Lancaster County saw mixed gains and a setback in its effort to quash the COVID-19 pandemic during April.
On the positive side, more than half of county residents received at least one vaccination, putting the county in the top quarter of Pennsylvania counties (17th of 67) ranked by percentage of vaccinated residents.
On the negative side, a three-week surge of new cases and hospitalizations in early April interrupted the steady decline in the pandemic that the county had seen in the first three months of the year. The decline has since resumed.
Vaccination: The positive news
Not surprisingly, the rate was far higher for the elderly, the priority group during the first weeks of the vaccination campaign.
More than 80% of county residents aged 65+ have received at least one shot. About 65% are fully inoculated, and 15% await their second shot.
Among the middle-aged, vaccination rates roughly corresponded to age brackets:
• Age 60-64, 66% at least one shot, 45% full and 21% partial.
• Age 50-59, 52% at least one shot, 33% full and 19% partial.
• Age 40-49, 45% at least one shot, 29% full and 16% partial.
About a third of those in their 30s have been vaccinated, and slightly less (about 30%) of those in their 20s have received vaccines. (An attached chart shows the exact vaccination rates by age group.)
A 3-week surge – The negative news
A bump in hospitalizations that began early in the month accelerated after April 4, Easter Sunday and the day when Gov. Wolf relaxed restaurant/bar capacity restrictions.
Daily COVID cases at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and WellSpan Health Ephrata rose from 43 (April 4) to a peak of 89 (April 22). Since then, the case numbers have been falling, dropping to 58 at the end of the month and 48 today (May 5).
Still, there were an average of 70 COVID patients at the two hospitals each day in April, more than double the 32 daily average in March.
Put another way, the county has seen a steep decline in daily hospital cases this year, from 130 in December to 65 in February to 32 in March. April returned the county to slightly above the February level.
No surge in deaths
Unlike past surges – and this is more positive news – the rise in serious cases requiring hospital care was not followed by a similar rise in deaths. If deaths had returned to their February level, we might have seen 90 countians die from the virus.
Instead, just 33 county residents died, a third of what might have been expected and only three more than in March.
There is further evidence of the effectiveness of the vaccine in slowing deaths among the most vulnerable:
• The percentage of age 90-plus countians who succumbed to the virus fell from 28% during the entire pandemic to just 9% in April.
• The percentage of virus victims in their 80s also fell, but not as sharply, from 37% to 29%
• Most surprisingly, only three people died of the virus in county nursing homes in April, compared to 16 in March, 51 in February, 55 in January and 109 in December.
The state Health Department data on COVID cases among residents and staff at nursing homes showed a pattern similar to that of the general population.
There were 13 resident and 72 staff cases in April, higher than the 5 resident and 40 staff cases in March. But the April case numbers were lower than in February, when 122 residents and 166 staff tested positive.
These numbers doubtless are low, because the Health Department has not been able to collect data from 12 of the county’s 32 homes.
The high numbers of staff cases suggests that many nursing home employees, unlike residents, are not getting vaccinated.
Personal care homes
In contrast, data on the county’s 50 personal care homes, from the state Department of Human Services, presented a complete and much brighter picture of continuing recovery from the pandemic.
Among the 2,500 residents of those homes, there were only two resident cases, no deaths and 10 staff cases in April. In March, there were 19 resident cases, 6 deaths and 19 staff cases. And those numbers were sharply down from the 204 resident cases, 7 deaths and 52 staff cases in February.
Where most cases are
For the record, in the general population of the county, there was a daily average of 177 new cases (positive COVID tests) in April, up from 135 in March and about the same as the 182 in February.
On a per capita basis, Washington Boro (27 cases) and Bainbridge (30 cases) had the highest positive COVID test rates in April, at 1.3% and 1.2% respectively.
In total numbers, two Lancaster ZIP code areas, 17603 and 17602, had the highest case numbers, 578 and 457, respectively. Both represent less than 1% of those areas’ populations.
(This report has been compiled by researcher Erica Runkles, sociologist Dr. Mary Glazier and journalist Ernest Schreiber.)