian lifestyle, but the question applies equally well in a general way, after two years of constantly shifting health and safety guidelines and the intermittent closure of public gathering areas — including houses of worship.
About 40 people attended the service in Washington Township. A father and his two small children donned masks, though nestled under their chins.
“I’m cautious, but I don’t live in fear,” said Cindy McQuaide of Slickville. “(The pandemic) brought me back to the things that are really important in life.”
Relaxation of guidelines, including masking, has led to a similar relaxation in many churches. At Holiday Park United Methodist Church, 100 or so people attended a Feb. 13 service. About 10 wore masks. At First United Methodist Church in Leechburg, about 50 people were in attendance. All but a half-dozen were unmasked.
“There are a handful of older or immunocompromised people who are usually wearing them,” said the Rev. Sara Wrona, who began preaching at the Leechburg church last July.
The senior pastor said she tries to emphasize the Methodist church’s “three simple rules” — do no harm, do good and stay in love with God. But she acknowledged that she has taken a middle-of-the-road approach with church members.
“In churches, in general, you’re never going to make everyone happy,” she said. “If I’m going any place with a lot of people, like a Walmart, I wear my mask — and I’m fully vaccinated and received the booster.”
She said she encourages people to do the same as she gets to better know her flock.
“But what I tell people is: You need to do what’s best for you and your situation,” she said.
At Poke Run Presbyterian, Goetschius agreed.
“We’ll continue living our lives, with a little more caution and hand-washing,” he said.
Tom Soltis, a sociology professor at Westmoreland County Community College, has extensively researched the 1918 flu pandemic, which stretched over two years and killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. He has since observed many parallels between that global health crisis and the current one, including the responses to each.
“Pandemic fatigue was probably as common back then as it is now,” Soltis said of a flu pandemic that killed about 675,000 people in the U.S., including more than 60,000 in Pennsylvania. Locally, flu infections claimed about 2,000 lives in Westmoreland County and at least 4,500 in Pittsburgh.
There was pushback against restrictions on businesses and social activities imposed then, Soltis said, at a time when no one knew what a virus was or its role in the spread of such contagious diseases.
During the covid pandemic, social media has provided billions of internet users instant access to information — of varying veracity — about the disease. That’s likely helped to fuel “some of the real virulent opposition we see today” to covid restrictions, Soltis said.
While it may seem to some that the covid pandemic is dragging on, Soltis noted there were many reports in the 1920s of people who had survived the 1918 flu but then continued to suffer lingering effects.
Among the long-haul maladies reported then were “a sleeping sickness outbreak in Westmoreland County and people whose bones were very brittle,” he said.
The 1918 flu event continues to be studied. Soltis expects the same from the coronavirus pandemic, about which so much remains to be discovered.
“I think we’ll be analyzing and looking at this (covid) pandemic for 100 years,” Soltis said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t happen again for another 100 years.”
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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