coronavirus covid-19 illustration file photo cdc dark background

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reveals the structure of the novel coronavirus. The illness caused by this virus has been named COVID-19.

While Lancaster County has seen over 500 cases of COVID-19 since the first case was reported March 18, the virus' peak is still to come. 

Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, said Wednesday that while cases are no longer exponentially growing, cases are still on the rise and there's still an expected surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. 

"It's essential, now more than ever, to please stay home," Levine said. 

Understanding the onslaught of COVID-19 information is difficult. LNP | LancasterOnline has gathered recent reporting on COVID-19's surge and peak to help our readers navigate the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Here's a breakdown of what "surge" and "peak" mean, and when the virus is expected to surge and peak in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and the U.S according to public health officials.

What's the difference between a surge and a peak?

Pennsylvania's Department of Health defines surge as "the increase in patients to hospitals in need of treatment for the virus." 

"The goal is to ensure that our hospitals are prepared for this surge, and that the surge does not overwhelm our hospitals and their ability to treat patients," Nate Wardle, the Department of Health's press secretary, said. 

Understanding when COVID-19's surge will hit is critical for hospitals. The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania said, "Pennsylvania health care facilities utilize internal surge plans to maximize the capacity to treat patients who have a particular illness (like the flu or COVID-19) and continue to care for patients who need other, more routine or emergency services." 

COVID-19's peak "would be highest number of cases we would see in a day," Wardle said. But when the peak hits, it will take several days to ensure that COVID-19 truly has peaked.

"Now, just because we peak doesn’t mean we can immediately return to normal life," Wardle said. 

When will the surge be?

In Lancaster County, the surge of COVID-19 patients at Penn Medicine Lancaster General hospital is expected within the next two weeks, hospital officials said in an interview with LNP | LancasterOnline

In Pennsylvania, the timeline of the surge is unknown, Levine said in an update Thursday, April 2. She added the Department of Health is working with the University of Pittsburgh to predict the surge and peak in Pennsylvania. 

Though there is still some uncertainty, Levine said researchers expect a surge in COVID-19 within the next several weeks. 

When will COVID-19 cases peak?

The number of COVID-19 patients at LGH is estimated to peak around mid-May to mid-June, said Penn Medicine Lancaster General hospital president and CEO Jan Bergen and chief clinical officer Dr. Michael Ripchinski.

Levine said in her April 2 update that it's difficult to predict the peak and has not given an estimated time frame.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, Pennsylvania will see a peak hospital resource use on April 13 — meaning hospital and ICU beds and ventilator needs will be at the highest. 

The institute's projection shows 7,428 hospital beds, 1,130 ICU beds and 904 ventilators needed on April 13. 

In the United States, it's expected that hospital resource use will peak on April 11, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects. 

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation also estimates the U.S. will see a peak in the daily total of COVID-19-related deaths April 12 at an estimated 2,644 deaths.