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Penn State, State College Officials: Vigilance Needed As COVID-19 Cases Surge

Penn State and State College leaders gathered virtually Friday morning to briefly address community concerns as reported COVID-19 cases grow in Centre County.

The livestream, which featured prominent figures like Penn State President Eric Barron and State College Mayor Ron Filippelli, consistently reiterated that personal action is needed to help mitigate COVID-19’s spread throughout campus and the borough, especially as spring arrives.

“The nicer weather, combined with the anticipated mass vaccinations on the horizon, are prompting many to forgo health precautions like masking and physical distancing,” Barron said. “It’s not time to stop wearing a mask and practicing other safety measures.”

Penn State has observed a large spike in cases over the past week. Between March 12 and 19, the university reported 254 new COVID-19 cases among University Park students and employees — its largest weekly increase since mid-November.

Since Monday, Penn State added 88 positives to its COVID-19 Dashboard.

Additionally, Penn State recommended students living in eight on-campus residence halls, as well those residing at Beaver Hill apartments, seek COVID-19 testing following an observed rise in cases locally. The university said it sends out advisories once local positivity rates in a given dorm or complex crack 2%.

Barron also noted Penn State detected the B.1.1.7 strain of the virus through wastewater testing on campus. Epidemiologist and biology professor Matt Ferrari, who said Penn State first found a sample of the strain on March 7, stressed the B.1.1.7 variant is more infectious and deadly than the “common” COVID-19 virus.

“We’ve been acting as though this was likely here in our community for the last several weeks as it was first detected in Pennsylvania,” Ferrari said, noting Penn State has studied the B.1.1.7 strain’s spread throughout Europe in its preparation efforts.

Ferrari estimated the strain could be up to 50% deadlier than common COVID-19 variants. However, current vaccines provided by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are just as effective against the B.1.1.7 variant as they are against traditional strains.

Downtown, Filippelli said COVID-19’s spread remains a major concern, too.

“This is not a matter of students being more lax or community members or visitors — it’s about everyone,” the mayor said. “I want the community to understand we are prepared to enforce our ordinance…Our goal is simple. It is to protect community health.”

Centre County has steadily reported COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks, including 72 on Thursday. Dr. Christopher Hester, chief clinical officer at Mount Nittany Health, said the number of COVID-19 inpatients at the hospital is at the highest level in six weeks.

As Pennsylvania gets set to loosen some statewide restrictions on gathering sizes and business operations on April 4, local leaders stressed it’s important to find a balance between supporting local businesses and upholding public health standards.

“The best way we can help our businesses recover is supporting our outstanding schools, making sure that our hospitals can provide care to all of us, and bringing more people back to State College,” said Vern Squier, president and CEO of the Chamber of Business & Industry of Centre County. “All it takes is everybody doing their part.”

Despite soon-to-be-relaxed regulations, Filippelli said the borough will continue enforcing its ordinance that requires mask-wearing and social distancing throughout State College. The ordinance, first introduced last summer, is currently in effect through the end of May.

Through that ordinance, State College has filed 139 citations, according to Filippelli. Each is punishable by a $300 fine, plus any additional court costs.

Meanwhile, Barron said that this semester, Penn State has charged 381 students with COVID-19-related conduct violations, some of which resulted in the suspension of on-campus housing or probation.

“I have to say, though, overall, I’ve been inspired by our students, faculty, and staff who’ve worked very hard and successfully to protect themselves and our community,” Barron said. “This is our community, and it’s our responsibility.”

Moving forward, Barron said Penn State is prepared to limit on-campus activities, including newly announced in-person commencement ceremonies, if COVID-19 cases continue trending upward. He implored students and community members to take precautions now to ensure in-person activities can happen later.

“We believe we can do it safely, but we can always pivot away if things become worse,” Barron said.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

By day, Matt is a senior majoring in journalism. By night, he's Onward State's managing editor. He's a huge Philadelphia sports fan, fantasy football lover, and washed-up drummer hailing from Collegeville, Pa. The quickest way to his heart is Margherita pizza and "Arrested Development" quotes. Follow him on Twitter @mattdisanto_ if you hate yourself or email Matt at [email protected] if you hate him.

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