Is the pandemic nearing its end?
With new recorded COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania at their lowest point since August, that’s the emerging question.
State and local health officials have been reluctant to say.
“I think we’re at a good stage now,” Dr. Michael Ripchinski, chief clinical officer for Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, said during a video interview at the end of February.
Ripchinski stopped short of indicating that we may be approaching the end to the pandemic and the return to classifying COVID-19 as an epidemic. (An epidemic is a disease that affects many people in a community or region while a pandemic is an epidemic spread over multiple countries.)
The first two novel coronavirus infections were reported in Lancaster County on March 18, 2020. LNP | LancasterOnline hosted a panel discussion with local health care leaders as Pennsylvania heads into year three of the virus that altered our communal existence as we knew it. Alice Yoder, executive director of LG Health’s Community Health, and Dr. Anne-Marie Derrico, Union Community Care’s chief medical officer, joined Ripchinski for the 40-minute conversation.
If COVID-19 has indeed turned a corner, the omicron variant is likely the reason, they said.
Pennsylvania recorded more than 1 million new COVID-19 infections since Dec. 1, 2021, when the omicron variant first emerged in the United States, and the end of February, when the surge dissipated. Those infections account for roughly 37% of 2.7 million cases recorded since the coronavirus surfaced in 2020. In Lancaster County — during the time omicron was active — the 41,247 infections recorded from Dec. 1 through the end of February accounted for 34% of 120,068 cases total over the course of the pandemic.
The rampant spread holds implications for herd immunity. When the public is immune, through illness or vaccination, there is little opportunity for a disease to spread. As of March 8, 308,386 Lancaster County residents were fully vaccinated.
“So now there’s a lot of natural immunity in the community, as well, given the amount of people that were infected,” Ripchinski said.
So, what do the next two to three months hold?
“Every time we try to predict where the virus will go, we get hit with a curve ball,” Ripchinski said, noting he believes COVID-19 will become a winter virus.
And with the warmer months coming and roughly 71% of Pennsylvanians 5 years of age and older fully vaccinated — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — masks and social distancing will likely be relaxed.
“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,” Acting Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter said in a recent press conference.
Mask wearing, she said, will go the way of the umbrella, used when needed. In talking with community members, Yoder said she’s heard a lot of discussion about mask wearing to curb the spread of influenza, something unthinkable when vaccinated Americans were ready to ditch masking.
“If the cases go up, you pull out your mask,” Yoder said. “We never would have thought about a mask three or four years ago.”
And while forecasts are challenging, Derrico said she is encouraged by the vaccination rates and the scientific advances in understanding the novel coronavirus.
“Last year is when I had great optimism that we wouldn’t be in this position two years into the pandemic,” Derrico said. “Hopefully, year three won’t look anything like years one and two.”