Pa. health officials decline new mask mandate, discuss vaccine initiatives

Department of Health Acting Secretary Alison Beam speaks at a press conference.

In light of climbing rates of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, state health officials have urged Pennsylvanians to get vaccinated. 

Pennsylvania exceeded 1,000 daily COVID-19 cases for the first time since May — the state reported 1,088 new cases of COVID-19 on July 29. The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases in the commonwealth is 710 — a 62 percent increase compared to last week. 

The recent spike in COVID-19 cases is due to the prevalence of the contagious Delta variant, which makes up around 85 percent of cases in the U.S., according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the increase in COVID cases, acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said there are no plans for another statewide mask mandate. The commonwealth’s primary focus in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is to encourage vaccinations, she said.

“Wearing a mask is one tool, but it’s also important to get vaccinated,” Beam said.

Beam also told reporters that the commonwealth will not enforce universal masking in schools, instead leaving it up to each school district to decide on masks.

Beam’s announcement comes in spite of Tuesday’s CDC guidance recommending universal masking when schools reconvene this fall. 

The new guidance also recommends that even fully vaccinated people wear masks in crowded indoor spaces in areas where there is significant spread of COVID-19.  Seven counties in Pennsylvania fall under that recommendation: Crawford, Cameron, Adams, Lawrence, Wyoming, Monroe and Northampton.

The CDC’s new recommendation reverses its May 13 guidance that vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in indoor spaces.

Instead of asking Pennsylvanians to once again mask up, Beam and other health officials are urging Pennsylvanians to get fully vaccinated. 

Beam announced a new text-based initiative targeted towards Pennsylvanians who have received a first, but not a second, dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Health Department has on record around 250,000 Pennsylvanians who have only received their first dose of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

As of Thursday, 62.5 percent of Pennsylvanian adults have been fully vaccinated and 78 percent have received a first dose. The vaccine offers robust protection against severe illness from COVID-19 — in Pennsylvania, 97 percent of recent hospitalizations and 99 percent of deaths have occurred in unvaccinated individuals, according to Beam.

The second dose of the two-dose COVID-19 vaccines is key to protection against the spread of the contagious delta COVID-19 variant.

“It is never too late to get that second dose,” Beam said. “There is no excuse and there is no time to lose.”

Beam also discussed the department’s community initiative to reach those on the fence about the vaccine. 

Vaccine hesitancy is one of the driving forces of low vaccination rates in some parts of the country. The Health Department is partnering with county fairs across the commonwealth to offer vaccinations to attendees and working with churches and community centers to encourage vaccinations. 

Acting Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson recommended visiting the Department of Health’s COVID website for the most recent information on vaccines in Pennsylvania.

When Beam was asked about the possibility of more serious surges in infections during the fall and winter in the event of continuously lagging, she said Health Department officials are thinking about worst case scenarios.

“[We are] just really taking this opportunity to really encourage folks to go get vaccinated,” Beam said. “That is our number one way of allowing us to have a fall that does not feel like any of the last year.”

Lindsay Weber is a writer for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this article first appeared.

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