Allegheny County’s new cases of covid-19 fell sharply in the past two weeks, but the region still has “lots of community spread,” and officials have concerns about schools and sports programs safely resuming in coming weeks.

That was the scenario laid out Wednesday by the county’s public health chief.

In the first two weeks of July, more than 5,000 residents tested positive for covid-19. That’s a positive rate topping 9%, data show. In the second half of July, the positivity rate fell to 7.5% — an improvement but still far higher than the region’s goal of 5% or less.

Officials attributed the early July surge to the reopening of restaurants and bars.

“If we continue to do all of the things that we talk about and we as a community stay vigilant, we should see those numbers continue to go down,” Allegheny County Health Director Dr. Debra Bogen told reporters on a virtual news conference co-hosted by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Schools, universities ‘need to step up’

Among three emerging challenges cited by Bogen and Fitzgerald: the return of college students living in dormitories and throwing house parties; the reopening of K-12 schools around the region; and increased participation across all ages in contact sports.

“We’re entering another phase that’s going to be very challenging for all of us, and that’s opening schools,” Fitzgerald said. “We really want to make sure that everyone is wearing their mask, keeping as distant as they can and acting responsibly so we can continue to make the success that we have seen over the last few weeks.”

Schools around the region are taking varying approaches to their fall semesters, from going entirely virtual to returning to campus with extra safety measures to a blend of the two methods. Fitzgerald urged students to “peer-pressure” fellow students to wear masks if necessary.

“When you’re in class, you need to be wearing that mask,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re counting on you to have a good fall, in which we can have activities such as sports and other activities that we’d like to see return to somewhat of a normal in pandemic.”

To higher education students, Fitzgerald said, “Generations before you, college students asked to go ‘across the pond’ and put yourself in harm’s way to fight a war. We’re in a different kind of war. We’re in a war with a virus. But we need your help.”

Keeping close eye on contact sports

Neither Bogen nor Fitzgerald made a blanket statement that schools should not open or that school-related or recreational contact sports should stop. But both said public officials will be keeping a close eye on any correlations between such activities and upticks in cases.

“I worry a lot about contact sports when our case counts are high and young children have asymptomatic spread,” Bogen said when asked about whether some sports should be canceled. “I know there has been a heated conversation, and at this point, I’m going to hold my thoughts until we have more data on sports. But it is a challenge, for sure.”

Not all sports pose the same level of risk, Bogen said.

“Contact sports are very different than tennis or golf,” she said. “Whether they should be played or not, I think, depends a lot on our case counts and where we are going.”

The broader public also should remain cautious and continue to practice social distancing, Fitzgerald said.

“We encourage people to continue to patronize their restaurants, but do it in a safer way,” he said. “Let’s continue to drive those numbers down and continue to open up as much as we can and operate in as normal a manner as we can.”

Bogen also cited persisting concerns over infections tied to family gatherings, events and celebrations.

“I have heard stories from around the country about entire families getting sick and some loved ones dying from backyard barbecues and graduation parties,” Bogen said. “We also need to stay safe at weddings and funerals.”

New cases down, but not far enough

Bogen cited several positive observations. After peaking at about 250 per week, the number of new covid-19 cases has been less than 100 for four of the last five days.

The number of new cases linked to bars and restaurants was cut in half in the past two weeks, after officials implemented more stringent measures, including temporarily banning on-premise alcohol consumption and now requiring patrons to eat food if they drink alcohol on site.

County workers who were moved from their regular roles to help with contact tracing and case investigations have been sent back to their primary positions as of this week because there is less need for them, Bogen said.

Out-of-state travel also appears to be on the decline as summer winds down, according to Bogen, and no single location has more than double-digit coronavirus cases traced to it.

Of 742 restaurants and other establishments visited by health inspectors in the past two weeks, 87% “were following all of the rules and are listed in green status on the county’s website,” Bogen said. Staff not wearing or not properly wearing face coverings continues to be the most common issue that businesses need to address, Bogen said.

But there are also worrisome data. The county is aiming to drop below a case threshold of 50 per 100,000 people, and instead reported a level three times that rate the last week of July, Bogen said.

Getting enough tests and prompt results remains a problem.

The county continues to be “well below” the Wolf administration’s bar for testing, Bogen said. Tests still are being prioritized first for symptomatic patients, then to people who have close contact with cases, with asymptomatic or curious people the last in line, if they can get tested at all.

“Our testing capacity is still not where I’d like it to be,” Bogen said. “I hope that will increase in the near future and that people who are worried that they could have it could get tested. But right now we just don’t have that capacity here.”

Earlier in the day, the county’s health department reported 70 new covid-19 cases, nine hospitalizations and five deaths.

Allegheny County has reported a total of 8,512 cases, 701 hospitalizations and 248 deaths since March. Of 701 past and current hospitalizations, 209 were admitted to an intensive care unit and 87 required ventilators.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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