Erie County saw its number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases decline last week by nearly 18%, a possible sign that the recent record-high surge spurred by the omicron variant has peaked.
Local health officials aren't convinced, however, saying the drop was more likely caused by Monday's snowstorm. Or that more people with COVID are using at-home tests or not getting tested at all, so their cases are not reported unless they seek medical treatment.
"I think that — with the explosion of cases — more people are likely saying, 'It's probably COVID. No reason to get tested,' when they get sick," Howard Nadworny, M.D., a Saint Vincent Hospital infectious diseases specialist and Erie County Department of Health adviser, said in an email. "But if they don't stay home or wear a really good mask, they're probably spreading it also."
Nadworny also said the most recent report of COVID-19 virus levels in samples of Erie wastewater shows that the peak could come in the next couple of weeks.
These levels skyrocketed last week to their highest totals since the pandemic started — about a 50% increase from just a month ago.
"This indicates not only extremely widespread infection in the county but also that we have likely not reached the peak of infections yet," Nadworny said Wednesday on the county Health Department website. "There was a brief drop in late December, likely indicating the decline of delta cases, just before the surge from omicron, which is probably now the main variant spreading in Erie County."
But there is no denying the county saw a drop in new cases, from 3,337 reported Jan. 7-13 to 2,740 reported Jan. 14-20, a decline of 17.9%.
The county's average daily number of COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to increase last week, from 123.6 to 138.4. The number of COVID-19 patients who needed ventilators also increased, from an average of 9.6 a day to 12.1.
The county has reported just four deaths so far in January due to COVID-19 complications, compared to 71 in December.
COVID-19 hospitalization and death trends tend to lag behind new case trends. In recent days, the county's number of COVID-19 hospitalizations plateaued in the mid-140s before dropping to 130 on Friday, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Erie hospital leaders have cautioned against reading too much into one day's report, since COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped temporarily during previous surges.
The county's 14-day moving average of daily COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to increase Friday to 132.2.
That rate of increase had slowed over the previous three days, however, after Saint Vincent reported a record-high number of COVID-19 admissions last week and UPMC Hamot reported its second-highest weekly total since the pandemic started.
Many of those patients were not admitted because of COVID but tested positive after arriving at the hospital. It shows the omicron variant might not make people as sick but has spread throughout the community.
Hospital leaders couldn't specify how many of those patients were admitted for other reasons but said it's a higher percentage than they saw previously in the pandemic.
"We had 24 admissions on (Jan. 14) and I can clearly say that not all of them were in the hospital for COVID-related reasons," said Christopher Clark, D.O., Saint Vincent president.
By the numbers
Here is a look at the rest of the county's COVID-19 measurements between Jan. 7-13 and Jan. 14-20 from the state Health Department:
The incidence rate of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents decreased from 1,237.2 to 1,015.8.
The COVID-19 test positivity rate dropped from 39.5% to 36.8%.
The average daily number of COVID-19 patients requiring ventilators rose from 9.6 to 12.1.
The percentage of emergency department visits due to COVID-19 symptoms increased from 1.8% to 1.9%.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: COVID-19 cases drop 17.9% in Erie County but peak might not be over