COVID-19 in Pa.: With one confirmed case, how is Erie County handling and preparing for the outbreak?

A view of the Bicentennial Tower in Erie, Pa. (Photo via Flickr Commons)

(*This story was updated at 3:15 p.m., on 3/18/20 to include Erie’s first case of coronavirus, which was confirmed by county health officials.)

ERIE, Pa. — Erie County had its first confirmed case of COVID-19 as on Wednesday, adding to the feeling of strain already experienced by hospitals and community health services due to the pandemic.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 18 percent — or 48,971 —of Erie County residents are age 65 or older, based on the bureau’s July 2018 population estimate. 

With this many people falling into the high-risk population for contracting COVID-19, testing becoming more accessible across the U.S., and recent news that a Mercyhurst University student tested positive while in quarantine at home in New York, it seems only a matter of time until Erie County has its first confirmed positive patient. 

 “Our community can be reassured that UPMC facilities and staff are well-equipped to properly care for patients with contagious diseases, including COVID-19, without exposing other patients, staff or visitors,” Emily Shears, the director of Infection Prevention at UPMC Hamot, told the Capital-Star.

“UPMC health care workers are educated to recognize potential COVID-19, use appropriate precautions and immediately get system assistance for evaluation and management of any potential cases,” Shears said.

Shears is an epidemiologist, or someone who studies and analyzes the spread and patterns of health conditions or diseases.

According to Erie News Now, the person who tested positive Wednesday is a 35-year-old who had recently traveled out of state. Officials declined to say where.

Across the U.S. access to goods is becoming more limited. This weekend, panicked shoppers stripped shelves across the country. On Tuesday, Amazon announced a suspension of all warehouse shipments except medical supplies and “high-demand” products. 

Health officials: Pa. up to 96 COVID-19 cases, drive-through testing sites planned in Philly area

Pennsylvania healthcare giant, UPMC — one of the largest hospital networks in the country employing nearly 92,000 physicians and staff — is preparing their 40 academic community and specialty hospitals. 

“We have a strong supply chain system in place to ensure that we are receiving an adequate supply of personal protective equipment — such as masks, gloves and gowns,” said Shears. “We keep a rotating stockpile in several secure locations. We are closely tracking our allocation of these supplies to our facilities.”

One of the supplies that cannot be stockpiled is blood. 

“I don’t believe the blood supply has ever been strained the way it is right now,” Deanna Renaud, executive director said in an interview with the Erie Reader

The Community Blood Bank of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York services 21 hospitals in the area, including UPMC.

In Erie County, they are the only fixed-location blood bank. Mobile blood drives account for 75 percent of their annual donations, Renaud said.

“Obviously with the changes that we’ve seen here in the last couple weeks, that is a major hurdle for our blood center — as well as blood centers nationally — now that those (blood drives) are being disrupted,” Renaud continued. 

Last Friday, President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic. With that came the news that the administration would partner with the private healthcare sector to establish drive-through test sites.

“UPMC will open additional specimen collection facilities in Harrisburg, Erie, Williamsport and Altoona at an as-yet undetermined date after gaining experience with the South Side facility in Pittsburgh and after UPMC’s testing capacity increases,” Shears said. 

Until then, Erie County’s largest hospital is using a test developed by UPMC to diagnose suspected COVID-19 patients. “We will be using this test initially for select, symptomatic cases as we work to rapidly increase capacity at our central laboratory,” Shears said. 

Of those who test positive, UPMC anticipates that most will recover at home and not require hospitalization. 

“For patients who must be admitted,” Shears said, “we are fortunate to have a multitude of hospital and nonhospital locations that we can leverage for different types of clinical needs.”

Those in Erie County who are not ill are advised that some UPMC facilities that “have patient populations with unique needs are now implementing visitor screenings,” and are prohibiting guests with respiratory infection symptoms, fever, or both, from entering. 

“Some UPMC facilities are also limiting the number of visitors allowed per patient, or not allowing visits from children,” Shears said.

Erie County has two main hospitals — UPMC Hamot and St. Vincent, an Allegheny Health Net entity. St. Vincent was not available for public comment at time of release. 

Correspondent Hannah McDonald covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star.