PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The Allegheny County Health Department is sounding the alarm about the continued increase of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Meanwhile, the highly contagious U.K. variant of the coronavirus continues to be detected in the county.

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“It’s with a heavy heart that I report that we are well into our fourth wave of cases here,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, the Allegheny County Health Department director.

Dr. Bogen said COVID-19 case counts continue to rise and hospitalizations are still increasing slowly. She also said there was a spike in COVID-related deaths the final week of March after the county experienced a steady decline since mid-December.

“I don’t expect cases to decline, at least for a couple of weeks, and we know the cause. Large gatherings combined with no physical distancing or masks, mixed with the variant viruses in our community,” said Dr. Bogen.

The B.1.1.7 variant, also known as the U.K. variant, is spreading across Pennsylvania. CDC data shows there have been 655 cases in the state.

Dr. Bogen said 75 cases were recently confirmed as a COVID variant and almost all were the U.K. variant.

Doctors have said this variant may be more severe and it spreads more easily.

“It’s a variant that is more likely to spread person to person than the regular variant. So it’s already a very transmissible virus and you put this on top of it and it’s more transmissible, somewhere in the 55 to 65 percent more transmissible,” said Dr. Lee Harrison, professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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The highly contagious variant of the coronavirus has taken hold in the United States and may be causing a surge of new infections, especially in children and younger people. The CDC said the U.K. variant is now dominant across the country. It’s 50 percent more transmissible than the original strain. The highest positivity rate of new cases is now among children between 12 and 17 years old.

The University of Pittsburgh started a shelter in place period on March 31 because COVID-19 cases continued to climb on campus and the U.K. variant was among them.

Health experts said evidence suggests the current vaccines are highly protective against the U.K. variant. They’ve said people will be more protected against all variants if more people are vaccinated.

“The vaccines are remarkably effective and most cases we’re seeing are people who are not vaccinated,” said Dr. Bogen.

Dr. Bogen is asking people in Allegheny County to do their part, just a little longer.

“The next few months are the final push, and we must all exercise self-restraint. This is not the time to give up,” Dr. Bogen said.

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Dr. Bogen said vaccinations are proceeding at a fast pace and they should increase in the coming weeks. The county received its first large shipment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Next week, the county will start vaccinating people in Group 1C.