Erie County has reported a surge in COVID-19 deaths heading into the holidays.
There have been 19 COVID-19 deaths reported by the Erie County Department of Health since Nov. 1, including 14 county residents with COVID-19 who died between Oct. 19 and Nov. 19.
It is more deaths than were reported the previous two months, and a reminder that COVID-19 remains a deadly viral illness, said Erin Mrenak, county health department director.
"COVID is still dangerous for those who are elderly, or who have multiple medical conditions and their immune systems can't fight off the virus," Mrenak said.
This surge in COVID-19 deaths is far different from the ones the county experienced in late 2020 and 2021, which killed hundreds of people each year between November and January.
A combination of vaccines, immunity from previous infections, new treatments and COVID-19 variants that don't lead to as many lung infections has limited the county's COVID-19 deaths to about 10 a month in 2022 and has reduced the county's number of hospitalizations.
"What we see now is that COVID can trigger a complication like pneumonia, much like flu or other viral illnesses can do," said Dr. Christopher Clark, Saint Vincent Hospital president. "It's having an indirect effect on these patients, not a direct effect like we saw with delta last year or the original strain of COVID two years ago."
Older patients are the most at risk
Older patients are the most at risk of this type of COVID-related complication. The average age of the 14 deaths between Oct. 19 and Nov. 19 was 83, according to the county health department.
Some, but not a majority, of those deaths were residents of long-term care facilities, Mrenak said. There have been no reported outbreaks of COVID-19 deaths at any county facility in recent months, according to data from the Centers for Medicare & Medcaid Services.
Since vaccines are often less effective at protecting people older than 75 because of weakened immune systems, Mrenak said families need to take additional precautions this holiday season.
"First of all, if anyone feels sick or has respiratory symptoms, they need to stay home," Mrenak said. "Masks are always an effective choice to protect against respiratory illnesses, and try to increase the ventilation if you gather indoors. Open some windows or a door if you can."
COVID-19 and flu in Erie County, by the numbers
The county's increase in COVID-19 deaths comes as the average number of new cases and hospitalizations each decline. The seven-day average of daily cases dropped from 58.3 on Oct. 30 to 35.1 on Nov. 22, the most recent date available Tuesday on the Pennsylvania Department of Health website.
The 14-day average of daily COVID-19 hospitalizations has declined during that same period from 33.6 to 22.6, the state health department reported.
While COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decline in Erie County, its number of flu cases continues to rise.
A total of 389 cases were reported in the county the week of Nov. 13-19, a 51% increase over the previous week's total of 257 cases. The county has reported 972 flu cases so far this season.
"Flu is definitely off to the races," Mrenak said. "It's increasing much more rapidly than it usually does this time of year."
The county's flu season usually peaks in January or February, though last season peaked in March and April.
Not only has this flu season arrived early, it is sending many people to the hospital. Saint Vincent reported 26 flu admissions so far in November. Nearly all of the county's flu cases are type A, which is considered a more virulent flu strain.
"We are seeing patients in all age ranges," Clark said. "It's often younger people, older people and those with chronic health conditions."
No deaths due to flu have been reported in the county this season, according to the county health department.
RSV cases may have peaked in Erie County
The county's third viral outbreak, respiratory syncytial virus, may have peaked as 211 cases were reported Nov. 13-19, compared to 277 cases the previous week.
A total of 45 people, mostly young children, have been hospitalized with RSV this season. No deaths have been reported, according to the county health department.
"It's the lowest weekly number since October, but it's still a lot of cases," Mrenak said. "There are just so many people, especially young children, who don't have any immunity for RSV and there are no mitigation measures left in place."
Though some children's hospitals nationwide are reportedly filled with RSV and flu patients, Clark said Saint Vincent did not have any trouble transferring one young RSV patient to Pittsburgh Children's Hospital of UPMC earlier this month.
"We actually transfer more pediatric cases to Pittsburgh for other reasons and we haven't had any issues," Clark said.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: COVID-19 deaths rise in Erie County as cases, hospitalizations decline