The current surge in COVID-19 in southwestern Pennsylvania appears to be from a coronavirus strain that is less lethal than the original strain that slammed the nation earlier this year, UPMC experts said Thursday.

“You may have heard the news that there's a dominant global strain – one that seems to transmit easier, but is less deadly. That's the strain we are detecting and our data supports those characteristics,” Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC medical director for infection prevention, said Thursday during a press briefing.

In the past two weeks, Allegheny County has seen a surge of more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases, nearly doubling the county's total cases to 4,367 since the first cases were identified in March.

But the new cases are largely hitting a younger age group, Snyder said, noting that average age of those testing positive in Allegheny County is currently under 30.

“These cases are largely linked to younger people who contracted the virus, whether while traveling or while socializing without masks or proper social distancing,” Snyder said.

There has not been a corresponding increase in hospitalizations or patients requiring ventilators, as was seen in the spring, said Dr. Donald Yealy, UPMC chairman of emergency medicine.

“I believe we can keep it that way if we focus on protecting the frail, elderly and other vulnerable (people),” Yealy said at the press briefing.

'Necessary precautions'

Protecting the vulnerable takes the entire community following prevention guidelines of wearing masks, staying at least six feet away from other people and using good hand-washing and hygiene practices, he said.

“That means all of us doing it, all the time,” Yealy said.

Conemaugh Health System is also seeing fewer hospitalizations, despite the recent increase in new cases.

Both Conemaugh and UPMC on Friday said their hospitals are safe and urged patients not to put off health care for fear of contracting COVID-19.

“We are a large hospital, so the COVID-19 cases are a small percentage of our daily focus,” Conemaugh's statement said. “We continue to take all the necessary precautions to ensure our facilities are safe and clean in accordance with (Centers for Disease Control and Infection and Pennsylvania Department of Health) guidelines.

“Patients should not be concerned about seeking routine or urgent care and should never ignore or postpone emergent health care needs. Conemaugh would like to reassure our community that it is safe to come to our facilities should you or your family need care. Our team stands ready to serve your healthcare needs.”

“Delaying care is how little issues and small problems become big issues and big problems,” Yealy said.

'Those around you'

Snyder warned that the milder illness and a younger demographic should not be interpreted as less dangerous for the community.

“That does not mean that young people don't play a very, very important role in our communities,” Snyder said. “Yes, you may be less likely than somebody who is elderly in our communities to have a severe, unwanted outcome from the infection. It still means you impact those around you.”

He repeated the advice to wear masks when indoors with others and in groups outside and keeping a distance from others.

“All of these are really important, not just for protecting yourself, but for protecting those around you,” Snyder said.

Both UPMC doctors credited the Allegheny County Health Department and Pennsylvania Department of Health for putting in measures that flattened the curve.

Yealy declined to give an opinion on Allegheny County's decision to end indoor dining and on-site alcohol consumption, but said said he supports measures targeting specific areas of risk.

“I'm impressed that we are trying to do things smarter and effectively,” he said. “I think we should all be supportive of that. I don't think anyone wants to go back to broader-based shutdowns because it's disruptive for all of us.”

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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