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Pennsylvania holds off on new pandemic restrictions

MICHAEL RUBINKAM and MARC LEVY
The Associated Press
Gov. Tom Wolf has let Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Rachel Levine, take the public lead.

HARRISBURG — Pittsburgh and the rest of Allegheny County reported a near-record number of new coronavirus infections Wednesday as state health officials expressed concern about the situation in southwestern Pennsylvania, but made no move to reimpose pandemic restrictions in border counties that are also seeing increased spread.

Infections are rising sharply in border counties like Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland, and Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, had signaled that mitigation measures were on the way, according to local officials who spoke with her. But Levine’s spokesperson said nothing was imminent.

Several GOP-controlled counties ringing Allegheny, including Butler and Washington, are challenging the legal authority of Levine’s boss, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, to order businesses to close.

“They told us an order was coming today,” Leslie Osche, Republican chairperson of the Butler County Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday, a day after she said she spoke with Levine. “We have no authority to close anything, nor would we.”

April Hutcheson, a Health Department spokesperson, said later Wednesday that Levine would not take action Wednesday. She did not explain the apparent change in plans.

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“We are continually monitoring what is happening in Southwest Pennsylvania and are in communication with local officials to keep them up to date as to changes happening in their areas,” she said via email. “Even small case increases are concerning and are being watched very carefully. We are prepared to take action as necessary to protect residents from the spread of COVID-19 and prevent people from getting sick.”

Diana Irey Vaughan, Republican chairperson of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, said the county would not move on its own to shut down businesses, even if it had the authority to do so.

“At some point, there has to be personal responsibility,” Vaughan said.

Butler and Washington are among the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, filed in May and still pending, that challenged the constitutionality of Wolf’s statewide shutdown of businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining.” Wolf has since lifted many restrictions, and courts have consistently rejected challenges to his power to order businesses to close during the pandemic.

Allegheny County, meanwhile, remained a virus hotspot.

The Allegheny County Health Department reported 230 additional people tested positive for the virus between June 23 and July 5. Allegheny has been struggling with a spike in infections as residents patronize eating and drinking establishments and head to out-of-state virus hotspots, prompting health officials in the county of 1.2 million to impose restrictions on restaurants and bars, shutter a casino and limit gatherings.

In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Wednesday:

The state Health Department reported 25 new deaths from COVID-19, raising the statewide toll to 6,812.

There were 849 additional confirmed virus infections across Pennsylvania, driven in large part by the 230-case increase in Allegheny County and 90 additional confirmed infections in Philadelphia, health officials said. More than 92,000 people have tested positive for the virus or are considered probable virus cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Associated Press reporter Michael Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.