On July 31, the State Department of Health removed three COVID-19 cases from Union County's total, giving the county 132 cases in the 126 days since its first case was announced on March 27.
On Aug. 1, an outbreak at U.S. Penitentiary Lewisburg ignited a spike in the county that put school districts there on notice that they should start the school year with online classes only. That day, the DOH reported 33 new cases in Union County, the start of what would eventually become 60 cases between the federal prison facilities in Lewisburg and nearby Allenwood.
Tuesday, the county reported another 24 cases, which pushed the total number of COVID-19 cases in the county to 262 since March, nearly doubling the total in 11 days.
In August, there have been 54 cases reported at USP Lewisburg — 52 inmates and two staffers — and six at Allenwood — one inmate and five staffers.
Congressman Fred Keller credited staff at USP Lewisburg for their response to the case-positive outbreak inside the penitentiary. He noted that Dr. Rachel Levine cited the prison’s case numbers last week, and said the ultimate decision of how to operate public schools during the pandemic should be left to local officials.
“I think if the schools can operate safely and they put forth a plan, that would be best a decision that they make,” Keller said Tuesday during a public appearance at Evangelical Community Hospital, Lewisburg.
The recent spike has pushed the county over the state Department of Education's new threshold for in-person instruction. The state refers to counties with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day window "substantial." As of Monday, Union County was the only of Pennsylvania's 67 to be above the metric.
State officials recommend if a county is in the "substantial" category for two consecutive weeks it goes to remote learning. From Aug. 31 to Aug. 6 — the most recent seven-day window — Union County's positive cases were 188.3 per 100,000. The number has trended lower this week — the next seven-day window ends Thursday — with 102.4 cases per 100,000 with 46 cases since Saturday.
Based on Union County's population, the county must stay below 45 cases in a week to drop below the state's new metric, which means the county will likely be above the threshold for the second consecutive week when new data is released Friday.
Keller encouraged schools to consult with medical professionals, something both Lewisburg and Mifflinburg school officials said they’d done in creating respective plans to open school buildings for the new year on Aug. 20.
“I think that should be a decision left up to them based on what they see in that community,” Keller said.
What’s being observed in Union County is the spread of COVID-19 beyond the federal prison’s walls. The state Department of Health reported 133 new positive cases over the 14-day period from July 29 to Tuesday.
It comes at a time when Evangelical officials warned Keller about soaring costs and lessened availability of protective gear and testing supplies.
William Anderson, the hospital’s chief operating officer, estimated Evangelical has up to a month’s worth of supplies to maintain current levels of treatment and testing.
“It’s trending up locally,” Kendra Aucker, Evangelical’s chief executive officer, told Keller. “But the good news is (USP-Lewisburg) seemed to manage it well. We have not seen any patients from the prison system.
“The majority of what we’re seeing is just from patients out in the community,” Aucker said, noting that includes patients from a Northumberland County nursing home which is experiencing an outbreak itself. Aucker didn’t identify the facility by name but state data shows it would be Milton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
Evangelical had eight hospitalized patients as of Tuesday morning. Aucker noted most hospitalized patients have needed oxygen treatment rather than more serious symptoms requiring use of a ventilator.