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York officials warn against large gatherings as COVID-19 death toll rises

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
A temporary patient screening and testing area, for the COVID-19 Coronavirus, is shown outside the Emergency Department at WellSpan York Hospital in York City, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York County broke another record  Tuesday for its highest daily death toll, and local officials don't expect the trend to slow down anytime soon. 

Fifteen new deaths related to COVID-19 were reported by the state Department of Health. It marked the second time in less than a week the county broke its record for the number of day-over-day deaths. The previous record was set Dec. 23 with 11. 

York County's total death toll stands at 394, according to state data. But county Coroner Pam Gay said the real death toll is likely more than 400. She said state and local data usually differ because the state hasn't processed the most recent reports, and her office isn't able to immediately subtract out-of-county residents who die within York County. 

"We're always a little askew," Gay said. 

Matthew Howie, medical director for the City of York Bureau of Health, said the trend is a "relatively predictable problem" considering the rising rate of COVID-19 cases in the county. York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler agreed that it was "very unfortunate, but not surprising."

York County hit 22,537 COVID-19 cases Tuesday, an increase of 244 from the day prior.

Gay said the rising death toll is likely related to large public gatherings held during the holiday season. 

"It has everything to do with proximity," Howie said. 

York City  Mayor Michael Helfrich shared Gay's suspicion and advised residents against holding big get-togethers. 

"You're potentially making your friends and relatives sick, and possibly even killing them," Helfrich said. 

Earlier in the year, Helfrich said York City had a lower case rate than the rest of the county, but recently there was an increase. As of Dec. 22, he said the city recorded a higher 14-day rolling case average than the county, with 1,375 cases compared with 1,333. 

More:COVID-19 kills 15 more in York County, a new single-day high

More:York County coroner: COVID-19 death surge overwhelming morgue

For Gay, she said the cumulative death data is scarier to most than daily numbers. As of Monday, York County had seen 83 deaths in the previous 14 days. She pointed out that York County just passed 300 deaths a couple weeks ago, and now the county is approaching, or has already surpassed, 400. 

The rising death toll is overwhelming the county morgue, which "frequently" has reached its capacity of eight or nine bodies over the past two weeks and saw overflow at times, according to officials. Gay said healthcare workers also are impacted, as many hospitals are short-staffed. 

With the holiday season  ongoing, Gay said she expects the death toll to continue to rise for at least a few weeks. 

"I sure hope that I'm wrong," Gay said. 

Gay discouraged residents from holding large  gatherings and encouraged people to get vaccinated for COVID-19 when the vaccine becomes available to them. Howie said it was especially important to be wary of gatherings with older people, as the majority of deaths linked to COVID-19 are people 60 and older. 

Howie and Wheeler also urged residents to stay vigilant about wearing masks and following other safety guidelines, including social distancing and washing your hands. Howie said though masks have become a political statement, it doesn't have to be. 

"It's a statement that I care about my neighbor," Howie said.