York City medical director: Uptick in COVID-19 cases a reason to 'worry'

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
A bus driver exits Central York High School on the first day of classes Friday, August, 28, 2020. The Central School District opted for in-person attendance. Bill Kalina photo

York City's top health official said Thursday that he's increasingly worried about the spread of COVID-19 as students throughout York County head back to school.

Dr. Matt Howie, director of the York City Health Bureau, voiced his concerns as August brought record-breaking COVID-19 case totals in the county.

“I do worry two, three weeks from now, what’s going to happen with the opening of schools,” he said.

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More:Where they stand now: York County school reopening plans 2020

As of Thursday, York City averaged 87 total cases per 100,000 residents — its incidence rate — over the previous seven days, according to data from the city's health bureau. That's 74% higher than York County's seven-day average per 100,000 as a whole. 

York City's population is about 45,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Rates are regularly calculated per 100,000 people so they can be compared with other locations and data sets.

In real terms, York City is seeing about five new infections per day, officials said. 

But the city's relatively high rate of infection is likely linked to its population density, Howie said.

The generally small sample sizes within the city's data can cause that number to fluctuate significantly, Howie cautioned. 

Dr. Matthew Howie, of the York City Bureau of Health, who oversees the York Regional Opiate Collaborative, looks on as speakers discuss the "Warm Handoff" program, which gets overdose survivors from the emergency room directly into treatment for addiction, in the Medical Education Pavilion at York Hospital in York City, Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Two school districts, South Western and Northeastern, have already confirmed cases of COVID-19 since reopening. Others have opted not to meet in person at all.

And, earlier this month, York City School District ditched its initial plan and moved classes entirely online until at least Oct. 30.

At York College, President Pamela Gunter-Smith last week rebuked students as parties continued to take place on campus despite mitigation efforts.

"This is your official warning that this behavior will not be tolerated, and that there will be consequences to hosting non-college-sanctioned parties. Moving forward, College officials will investigate reports of any large gathering of students," Gunter-Smith wrote.

All residents at a house that holds a party will go before the student conduct board, she wrote. Penalties range from a ban from campus and college-sponsored activities to suspension.

Health officials say that extra caution is important, as York County has made it into the top 10 in two statewide categories used to track the spread of COVID-19.

As of Friday, York over the previous seven days ranked eighth in its incidence rate per 100,000 people and ninth in its positivity rate, at about 50 and 5% respectively, according to state Health Department data.

By incidence rate, York County was behind Columbia, Northumberland, Union, Dauphin, Armstrong, Berks and Beaver counties. Columbia led the state, with its incidence rate at 110.

As for York County's positivity rate, it fell behind Columbia, Armstrong, Perry, Northumberland, Potter, Beaver, Dauphin and Fulton counties. Columbia's 13.5% positive rate also leads the state.

August has already shattered case totals of all months on record and has brought the most extreme case increase trends since April. York County this month has averaged 36 daily cases.

York City  — a municipality that houses a portion of York College's campus — is also following the county's increasing trend, generally speaking, Howie said.

York City, which makes up about 10% of the county's population, has seen 772 cases since the outbreak began. That's 23% of York County's 3,269 cases since March. 

More than 14% of cases in York City required hospitalization, according to the city's data. There have been 12 deaths in the city linked to COVID-19, about 10% of the county's total 118 deaths.

Like the county, the city also had a big spike in April as mitigation efforts were not yet in full force.

The more recent increase, though, seems to be because of an increase in those age 19 to 24 transmitting the virus at a higher rate.

County-level data wasn't available. But the percentage of COVID-19 cases for that demographic in the south-central region was 13% as of Friday, an increase of 6% since April.

That increase seems to be because, unlike older individuals, college-aged students don't seem to be taking precautions as seriously, officials said.

"That messaging has not been as effective with younger folks," Howie said.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.