Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — Cases of the coronavirus are steadily climbing in Pennsylvania to levels not seen since the beginning of the year, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
At the moment, the Wolf administration has rejected implementing new mitigation measures like mask mandates in favor of encouraging holdouts to get vaccinated. But with that effort slow-going, there are concerns about possible outbreaks in schools and other settings where unvaccinated people gather closely.
Spotlight PA held a free panel with health experts about what you need to know going into the fall. Here are the takeaways:
Who’s getting sick now?
At the beginning of the pandemic, experts were most concerned about serious illness in older people, said Dr. Jerome Gloster, chief executive officer of Primary Care Health Services, Inc. and a member of the Black Equity Coalition in Pittsburgh.
Now, Gloster said people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who haven’t been vaccinated are getting sick. “There was a lot of complacency and a lot of resistance to the vaccine,” he said. “And those are the individuals that are getting, you know, the most sick and ill right now.”
“The ones that are very sick are the unvaccinated,” Frederick Jackson, executive director of Wayne Memorial Community Health Centers, added. “The hesitancy is a tough thing to break.”
How many breakthrough cases have there been in Pennsylvania?
Some states are publicly reporting how many fully vaccinated people have been infected with COVID-19, but Pennsylvania is not one of them.
Dr. Krys Johnson, assistant professor of instruction in Temple University’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, said there isn’t good data at the moment on breakthrough cases, particularly at the state level. “And I think that’s just a manifestation of how hard it is to collect good data with so many cases going on,” she said.
Are vaccines effective against the delta variant?
The experts agreed that current data and information indicate the vaccines are excellent at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death.
But they said it’s reasonable to be concerned about the risk of spreading COVID-19 to children and other people who can’t get vaccinated because the delta variant is more contagious.
Johnson said 65% of Pennsylvania adults being fully vaccinated “is an excellent number, and we should keep striving to increase that.” But, she continued, “we’re really not going to get anywhere near herd immunity and feeling fully protected and going back to a true sense of normal until we also are able to get those children vaccinated.”
When will kids under 12 be able to get the shot?
The Food and Drug Administration expects to give emergency approval to vaccinate children under 12 by mid-winter. That’s also what Pennsylvania’s Vaccine Task Force has been told, according to state Sen. Art Haywood (D., Montgomery).
Are mask mandates coming?
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration lifted the statewide mask mandate in June and has rejected the idea of instituting a new one.
But the Democratic governor did recently ask Republican leaders in the legislature to return to Harrisburg to pass a mandate focused solely on schools — an idea the lawmakers rejected.
Haywood said the legislature should take another look at masking, especially in elementary schools where children are too young to be vaccinated.
Should I still wear a mask if I’m vaccinated?
Johnson said she has returned to acting as if she isn’t fully vaccinated, in part because she is pregnant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently urged pregnant people to get vaccinated as it sees an uptick in hospitalizations among this largely unvaccinated population.
“I would suggest and have suggested to my extended family to just kind of pretend that you don’t have any protection from that vaccine,” she said. “That’s not true, you have plenty of protection around it. … But if what you’re concerned about is actually becoming infected, then I would say go back to what your most heightened level of prevention and mitigation measures was throughout the pandemic.”
Gloster and Johnson said KN95s offer good protection while leaving N95s (which offer the highest level of protection) for health-care workers and others in high-risk settings.
“I gave the analogy of riding in a car and you have your seatbelt, you have your airbags. The more stuff you have, there’s more protection from you getting killed in an accident,” Gloster said. “It’s not that it can’t happen. But you know what, when you pile on more and more protection, you’re really decreasing your risk.”
How will the state handle booster shots?
U.S. health officials are recommending people receive an additional shot eight months after getting the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, though the ultimate decision lies with the Food and Drug Administration. The agency has already given the go-ahead for some immunocompromised people.
Wayne Memorial Community Health Centers will soon begin giving out third shots to people who meet those standards. Jackson, the executive director, said the challenge at the moment is people anxious to get a booster who don’t currently qualify.
Experts agreed that, if booster shots are approved for the general population, it’s unlikely the state will see the same type of confusion and chaos experienced when the vaccine first became available at the end of 2020.
“With the initial rollout, all of our systems were completely overwhelmed with demand, just tremendously exceeding supply … and we’re in a much better place right now,” Gloster said.
A staggered rollout for the rest of the vaccinated population would allow “us to do things in a much more orderly fashion,” Jackson added.
Haywood said the state Vaccine Task Force plans to meet to discuss booster shots and how they may be managed. No decisions have been made yet.
But with flu season approaching, Gloster said “there’s going to be a heightened sense of urgency to move things along.”
WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.