Erie County continues fighting to flatten the curve; Is social distancing paying off? 

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

ERIE, Pa. — In Erie County, confirmed COVID-19 cases are rising, though at a slower rate than in other areas of the state, which begs the question; Are the proactive measures taken by Erie officials flattening the curve of the pandemic? 

“I certainly am optimistic or I’m hopeful,” Allegheny Health Network (AHN) St. Vincent hospital President Dr. Chris Clark told the Capital-Star.

Speaking with the Capital-Star on Monday morning, Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said she believes mitigation efforts have “made a difference in Erie County. For the population size that we have, we are now at 13 cases, but we also fortunately have a health department and are able to do that contact tracing.”

By Wednesday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Erie County had risen to 16 cases, according to Erie County data. The latest confirmed case is believed to have come from community spread, whereas all previous cases in the county were contracted by traveling outside the county or coming into direct contact with a confirmed positive patient.

“I think two things are in our favor,” Dahlkemper said. “One is that our population is not as dense as many other cities and we do have a fair amount of green space.”

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With less crowding, there is less opportunity for community spread of coronavirus. 

“So many counties across the commonwealth and in our region — Ohio and New York — have seen much greater numbers than we’ve seen in terms of numbers of the cases that they’re dealing with, and so we feel like we’ve done what we can to try and flatten the curve,” Dahlkemper told the Capital-Star.

Even so, Clark and Dahlkmeper however believe that it is too early to tell.

Local officials expect this number to continue to rise as the week progresses thanks to increased access to testing by both local hospitals; UPMC Hamot and AHN St. Vincent. 

Still, confirmed cases of COVID-19 are slow-growing in Erie County. Clark hopes that the proactive approach to social distancing enacted by Dahlkepmper last week will spread out the curve and hopefully not overrun AHN’s 371 beds. Should this happen, the hospital has created overflow areas to care for patients. 

In preparation for what Clark called “the surge” of COVID-19 cases which usually follows increased testing, AHN has designated specific areas of the hospital to care for coronavirus patients.

“It’s called co-horting,” Clark explained. “We’re putting patients who possibly could have COVID disease in certain areas of the hospital. So we have a special section for intensive care. And then we have a special department for medically-stable and it’s in those areas are only patients with possible COVID.”

Green space and hospital preparedness aside, local officials believe social distancing is to thank that Erie County has yet to see this surge. The county has been on a stay-at-home order since Mar. 25. And according to the Unacast Social Distancing Scoreboard, Erie has had greater than a 40 percent decrease in travel. 

“The benefit of social distancing (in terms of flattening the curve of the virus)” Clark told the Capital-Star, “is that it decreases your total number of patients — the highest number that are affected or the peak — but then it also spreads it out.”

That means social distancing is the key to not overwhelming hospitals “because we’ll have a more controllable demand for services.”  

“Every hospital could have its tipping point … or maximum,” Clark continued. “I think that’s what we’re seeing in New York City right now. But that’s what we’re trying to avoid with all the social distancing.”

“With more testing we assume that we are going to find some more positives out there that we maybe wouldn’t have known about, but again, I think people in our community have worked really hard to try and do that social distancing behavior. And we hope that has really reduced the incidents of what we would see otherwise,” Dahlkemper told the Capital-Star. “So, I don’t have any predictions, but I know we’re going to see more cases, that is my only prediction … We think it’s going to be a very busy week.”  

Correspondent Hannah McDonald covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @HannahMcD0Nald.