The Lead

COVID-19 isn’t going away, but health officials say Pa. is ready to transition to the next phase

By: - February 25, 2022 3:46 pm

Pennsylvania acting Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter speaks during a press conference on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (Screenshot)

After nearly two years of masking, social distancing, and vaccination efforts, Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations are on the decline.

And while coronavirus isn’t going away, the state’s top health official says the commonwealth is ready to transition into the next phase of the pandemic — although acting state Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter was hesitant to call it an endemic.

“Regardless of what we call the phase that we’re in, I think this is a moment to pause and reflect on the great work that has been done to get us to this place and to encourage people to continue doing those good public health actions,” Klinepeter told reporters Friday.

More than 76 percent of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and nearly 86,000 vaccine doses were administered in the last week, according to recent state Health Department data. The state saw a 22.6 percent increase in available adult intensive care unit beds, with a hospitalization rate that’s 27 percent lower than last week.

“Today, vaccines and therapeutic treatments are widely available across the state. Businesses, schools, and residents are open and have the tools and knowledge they need to move beyond the current phase of the pandemic,” Klinepeter said. “However, moving forward does not mean ignoring COVID-19. We can make smart decisions guided by public health research to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities safer.”

When it comes to declaring an endemic — a disease that’s always present and usually predictable — Pennsylvania is looking to the World Health Organization to make that call.

“They are the ones who declared a pandemic. They haven’t deviated from that yet, and so we’re waiting to see what they do,” Klinepeter said. 

She added that the state Health Department is focused on “maintaining a state of readiness” and empowering individuals to stay up-to-date on their vaccinations and be informed about community spread. The state is also prioritizing protecting vulnerable populations from coronavirus.

Shortly after Friday’s press conference, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new COVID-19 guidance to determine whether someone should wear a mask, practice social distancing, and avoid crowded indoor spaces.

In a teleconference with reporters, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that the overall risk of severe disease is generally lower.

The CDC also updated its guidance for K-12 schools, recommending universal masking only in communities with a high transmission level.

And Klinepeter said it’s likely the state Health Department will follow those recommendations, which rely on COVID-19 hospitalizations, beds occupied by COVID-positive patients, and new cases per 100,000 people over the previous week.

“I think it’s important that as we enter this next phase, we continue to grant grace to other people who are making the best decisions they can,” she said. “Everybody is trying to adjust to what this next period of time looks like.”

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