In a Zoom press conference with reporters from throughout the region this morning, Genesee County officials pleaded with residents to try and help bring down the local COVID-19 positivity rate so the state doesn't put us in an Orange Zone, which would mean business closures.
"Our numbers are still," said County Manager Matt Landers. "They're rising to an unacceptable level, and it is very concerning to myself, to Legislative Chair (Shelly) Stein and Paul (Pettit, public health director), because we know what an Orange and a Red (Zone) does to a community. We know that it will negatively impact our businesses, and that's the last thing we want to see."
The seven-day rolling positivity rate for Genesee County is 9.2 percent. The 14-day rate is 8.3. That puts the county dangerously close to another lockdown order.
Landers noted that local residents, when going to bars, restaurants and local retail establishments they are doing a good job of following CDC guidelines: keeping their distance and wearing masks as directed. However, most of the local positivity rate is being driven by social gatherings on private property.
The contact tracing health workers do when a new positive case is identified is revealing a strong trend, Pettit said. People are going to private gatherings and getting infected. The secondary trend more prevalent recently is people coming home and infecting another member of the household.
"There's a lot of effort, a lot of communication going out, but ultimately, we need people to know, it comes down to choices and what people choose to do," Pettit said. "And, you know, we're asking folks to choose to try to minimize, and really from our perspective, do not get involved or not go to any nonessential gatherings that you don't have to."
Stein also asked people to be more cautious in the choices they make.
"Unfortunately, we have to step up our vigilance even more, cautious as the temptation is for gatherings, as it becomes stronger during Christmas and New Year's right around the corner," Stein said. "We cannot relax our social distancing to have our normal gatherings. At the same time, I don't want to be sending mixed messages, but Christmas and the holidays are important for our local businesses who are already suffering. Please, please take the proper precautions as you go about your shopping, practice, safety protocols, shop online locally if possible, be mindful of every action that you take."
There is light at the end of the tunnel, Petit noted. One COVID-19 vaccine has arrived and another is nearing approval for distribution. Even so, it will take months to get enough people vaccinated to make a difference. In the meantime, the message remains the same: follow the guidelines.
As local media reports the rising number of COVID-19 cases, there are still people on social media who try to downplay the critical nature of the current surge of identified coronavirus cases.
We asked Pettit about some of these common myths and misconceptions.
What about the flu? How come we never hear about the flu?
"The flu is obviously a concern, right? I mean, we have flu season every year," Pettit said. "Flu is different than COVID. They're not the same thing. There's a lot of comments and conversation around there that it's just the flu or they're not reporting flu numbers. We've had a very comprehensive flu tracking system for a long time. Flu is starting to pick up. People can go on the state's Department of Health website and actually look and see a number of confirmed flu cases all across the state.
"We do have flu cases locally. It's not widespread yet, so obviously every year we get a declaration from the commissioner of health at some point when flu is pervasive and widespread through New York State, and that's the official start of flu season."
Pettit also noted that just like there are some people with COVID-19 who don't get tested, it's common for people with the flu not to get tested so you can't really compare COVID cases, which is more frequently confirmed during this pandemic, than flu cases.
What about the false positives?
"I can tell you that all of our positives we report in Genessee and Orleans county are positive for the case that there's a confirmed lab test that shows they're positive," Pettit said. "When you look at the tests that are being done for confirmation purposes. Again, the PCR test is a lab-based molecular test, the sensitivity, and the specificity. So that confirmed positive. ... We're pretty comfortable and confident that our positive cases are positive cases.
"There is a chance of more false negatives with some of these rapid tests particularly. They're not quite as good, but most of them are around 93 to 95 percent accurate on the negative side."
Aren't other diseases are getting reported as COVID-19 positive case?
"We're not mixing up diseases," Pettit said. "We're not reporting flu as COVID. They're completely different viruses. There are different tests that detect the virus. So there really is no mix-up. I mean, we're specifically testing for specific diseases."
There are only 220 active cases in a population of 57,000. Aren't we overreacting?
"The big deal is, and again, I'm gonna go back to what I talked about earlier, the hospitalization rates in our most vulnerable folks to go with a high positivity rate. The big deal is we don't want to see anybody die if we don't have to -- if we can prevent it. ... If you look at positivity in cases, the viral load in our community, the better chance we can have of not impacting one of these folks that may be higher at risk.
"The more positives we have in our community, the more activity, the number of active cases that just tells us it's a snapshot of look under the hood, that we have a lot of transmission going on and that transmission's based on behavior. Sometimes we can't pick and choose who gets exposed to that. Ultimately, the goal is to try to get that lower. We want to see less active cases. We want to see a lower positivity rate."
There are COVID-19 patients from Rochester at UMMC. Isn't that contributing to our higher numbers?
Pettit said it's true that there are Monroe County residents being treated at UMMC. There are also Genesee County patients being treated in Monroe County. The 24 people currently listed as hospitalized are Genesee County residents, regardless of where they are currently located and no Monroe County residents are included in that number.
What about Batavia Downs? Why is it open?
"When it comes to businesses, again, we're following the state's guidelines on who can be open and when they can be open and what capacity they can be open at," Pettit said. "Obviously, when you get into different zones or reductions of different sizes and gatherings, essential nonessential services. Ultimately, when it comes to any of these types of areas, the most important things people look at are their risk, their potential exposure, and how COVID may play out for them personally. But any of the businesses that are open currently are operating at whatever the governor in the state has deemed appropriate and safe for them to operate.
"Ultimately there's risk wherever we're going out, which is why it's important to continue to remember, to mask in the distance and stay home if you're sick. So ultimately, we're not dictating locally what businesses are open or closed. It's all done through the state guidelines. And that's been that way since last spring."
And we asked Pettit address the oft-repeated phrase: "Don't live in fear."
"I don't think we should live in fear," Pettit said. "I've never been a proponent of living in fear, but I do believe we need to have respect. It's about respecting the virus. It's about respecting what the virus can do to not only us, but our loved ones and those in our community. And it's about respecting each other. And ultimately, as we've said many times, we are in this together, whether we like it or not. We are in this as a community and we need to respect each other's feelings and positions on things and ultimately do our best to come together during this time to get us through the finish line."