Health department holds coronavirus press conference


Benjamin Nigrosh | Assistant News Editor

Chair of the Board of Health Lee Harrison described resources available at the Allegheny County Health Department and CDC.

By Benjamin Nigrosh, Assistant News Editor

The Allegheny County Health Department will not have COVID-19 test kits for “a few months,” Kristen Mertz, ACHD medical epidemiologist, said at a press conference Monday morning. 

While ACHD may not have test kits, the Pennsylvania Department of Health will receive kits in the coming days, Mertz said. According to Mertz, once the state has test kits, ACHD can send samples of confirmed COVID-19 cases to PDH for testing.

“The state health department is starting to test this week, and we can get specimens to the state health department overnight,” Mertz said. “Hospitals will start to come on board very quickly, and commercial labs might come on quickly as well.”

ACHD held the press conference to provide information on monitoring and preparing for COVID-19, or coronavirus, in the local community. Lee Harrison, chair of the Board of Health, joined Mertz and chief epidemiologist LuAnn Brink to discuss the currently available resources for accessing new information about the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

According to Mertz, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, but she said she expects confirmed cases of the virus to be discovered when testing is more readily accessible to the ACHD. Mertz declined to comment on the number of potential cases being evaluated or tested by the local and state health departments.

“We will only report on confirmed cases,” Mertz said. “There’s no reason the public needs to know who is testing negative.”

Harrison echoed this statement, and said there “most likely” has been community transmission throughout the United States that has not been recognized yet.

“Testing so far has been relatively limited because of the distribution of test kits, but that is changing,” Harrison said. “The CDC [is] pushing out test kits to the health departments, state health departments, and the FDA is now expanding the ability of hospitals to also do testing for the virus.”

Before test kits are widely available, Mertz said, it is important for members of the community to understand the facts about the virus. COVID-19 is similar to the flu, Mertz said, in that it is a respiratory disease with symptoms including coughing, fever and difficulty breathing. But, she added, there is currently no vaccine nor are there approved medications to treat COVID-19.

“While some coronaviruses are common throughout the world and cause mild illness, COVID-19 is a new disease caused by a new coronavirus not previously seen before in humans,” Mertz said.

Mertz followed this by emphasizing that the likelihood of local exposures remains low.

Harrison said ACDH is committed to providing the most up-to-date information on the virus, including local cases and any updates on the status of test kits from local and state health departments.

“We encourage the public and our partners to use our website as a source of information,” Harrison said. “There are constant updates on the page, which also directs links to the Center for Disease Control.”

Pitt students can contact the Student Health Service at 412-383-1800, and Pitt faculty and staff can contact the Employee Health Clinic at 412-647-4949.