Face mask mandates, one of Erie County’s latest COVID-19 mitigation requirements, have fallen out of favor.
Nine county school districts and systems, and three individual schools, have ended their terms or will complete them by Feb. 28. At least two other districts, the Township of Millcreek and the Wattsburg area, will consider changes this week at their council meetings.
The Erie County government has also stopped requiring people to wear face masks inside its buildings, including at the Erie County Health Department. It even appears that many local retail businesses have relaxed their mask requirements for employees, based on the number of unmasked workers seen in recent weeks.
The easing of these latest mandates comes as COVID-19 cases in the county have fallen 87.1% over the past five weeks and daily hospitalizations have fallen by nearly two-thirds over the past month.
But COVID-19 remains a presence in northwestern Pennsylvania.
The delta/omicron surge has triggered so many new cases and hospitalizations that the county’s latest numbers remain higher than most other times during the two-year pandemic, said Charlotte Berringer, RN, director of health services. community health for the county health department.
“Yes, we’ve seen a drop, but the county still has a high rate of community transmission,” Berringer said. “Our case count is still high and we don’t know how much under-reporting there is due to the popularity of home testing.”
Berringer and other health officials understand the strong desire to end mask mandates, but said they fear it may still be too early to get rid of them.
The county continues to report an average of more than 60 new cases per day and more than 50 county residents are hospitalized with COVID-19. At least 58 county residents died of COVID-19 in January, the sixth highest number since the pandemic began.
“The numbers are down and that’s an encouraging sign,” said Howard Nadworny, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Saint Vincent’s Hospital and county health department adviser. “But the virus remains prevalent in the community and there are still two wild cards in play. Will we see significant spread from all Super Bowl gatherings and what will happen when schools go on (spring) break ?”
Erie area schools not expecting lower level of community spread
When Erie County Executive Brenton Davis ended the countywide mask mandate for schools on Jan. 4, it was up to each school district to enforce its own mask policy.
Almost all continued to require students and staff to wear masks. Some districts have indicated they will end the mandate when community transmission of COVID-19 falls below the “high” or “substantial” spread thresholds in the county or their particular district.
Although the county continues to have a high rate of community transmission, the following schools and school districts no longer require students and staff to wear masks:
- Union City Area School District
- Fort LeBoeuf School District
- Cathedral Preparatory School, Villa Maria Academy, Mother Teresa Academy
- Erie Catholic School System
- Corry Area School District
- Northeast School District
- Girard School District (from Monday)
- Fairview School District (starting Tuesday)
- General McLane School District (from February 28)
- Harbor Creek School District (begins February 28)
Some of these districts or schools will have to be masked again if cases among students reach particular thresholds.
“Schools have the right to make their own decisions,” Berringer said. “The key with these schools is to be diligent in their screening for symptomatic cases and to exclude those who are symptomatic.
“Peer pressure is also a concern,” Berringer added. “It will be difficult for children to wear masks if they are pressured not to. Some of them should continue to wear masks, especially those who are at higher risk of serious illness because they are immunocompromised.”
Continued:‘I haven’t felt whole in a year’: Erie County residents cope with long-haul COVID-19
Ending the mask mandate at Cathedral Prep, Villa Maria and Mother Teresa is a “return to normal,” said Dan Slomski, acting president of the three Catholic schools.
Although schools were contacted by parents who insisted on ending the mask’s mandate, the decision was based more on declining case numbers in schools, Slomski said.
“We got inquiries from parents, as did other (schools) and some parents were adamant about it,” Slomski said. “But that wasn’t the reason for the change – in any way, shape or form.”
County changes mask policy for its buildings
Schools aren’t the only organizations changing their COVID-19 mitigation measures. Masks are no longer required inside county buildings, including the county health department.
Davis initially canceled the mask mandate on Jan. 5 for vaccinated employees and visitors. Some county buildings — including the Erie County Jail, Edmund L. Thomas Teen Center, Pleasant Ridge Mansion and County Health Department — could set their own mask policies.
As of Feb. 10, masks are optional for vaccinated and unvaccinated people inside all county buildings except in offices or courtrooms where an elected official is in charge and sets a different policy.
The county health department will track the changes and allow employees to go mask-free, said Erin Mrenak, acting director.
“I would prefer masks to be worn all the time until the transmission rate is lower, but our mask policy is now optional,” Mrenak said.
Continued:Mrenak hired to lead Erie County Health Department
County employees must no longer work remotely unless they request and receive a medical exemption, Davis said.
“Of 1,400 county employees, only 25 have requested telecommuting,” Davis said. “It’s time to open up. It’s time to come back and encourage our economy.”
Davis added that he wants the county government to set an example for businesses and organizations in downtown Erie.
COVID-19 cases fall for fifth consecutive week
The number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases in Erie County fell for the fifth straight week, although the decline was lower than each of the previous four weeks.
Pennsylvania Department of Health officials reported 430 cases in the county from Feb. 11-17, down 12.4% from the 491 cases reported from Feb. 4-10. Previous weeks have seen declines of 40% or more.
Continued:Lag in reporting makes it impossible to publicly track Erie County’s COVID-19 deaths in real time
COVID-19 cases among children in the county fell more sharply last week, from 129 cases to 89. The number has dropped 90.5% over the past five weeks.
Last week, county health department officials reported 13 deaths from complications from COVID-19. A total of 753 deaths have been reported since the start of the pandemic.
The county’s COVID-19 incidence rate fell from 182 cases per 100,000 population to 159.4. However, it remains well above the threshold of 99.9 cases per 100,000 population to go from a high rate of community transmission to a substantial rate.
A smaller decrease in cases is supported by a slight increase in the amount of COVID-19 virus found in Erie sewage samples over the past two weeks, Nadworny said.
“We’re seeing a bit of stabilization,” said Nadworny, who is tracking sewage samples. “It’s similar to what they’ve seen in the UK with omicron. I still think we’ll see a lot fewer cases in early March.”
Here’s a look at the rest of the county’s COVID-19 measures between Feb. 4-10 and Feb. 11-17 from the state health department:
- The COVID-19 test positivity rate fell from 15.7% to 12.9%.
- The average number of daily hospitalizations related to COVID-19 has increased from 71 to 61.6.
- The average daily number of COVID-19 patients requiring ventilators fell from 7.9 to 5.4.
- The percentage of emergency department visits due to COVID-19 symptoms fell from 1.2% to 0.5%.