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Dr. Joy Cotton speaks with her patient, Harold Engle, right, Elizabethtown, as his wife Nancy Engle looks on during the first day of operation at Penn State Lancaster Medical Center on State Road in Lancaster on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. Engle was the very first outpatient at the new hospital.

New COVID-19 hospitalizations in Lancaster County reached 60 during the week ending Dec. 30, 2023, the highest number recorded so far during this current respiratory virus season. That’s according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 60 hospitalizations were 25 more than the week ending Nov. 25, 2023, according to CDC data.

The CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health no longer track COVID-19 cases, making deaths and hospitalizations the most useful metrics available.

Lancaster County deaths from the virus were elevated during the last two months of 2023, with 13 deaths in December and 18 in November, according to state health department data. But that’s much lower than the county’s deadliest pandemic month, when deaths reached 235 in December 2020.

Total county deaths from the virus in 2023 as of Dec. 21, 2023, was 126, according to the state health department.

Dr. Amit Gangoli, an infectious disease physician at Penn State Health Lancaster Medical Center in East Hempfield Township, said hospitalizations are about the same or less than this time a year ago.

“We’re in a far better place as clinicians in terms of treating the disease,” Gangoli said. “We have a lot more evidence-based medicine. We know what works and what doesn’t work.”

But Gangoli said that he’s seen lower levels of vaccinations than in previous years — more so for COVID-19 but also for influenza. He cited what he called “post-pandemic fatigue” as well as changes in access. The federal government no longer provides free COVID-19 vaccines to the public.

He said misconceptions about how COVID-19 vaccines work are also to blame, adding people often see the shot as a “magic bullet,” which isn’t accurate.

“One of the things I hear repeatedly is, ‘well, I took the vaccine and I still got COVID, so it doesn’t work,’” Gangoli said. “And what we try to tell them is, ‘well, I’m glad you got the vaccine because if you hadn’t ... your infection might’ve been that much more severe.’”

The three vaccines authorized or licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax, and none are preferred over the other, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The J&J/Janssen vaccine expired in May 2023.

Local cases

While the CDC and the state health department no longer track COVID-19 cases, hospitals do track the rates of positive tests at their facilities.

At Penn State Health Lancaster Medical Center, 14% of 287 COVID-19 tests during the past week were positive, spokesperson Scott Gilbert wrote in a Jan. 4 email.

At Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, 16% of the system’s approximately 2,000 COVID-19 tests were positive during the week ending Jan. 6, according to LG Health spokesperson Marcie Brody.

WellSpan Health’s current positivity rate for all its service area, which includes WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital in Ephrata Borough, is approximately 17%, according to a Wednesday email from spokesperson Maggi Barton. She said the number has decreased since the holidays when it was closer to 20%.

Barton declined to provide exact numbers of positive tests in part because of privacy concerns amid low COVID-19 prevalence, she said.

“(W)e do not share specific patient counts for testing and hospitalizations now that the impact of the pandemic on patients has significantly decreased,” Barton said by email.

UPMC spokesperson Michaela Vallonio declined to provide positive test percentages for UPMC Lititz or for the UPMC health system. She said UPMC doesn’t track this information.

Patel and Gangoli both expect levels of the virus to peak in the next several weeks and then decrease.

“It is still too early and difficult to say if we will see a rapid increase in COVID cases locally over the next few weeks compared to this time last year,” Patel said by email on Dec. 28.

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