As Centre County sees its highest increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in two months, Penn State and State College officials on Friday urged community members to continue practicing health and safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“The nicer weather combined with the anticipated mass vaccinations on the horizon are prompting many to forgo health precautions like masking and physical distancing,” Penn State President Eric Barron said during a virtual press conference. “It’s a phenomenon that’s happening across the country, but I’m very concerned to see it occurring at University Park and in the community.”
Over the past two weeks, Centre County has added nearly 900 cases to its total, including 89 on Friday, and its weekly PCR positivity testing rate has climbed from 4.4% to 9.2%, according to the Pennsylvania’s Department of Health’s early-warning monitoring dashboard.
On-campus testing at Penn State over the last week has yielded 264 positives — the highest since last fall — and a 3.9% positivity rate, with students testing positive at a rate of 4.2%.
Analysis of wastewater samples this week, meanwhile, revealed the presence of the more potent and highly transmissible B117 variant, or “UK variant,” in the State College area, according to Matthew Ferrari, director of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.
And at Mount Nittany Medical Center, COVID-19 hospitalizations are at their highest levels in six weeks. On Friday, the medical center had 22 COVID inpatients between the ages of 18 and 88. For the month, it has had an average daily census of 17 COVID inpatients.
“This trend is concerning,” Dr. Christopher Hester, chief clinical officer of primary care services for Mount Nittany Health, said. “COVID-19 is a serious disease with an unpredictable course and should not be taken lightly. We do not want to get to the point again where we need to limit services because of the number of hospitalized covid patients. We would all like to get back to normal, but this pandemic is not over.
“As a community, we can’t let our guard down… We’re seeing it across Pennsylvania and the country. But we don’t have to be part of this trend. There are simple scientifically proven preventative behaviors that mitigate the spread of COVID.”
State College Mayor Ron Filippelli stressed that the entire community needs to continue practicing mitigation measures.
“We’re joining together because our concern and call for continued vigilance is for the whole community,” Filippelli said. “This is not a matter of students being more lax or community members or visitors. It’s about everyone.
“We’re seeing a relaxation across the board, unfortunately, and we understand that. Everyone has cabin fever and our community for the most part has done an excellent job adhering to the protocols and to our borough ordinance. But the uptick is worrying.”
Filippelli noted that the rise in cases and hospitalizations come as statewide restrictions on restaurants, bars, other businesses and events are about to be relaxed on April 4.
“To be successful with this and other opportunities we need everyone to continue to mask, avoid large gatherings, wash our hands and get vaccinated as soon as we are able,” he said.
Even though some statewide restrictions are being eased, Filippelli said the borough will continue to enforce its temporary COVID-19 ordinance, which requires wearing masks in most public places, limits residential gatherings to 10 people and limits lines outside of businesses to no more than 10 people. Filippelli added that State College police have seen an increase in calls to large gatherings.
To date, the borough has issued 139 citations for violating the ordinance.
Since the start of the spring semester, Penn State’s student conduct office has charged 381 students for failing to comply with university requirements, and “many more conduct cases” are still pending,” Barron said. Sanctions have ranged from warnings to probation to, in a few cases, loss of campus housing or suspension.
But Barron was quick to add that he believes the university community as a whole has taken the pandemic seriously.
“I have to say that, overall, I’ve been inspired by our students, faculty and staff who have worked very hard and successfully to protect themselves and our community,” he said.
The rise in cases is also creating challenges for K-12 schools. State College Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said the schools have seen an increase in cases among students over the past three weeks. According to the district’s website, 46 in-person students have tested positive over that time.
“This has been a tough pill to swallow because we have a proven track record of no transmissions within our schools,” O’Donnell said. “This is directly due to everyone abiding by health and safety protocols while under our faculty supervision. The problem lies outside school where people are being lax with protocols. Lately we’re seeing events and activities where students and community members are not abiding by health and safety measures and it’s leading to increased cases.”
Those increased cases mandate complex contact-tracing measures and have negative impacts on students who can’t be in school and their families.
The district would like to have more students return for in-person school for the remainder of the year. To do so, administrators intend to ask the school board on April 5 to update the health and safety plan to decrease required distancing in classrooms only from 6 feet to 4.5 feet, which fits within new Centers for Disease Control guidance.
“But to do this cases must be lower,” O’Donnell said. “We cannot do this alone as a school district, but as a collective community we sure can. All of us long for a return to normal but not at the expense of people’s health. Nothing is more important to us than our children’s welfare and education and we don’t want to see those compromised because of carelessness and complacency.”
Vern Squier, president and CEO of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, said following precautions now will help local businesses recover in the long run.
“The best way we can help our businesses recover is supporting our outstanding schools, making sure our hospital can provide care to all of us and bring more people back to State College,” he said. “All it takes is everyone doing their part.”
For Penn State, aggressive testing has been a major part of the strategy to stem the virus by identifying and isolating cases. In the past two weeks the university has advised students living in eight residence halls and one downtown apartment complex to get tested after positivity rates among student residents in those locations exceeded 2%.
Ferrari said those aren’t indicative of clusters, but of broader spread among the student population.
Barron said that for now the university is not pulling back on its plans to have in-person commencement at Beaver Stadium in May, when graduates at each ceremony will be permitted to have up to two guests. But, he added,
“We’re still in a position where we’re following and within the guidelines that are being provided by the Department of Health,” Barron said. “We believe we can do it safely but we can always pivot away if things become worse.
“We will watch this very carefully…. We don’t want to put those activities to risk and we don’t have to if people mask, social distance and take care.”