COVID-19 mask sign Solder Sailors monument

A sign on the Civil War monument at Penn Square in Lancaster in May 2020 delivered an important message.

THE ISSUE

Gov. Tom Wolf has announced that Lancaster County will be among the counties moving Friday to the “green” phase of his reopening plan (Lebanon County will not be among them). In the green phase, teleworking continues to be “strongly encouraged”; businesses that operated at 50% occupancy during the yellow phase may increase occupancy to 75%; barbershops and hair salons may reopen at 50% occupancy and by appointment only; gyms, spas, shopping malls and movie theaters may reopen at 50% occupancy; and large gatherings of more than 250 remain prohibited. Masks must be worn when entering businesses.

Lancaster County moving into the green phase is great news. We are elated for the business owners and their employees who have been waiting for this moment since March 27, when a stay-at-home order necessarily was imposed on this county.

Friday will mark 13 weeks since the county was shut down. They were long and difficult weeks.

And not just for business owners and employees, and their customers.

As of Friday, Lancaster County had seen 3,911 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and, according to the county coroner, 329 deaths. Parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses and friends have been lost in recent months, usually and tragically without their loved ones by their sides.

And, as much as some elected officials may wish to pretend this pandemic is over, it is not.

They pretend at their peril — and ours.

As the World Health Organization warned Thursday, the COVID-19 pandemic actually is “accelerating.” A record number of new infections in a single day were reported to WHO that day, and about half were in the Americas, including the U.S.

Progress in Pennsylvania

The Wolf administration has a lot to answer for regarding its handling of nursing homes in this pandemic. It has drawn other complaints, too; some of them were ours.

But the commonwealth has had notable success in the fight against COVID-19.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that Pennsylvania is one of just three states — with Montana and Hawaii — that have had a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases for more than 42 days, Gov. Wolf pointed out last week.

“We know our decline in cases is because of our choices, because more than half of states are experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases as reopening begins,” Wolf said, according to his official website. “Many of these states are experiencing significant case increases tied to reopening too soon or too much. Pennsylvania is not.”

Wolf also highlighted this: According to other data analyses, including those by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, “Pennsylvania’s steady decline in cases since April put the state among a select few that continue a flattening of the curve.”

We need to keep this trend going.

This means masking up.

Importance of masks

We know: We’ve said this before, repeatedly. But it seems essential now, as we’re on the cusp of the green phase, to say this again: We’re only going to be able to keep COVID-19 from overwhelming us if we do our part by wearing masks.

CDC and other health officials made a grave mistake by not encouraging mask-wearing from the onset of the pandemic. A study published this month in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences highlights the seriousness of that mistake.

Renyi Zhang, distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, and other researchers, found that wearing a face mask reduced the number of infections by more than 78,000 in Italy from April 6 to May 9, and by more than 66,000 in New York City from April 17 to May 9.

“Our results clearly show that airborne transmission via respiratory aerosols represents the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19,” Zhang said, according to Science Daily. “We conclude that wearing a face mask in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent inter-human transmission.”

So please, heed the science, not the culture-war nonsense that suggests that mask-wearing is politically correct. It’s scientifically correct — and it’s also required when you enter a Pennsylvania business for the foreseeable future.

Answer the call

Here’s another thing we can do: If we get a voicemail or text from the community health workers doing the tedious but imperative work of tracking down people exposed to COVID-19, we need to respond.

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Jeff Hawkes reported last week, “A $42 million public health initiative began May 22 to test as many as 830 people a day for COVID-19 in Lancaster County and to alert those who were in close contact with people who test positive.”

As of last Monday, “contact tracers had reached out to 502 people identified as contacts by 307 people who tested positive. But the contact tracers never heard back from 239, or 48%, of the exposed individuals, meaning they could have the virus and may not be taking precautions to protect others.”

Dr. Michael Ripchinski, the chief clinical officer at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health who is overseeing the contact tracing initiative, described the lackluster response as “disheartening.”

“We need to move the conversation out of fear to one of education and prevention,” Ripchinski told Hawkes. “If people don’t participate, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to control the spread.”

Maggie Dierdorf, a Lancaster General nurse educator working as a contact tracer, said, “I don’t think any of us thought that people wouldn’t be returning our calls and not wanting to speak to us.”

Said Dierdorf, wisely: “It is a scary time, but as a community we need to … stand together to stop the spread, versus not wanting to know the information and having this virus get worse.”

If you get such a call, and you’re worried that self-isolating will mean the loss of your job and paycheck, hospital case management workers will provide you with a letter you can give your employer. They will refer you to agencies that can help, and even arrange hotel stays for those who can’t isolate safely at home, Hawkes reported.

The caller ID number on your phone screens will have the prefix 544. LG Health spokesman John P. Lines said Friday that the hospital is working on a change so Lancaster General Hospital will show up on caller ID.

COVID-19 spreads easily. You’ve been exposed to COVID-19 if you spend at least 10 minutes within 6 feet of someone who has the disease (and that someone may not even know it yet).

As Ripchinski pointed out, the number of exposures could increase as our economy reopens more fully.

At long last, we’re about to enter the green phase. Please, let’s do whatever we can to keep moving forward.