On. weekly COVID update: Masks now optional on planes, buses; slight rise in cases, hospitalizations

Mask mandates are in flux as Pennsylvania COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations ticked upward with new omicron subvariants at the forefront.

Pennsylvania’s coronavirus case rate started a new upward trend about two weeks ago. After months of decline, the rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations also has started a so-far slight rise, based on data from the state health department.

Meanwhile, a federal judge ended the national mask mandate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC had extended the mask requirement on airplanes and public transit through May 3 as the omicron BA.2 subvariant was studied, but the judge in Florida ruled the mandate exceeded the CDC’s authority and did not follow proper rulemaking procedure. The US Justice Department is appealing the ruling.

For now, it is now up to cities, airlines, airports, transit systems and ride-share services to decide whether to require masks. Many major airlines like United, Delta, American and Southwest have made masks voluntary, though requirements may vary from place to place.

In the Lehigh Valley, LVIA and all airlines operating there this week suspended mask requirements. Masks also are optional on LANTA buses and NJ Transit trains.

Philadelphia announced on Thursday that it will end its citywide masks mandate, which only went back into effect last Monday.

The CDC still recommends travelers mask up. Spirit most Americans still support a mask requirement for planes and public transportation, according to a poll by The Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center.

(Can’t see the AP-NORC poll? Click here.)

Pennsylvania now totals at least 2.8 million COVID-19 cases and 44,578 cumulative deaths since the first cases in the state were identified in March 2020. That includes at least 170,000 cases and 2,325 deaths in the Lehigh Valley.

(Can’t see the case rates chart? Click here.)

The state is averaging about 1,355 cases a day, according to the latest health department data. That’s up 72% from two weeks ago, and is comparable to the first wave of the pandemic in April 2020 when cases reached about 1,600 a day.

Throughout the pandemic, hospitalizations and deaths have mirrored case trends, usually after a matter of weeks. As of Friday, statewide hospitalizations were up 15% from two weeks ago. The rate of reported deaths has stopped falling but has not yet shown a clear rise.

(Can’t see the hospitalizations chart? Click here.)

The bump in cases is expectedsaid experts from local hospitals who spoke with lehighvalleylive.com last month. But based on prior infections and vaccination rates, there is some hope that the numbers of patients and deaths may not be as severe this time.

About 68% of Pennsylvanians received all their initial vaccine doses, and about 40% of them got a booster dose, per the CDC. People who are unable or unwilling to get vaccinated against COVID-19 face a greater risk of serious illness.

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Steve Novak may be reached at snovak@lehighvalleylive.com.

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