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COVID rates creep back up in Lehigh Valley, but ‘not a cause for alarm,’ health experts say

That the recent increase in the spread of COVID-19 cases in the Lehigh Valley is still just an infinitesimal fraction of the virus’ proliferation in 2020, 2021 and 2022 is greatly encouraging — but an increase is still an increase.

As schools around the region have gotten back in session after a summer of travel and colder weather is not too far off in the future, the end-of-summer uptick of COVID cases and hospitalizations has been, understandably, worth a second look.

It’s already becoming a concern for parents of school-aged kids. Through the first few weeks of school, the Easton Area School District has had about 10 confirmed cases in students and faculty resulting in absences, a representative for the district confirmed, but those are just the confirmed cases. Anecdotally, because there’s such a strong familiarity with COVID-19 now, parents of kids experiencing COVID-like symptoms may not test their child, but keep them home out of an abundance of caution after recognizing those symptoms.

Hospitals are seeing more patients come in with the virus as well. Dr. Alex Benjamin, Lehigh Valley Health Network’s chief of infection control and hospital epidemiology, said in a statement from the network that there’s been a steady rise in hospitalizations since the end of July.

At St. Luke’s University Health Network, Dr. Jeffrey Jahre, the network’s senior vice president of medical and academic affairs and section chief emeritus of infectious diseases, said that earlier in the summer, the network’s 14 campuses had a total of three COVID patients. During this period, St, Luke’s has been averaging about 25 to 40 patients.

Statewide, Pennsylvania hospitalizations have been steadily increasing from about 165 on July 1 to just under 300 in early August to just above 500 in the first days of September, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s monthly tracking reports. In early September of 2022, Pennsylvania had over 1,200 hospitalizations.

So, this is a far cry from the worst of the pandemic. But it’s not something to ignore either. How should we be approaching this current wave of COVID?

“I think COVID should be somewhat of a concern,” Jahre said, “but not a cause for alarm.” There are plenty of cases among the general population that aren’t diagnosed and reported because, frankly, the cases are very mild. As became the case when the spread of COVID really began to tail off earlier in 2023, hospitalizations and deaths were much more helpful to focus on than cases, and those are at levels well under previous years.

In fact, of the COVID patients at St. Luke’s hospitals, Jahre said, about one-third are people who have never received any kind of COVID vaccinations. The bulk of the rest are those with underlying conditions that make individuals more susceptible to harsh infections throughout the pandemic (like those with heart or lung diseases, diabetes, obesity or pregnant people). They come in because of those conditions and are then tested for COVID. Two distinct age groups — those over 75 and infants under 6 months — are also at an increased risk.

People who fall into those categories should be more proactive in taking precautions, like wearing a mask in public spaces and, if they do contract COVID, taking effective medication like Paxlovid or Molnupiravir.

Individuals in those groups should also get the most recent COVID booster that’s been made available. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Federal Drug Administration approved a monovalent booster vaccine, produced by both Pfizer and Moderna, that’s starting to roll out across the country. Comparable to a flu shot, Jahre said, the new booster won’t necessarily prevent infection or spread, but will significantly dull symptoms and go a long way towards preventing hospitalization of someone otherwise likely to experience a severe COVID infection.

Because the booster dose doesn’t prevent infection, it may not be necessary for those who don’t fall into one of the groups who are at an increased risk for severe infection, Jahre said. Part of the reason the current COVID spread isn’t as much of a concern as it is in the past is because the current active strains of the virus, despite faster spread, aren’t nearly as fulminant, meaning otherwise healthy individuals, thanks to a base of previous vaccinations and built-up natural immunity, are only experiencing cold-like symptoms from the virus.

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