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Gov. Wolf Easing Coronavirus Restrictions In 24 Rural Northern Counties, None In Southwestern Pa. Among Them

HARRISBURG, Pa. (KDKA/AP) -- Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday that he will begin easing restrictions put in place to contain the spread of Coronavirus in 24 rural northern Pennsylvania counties. The list of counties does not include any in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

All of the counties that are moving from "red" to "yellow" in Wolf's color-coded reopening plan are in the northwest and north-central regions of Pennsylvania, which have seen far fewer virus infections and deaths than the rest of the state.

The changes are to take effect next Friday, May 8. Stay-at-home orders will be lifted and retail shops can start to reopen, though other restrictions will remain in place.

The counties included in Wolf's announcement are: Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lycoming, McKean, Mercer, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Union, Venango and Warren.

The only county in that group to be left off the list was Columbia, which is still struggling with a relatively high number of infections.

Sources tell KDKA's Andy Sheehan that despite low COVID-19 case numbers in the Pittsburgh area, Gov. Wolf decided to postpone lifting stay-at-home restrictions in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region.

The biggest reason for that, said Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, is the area's "population density."

"As the governor has emphasized, we're taking a very careful, measured approach to ensuring Pennsylvanians can resume work and their normal routines -- or more normal routines -- very safely. The southwest region is not yet moving from red to yellow because, particularly in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, because of population density," Dr. Levine said. "We have certainly learned from our modeling and experts that population density is one of the main factors that can lead to a significant spread of COVID-19."

However, Gov. Wolf did say state officials are looking closely at the southwestern region to be on the yellow list soon.

"We're already looking at other counties to move from red to yellow counties," says Gov. Tom Wolf. "In particular, we have our eyes on counties in the southwest and a few in the south-central regions that have lower new case rates but where we have a few concerns."

To see the Wolf administration's full reopening plan, visit the state's website here.

Gov. Wolf has said that shutdown measures he ordered starting in March have succeeded in heading off the potential that hospitals would be overwhelmed with patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

An analysis by The Associated Press shows that only 27 of the state's 67 counties reported too many new virus cases over the past two weeks to qualify for a gradual easing of restrictions under Wolf's shutdown plan. But Wolf has grouped the state's counties into six geographic regions, and health officials are also looking at regional case counts as they decide which counties can qualify for an easing of pandemic restrictions. The analysis shows that three of the six regions still have too many cases to qualify.

Health officials also say the incidence of new cases isn't the only metric they're looking at.

Expanded virus testing, sufficient hospital capacity and the ability to quickly identify and contain flareups through what's known as contact tracing must also be in place. The state Department of Health will also use a new modeling tool by Carnegie Mellon University to help officials decide when a region is ready to reopen.

"Increased testing capacity is also a critical aspect of successfully moving counties from the red to yellow phase. Our current strategy focuses on ensuring testing is available and accessible for all symptomatic patients and also adaptable to the evolving landscape of the virus transmission. To accomplish this, we plan to make testing widely available by partnering with existing community resources such as retail pharmacies and federally qualified health centers," Dr. Levine said. "We are also planning to target resources where they are most in need such as long-term care living facilities, nursing homes and personal care homes. And we will continue to build our network of community-based testing sites, such as the site in Luzerne Coutny, which actually this week has been very successful in terms of testing more and more patients."

The coronavirus has infected more than 46,000 Pennsylvania residents and killed nearly 2,300, according to the latest Health Department statistics, while the state's efforts to contain the virus have caused economic devastation, throwing nearly 1.7 million Pennsylvania residents out of work since mid-March.

The step-by-step relaxation of state shutdown orders means some counties or regions move from a "red" designation to a "yellow" designation.

Under the yellow designation, gatherings of up to 25 people will be allowed. Currently, the statewide red designation bans all gatherings or outside trips that are not related to health, safety or going to work at an essential job.

Gyms, casinos, theaters and other indoor recreational, wellness and entertainment venues will stay closed. Restaurants and bars will still be limited to carry-out or delivery. Child care is open, although businesses must follow federal and state guidance for safety, social distancing and cleaning.

Schools statewide remain closed for the rest of the academic year, and visitation restrictions on prisons and nursing homes remain in place. Wolf's administration will continue to recommend that people wear masks in public, and require businesses and commercial buildings that serve the public deny entry to customers not wearing masks.

There is no word on when an area could move to a "green" designation, with all pandemic restrictions lifted aside from any federal or state health guidelines that remain in effect.

Meanwhile, Wolf has begun loosening some restrictions on business sectors. On Friday, golf courses, marinas, guided fishing trips and privately owned campgrounds statewide can reopen, and construction can restart.

More information on the Coronavirus pandemic:

(TM and © Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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