With the start of a new year less than 10 hours away, it certainly would be nice if the world could just turn the page and put 2020 – a year marked by a global pandemic known as COVID-19 – in the rearview mirror.
Unfortunately, however, the challenges and stress caused by the coronavirus will continue for at least several more months and words such as quarantine, contact tracing, asymptomatic testing and vaccine will continue to be part of our everyday vocabulary.
Earlier today, Paul Pettit, public health director for Genesee and Orleans counties, with support from Genesee County Manager Matt Landers and Legislative Chair Rochelle Stein, updated the media on the latest developments and statistics via Zoom videoconferencing.
Pettit touched upon all the buzzwords mentioned above, as well as addressing what could be a new and even bigger problem – an apparently more contagious variety of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) that is spreading throughout the United Kingdom and has been identified in California and Colorado.
“About the strain, what we do know is that it is a lot more infectious, so it spreads a lot easier, which is the concerning part,” Pettit said, responding to a question from The Batavian seeking to know if local health officials have the capacity to test for the variant mutation of the virus. “But what we do know is that it is not any more aggressive or severe – it appears anyways – than the strain that we have been dealing with locally, but that again could change as time goes on.”
Pettit said not much is known about the new strain, but worries that due to the higher level of infectiousness, more people could get sicker at a quicker rate.
New Strain Could Overload Hospitals
“That again is a concern with higher positivity rates and mainly with the stress on our health care system,” he said. “If we have more folks getting infected, specifically more at-risk folks that will be infected, (that will) put a strain on our bed capacity and the ability to deal with those folks who need a higher level of care … and that could lead to a quicker overwhelming of our medical system.”
Pettit said the new strain has not been identified in New York, but "it being in California and Colorado, it's more than likely -- it's just a matter of time before it is identified (in New York)."
"It is being tested for out of Wadsworth (a state facility), so the state lab is looking for this variant," he said. "The 3,000 or 4,000 tests that they've run or analyzed has not shown it yet. We do not have the local ability to look for it in our rapid testing, but we did reach out to Wadsworth to see if they would like us to be part of a sentinel process where we can send them -- or make sure they get samples from around here to test for that variant."
Pettit also talked about the Moderna vaccine – a two-step process that is said to be about 95-percent effective against the virus – and outlined the pecking order, so to speak, of those who will receive it.
Again, responding to a question from The Batavian regarding who comprises the 1B group, which follows the 1A group of healthcare personnel, Pettit said he wasn’t sure beyond “certain essential workers” such as law enforcement and firefighters.
“We have a general idea … but the state has not really fleshed out the details of the 1B group … they want us to focus on (vaccinating) the 1A group,” he said, previously mentioning that the 1B group in Genesee County is estimated at around 13,000 people and in Orleans County at around 9,000 people.
After that, there is a 1C group (with close to the same numbers) and then “bucket 2” or the general public, he said.
Pettit mentioned the procedural challenges once it’s time to vaccinate those in 1B (hopefully in late January) because those in the 1A group likely will be ready for their second shot.
“We need to make sure we're giving that second shot at that four-week mark while trying to vaccinate new people in the 1B group. So, this is where it gets into the complexity and logistical challenges of this vaccination campaign,” he said.
Volunteers Play Key Role in the Process
When asked about utilizing volunteers from the community – namely the Medical Reserve Corps in Genesee and Orleans counties – Pettit said he is open to enlisting as many people willing to help in the testing and vaccination process as possible. Currently, many citizens have stepped up on an individual basis to support the cause, he noted.
“We actually have had one (a Medical Reserve Corps) in Orleans County for many years now and the Genesee County Legislature approved expanding the Orleans County one into Genesee about a year and a half ago,” he said. “Medical Reserve Corps do have an important role to play in medical emergencies.”
Pettit admitted that the local MRS is not “overly robust and populated” but mentioned that Serve New York is the statewide program by which those – especially healthcare workers – can sign up to help out.
“As we need volunteers, we can call up and activate those members who are part of Serve New York,” he said. “They are automatically adopted into our Medical Reserve Corps … and we will be utilizing folks through Serve New York.”
He said that he is hopeful that by the time the campaign is over in “three, four, six months, we’ll have about 200 to 300 people in our Medical Reserve Corps because once we have them captive, we’re going to keep them.”
Other new information shared during the 50-minute presentation:
Genesee County: 2,374 positive cases; 65,126 negative; 173 active cases in isolation; 489 in quarantine; 29 deaths; 1,854 have recovered, which means they have cleared the 10-day isolation period.
Orleans County: 1,342 positive cases; 34,209 negative; 195 active cases in isolation; 601 in quarantine; 61 deaths (mostly from long-term care facilities last spring); 914 recovered, which means they have cleared the 10-day isolation period.
Regionally (Finger Lakes): The Genesee County seven-day positivity rate is 11.2 percent and 14-day is 11.5 percent. The Orleans County seven-day positivity rate is 9.1 percent and 14-day is 8.4 percent.
Genesee County is higher than most of the region but is leveling off, Pettit said, adding that it could qualify for Yellow, Orange or even Red Zone status, but that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is “pivoting away” from micro-cluster analysis to focus on hospitalization rates.
Pettit said the University of Rochester Medical Center is the “hub” that oversees COVID vaccination in the Finger Lakes Region but that he is part of the task force that will help ensure equitable allocation of the vaccine.
“This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in New York State,” he said. “The vaccine is flowing – coming in slowly – and we’ll get it to residents as quickly as we can.”
The first group of people – the 1A group – is being vaccinated, with 284 staff members at United Memorial Medical Center already receiving the initial dose.
He said the vaccine is not available to the general public yet and that aspect is under the control of New York State. He noted that those who try to circumvent the system are subject to revocation of their medical license and fines of up to $1 million.
Pettit revealed the number of people who qualify for the vaccine in each of the groups as follows:
Group 1A – 4,892 in Genesee County; 3,421 in Orleans County;
Group 1B – 13,000 in Genesee County; 9,000 in Orleans County;
Group 1C – 13,000 in Genesee County; 9,500 in Orleans County;
Bucket 2 – General public.
Pettit also said that testing will continue in both counties – on Tuesday and Thursday in Genesee and on Wednesday in Orleans – and that contract tracing, while “difficult and challenging,” also is ongoing, but is in the hands of state authorities after contacts are made by local health officials -- a fact emphasized by Stein as she opened the media briefing.
Stein: Stay Safe & Support Local Business
"Genesee County does the initial investigation on positive cases and identifies those who are positive," she said. "The process usually takes 24 hours of receiving a test result."
She said after that state contact tracers handle the cases and that is where the delay comes in -- sometime four to six days.
Stein asked residents to be patient with this process before encouraging them to support local businesses, especially restaurants, while continuing to follow the safety protocols.
Pettit also said the state has changed the 14-day quarantine period to 10 days to line up with Center for Disease Control guidelines.
When asked if the data provides any sense of hope, Pettit said the “hope is the vaccine.”
“Getting folks vaccinated, getting them protected – the most vulnerable. The nursing homes, seniors, those with underlying health conditions – that’s really where we need to focus right now,” he responded. “As we start to get them vaccinated and protected, I think that is going to put us in a whole different position as we start to move forward with risk and exposure potential, which I think is going to move us hopefully to where we need to be.”