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Indiana County registered 110 new cases of COVID-19 infections since Tuesday, a two-day increase unparalleled in the county since record-keeping began at the start of the pandemic in March.

The death toll from the virus jumped by two, from 17 to 19, statistics show.

Possibly reflecting a spike in confirmed COVID-19 infections at State Correctional Institution Pine Grove, the coronavirus case total in Indiana County increased Wednesday by 69, the most in a single day — more than double the previous one-day high — since the start of the pandemic.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health said 41 more cases and two deaths were recorded Thursday.

The spiraling caseload has caused concern at Indiana County Emergency Management Agency, where the department director has encouraged community leaders to share the COVID-19 statistics and be vigilant about curbing the caseload.

The total increased from 1,281 to 1,350 in the 24 hours ending at midnight Wednesday, and rose to 1,391 Thursday in a report set for release today, according to state department of health. The changes included a hike of 85 confirmed cases and 25 presumed positive cases. Combined with an increase of 196 negative test results, the county registered a positivity rate of 35.9 percent for the two-day period.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections this week reported an increase in infections among the SCI Pine Grove inmate population from 10 to 65, a figure determined by institutional testing, and an increase from five to six cases in prison employees, a number determined through voluntary reporting by corrections officers and other support workers.

In an online news conference Thursday, Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the department has adopted more sophisticated testing measures and has averted the need for multiple and extensive lockdowns by sequestering inmates.

“We’ve come up with a scheme where each facility is broken down into at least three zones, then the zones are broken down into zones of incarcerated individuals,” Wetzel said. “We have gotten a lot more precise about who we need to lock down, how far we need to lock down and how long we need to lock down. This antigen testing that we got from the Department of Health gives us the ability to abbreviate lockdowns by doing testing of affected housing units. … We have a lot more knowledge about how the disease behaves and how to mitigate the spread of the disease once it comes in.” Wetzel said the department has begun testing wastewater for coronavirus at 22 of the 24 prisons, enabling earlier detection of the virus within the prisons.

At Pine Grove, contact tracing could only show that inmates received COVID-19 infections from virus that could only have come into the prison with employees, lawyers or community volunteers. And the earlier and more precise testing has turned up larger number of infected inmates yet to show symptoms.

“The vast majority of cases we have had are asymptomatic, so we wouldn’t know unless we tested,” Wetzel said. They don’t have temperatures, they don’t have chills, they’re not experiencing influenza-like illness, but we’ve ramped up testing to where we are detecting them. But the problem is generally they’ve been contagious for a period of time, so once you find one, you look at who their cohort is … and you test the housing unit and find multiple cases.

“At Pine Grove, when you see it jump from 10 cases to 60 cases, it implies … that we have tested the entire housing unit … and once the cases start increasing, we expand the testing. We want to get our hands around everyone who is positive, get them isolated away from everyone else, and get them back into recovery to stop the spread.”

By virtue of SCI Pine Grove being a maximum security facility for juvenile offenders, the average young age of inmates has also meant less serious cases of infection, he said.

“Because of who is in that prison, younger population, less older folks, we have not seen a lot of complications with younger inmates,” Wetzel said. “That’s generally with the older and folks who are on the vulnerable list with pre-existing conditions. We have a nurse check on everyone on the vulnerable list twice a day to try to identify if they have issues earlier. But Pine Grove doesn’t have a whole lot of older vulnerable inmates.”

Statewide, the department reported 470 cases among inmates and 213 active infections among prison employees.

The recent average daily increases in COVID-19 cases exceed the rates of infection at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in April, according to Director Thomas Stutzman of ICEMA.

Indiana County’s “community spread” rate is among the top five worst in Pennsylvania, Stutzman said.

And don’t blame Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where the positive case total accounts for 35 percent of the county total, he said.

“IUP’s impact has been dropping over the past month from a high of 52 percent of countywide cases, proving that community spread is the higher priority,” Stutzman said.

The county’s average of new positive cases each day from Oct. 19 to 24 was 18.29, the highest week during the pandemic. New cases averaged 16.29 from Oct. 25 to 31, according to the ICEMA director.

Troublesome to Stutzman are increases in patients at Indiana Regional Medical Center and among residents of personal care and nursing homes in Indiana County.

“Their dilemma (at the hospital) is they can’t release patients to personal care facilities due to their need for nursing care, and nursing care beds are not available for positive patients,” Stutzman wrote in an advisory today to Indiana County human service agency leaders. “I am also getting requests for (personal protective equipment) from home healthcare agencies that, up until this point, did not have any positive cases. They do now and need PPE for their workers.”

Stutzman suggests in the memo that area residents in all sectors have become complacent about keeping up with social distancing, wearing masks and regularly sanitizing hands and frequent-touch areas.

“I think we should all start talking more and sharing more about what is happening with our county numbers and the need to maintain common sense best practices to bring these case numbers back down,” Stutzman said.

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.