Face masks will likely become more common inside Erie County schools, businesses and government buildings, starting Friday.
A surge in new COVID-19 cases and a rise in hospital admissions due to the virus pushed the county into a high COVID-19 Community Level, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The CDC updates the map every Thursday evening.
People who live in counties at a high level are recommended by the CDC to wear face masks indoors, though they are not required to do so in Erie County, either by the CDC or local government.
One exception is Erie School District buildings. Erie Schools Superintendent Brian Polito confirmed Friday afternoon that masking will be required inside all schools, starting Monday. Polito had said the district would mandate face masks for everyone if the county reaches a high level.
"We recognize that this may be unwelcome news for some," Polito said on the district's website. "But as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, our most important job is ensuring the health and safety of our staff and students. Masking is just one of many protocols we have in place to help us do exactly that."
Other school districts told the Erie Times-News earlier this month they will base their masking decisions on the number of COVID-19 cases within their district or at individual schools. One district contacted, Fairview School District, will continue to allow parents to decide if their child wears a face mask at school.
By the numbers
"The biggest takeaway I have about reaching a high level is that, if you haven't made up your mind about the vaccine, now is a good time to get an initial dose or a booster," said Charlotte Berringer, R.N., director of community health services for the Erie County Department of Health.
For a calendar of COVID-19 vaccination sites in Erie County, visit eriecountypa.gov/covid-19/covid-19-vaccine.
Erie County reached a high level by reporting 281.39 new COVID-19 cases and 15.4 hospital admissions for COVID-19 per 100,000 residents from May 12-18. The benchmark for a high level is a rate of at least 10 admissions if a county has a rate of more than 200 cases
The only measure for which Erie County did not reach a high level was its percentage of hospital inpatient beds used by COVID-19 patients. Its percentage is 5%, well below the threshold of 10%.
A county only has to meet one of the two measures other than case rates to reach a high level.
Crawford County now has a medium COVID-19 Community Level. It reported 237.51 new cases per 100,000 residents, but a rate of just 9.5 hospital admissions and only 2.5% of its inpatient beds were used by COVID-19 patients.
The good news is that few Erie County residents are critically ill with COVID-19. As of Thursday, 38 residents were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 17 in intensive care units and two who needed ventilators, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
"None of our COVID-positive patients are on a ventilator at this time," said Saint Vincent Hospital spokeswoman Monica Lewis. "Our patients with COVID who have the highest severity of illness in the hospital right now are more ill because of their other medical conditions."
Berringer cautioned that surges in COVID hospitalizations usually trail case surges by a couple of weeks. No COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the county since the week of April 18 to 24.
"It's a little early to get excited about a lack of hospitalizations," Berringer said. "They will certainly go up, but hopefully nowhere near the numbers we saw at the beginning of the omicron surge."
Here is a look at the county's COVID-19 measurements between May 4-10 and May 11-17, according to the state health department:
The number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases increased from 372 to 540.
The rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents rose from 137.2 to 200.2.
The COVID-19 test positivity rate increased from 16.3% to 21.4%.
The average daily number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 rose from 21.4 to 29.
The average daily number of COVID-19 patients requiring ventilators increased from 0.9 to 1.0.
The percentage of emergency department visits due to COVID-19 symptoms dropped from 1.7% to 1.2%.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie schools mandate face masks as COVID-19 cases rise in county