U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines to fight COVID-19 can’t come fast enough for Paul Pettit, public health director for Genesee and Orleans counties, who is worried that the two local counties are about to move into deeper levels of New York State-mandated restrictions.
“I believe we’re probably on the verge of potentially going Yellow,” Pettit said today during a Zoom videoconference for business owners and managers set up by the county Chamber of Commerce.
About 50 people logged in to the session, which lasted 45 minutes.
Pettit said the data and metrics of the state’s micro-cluster program featuring color-coded zones point to Genesee and Orleans at least going into the Yellow zone, and possibly to Orange.
“We’re not quite there yet that we know of,” he said. “The data and the metrics of how this is made up – I’m not saying it is secretive – but really the state is the one that is tracking all of this. It is driven by zip code and census tract and it’s based on the positivity rate within those census tracts and those zip codes.”
He said there are some areas in the City and Town of Batavia that are “probably getting close, potentially triggering that level, so we are monitoring that closely.”
Pettit went over the micro-cluster scheme, noting that the Finger Lakes Region control room, which the two counties are part of, is supposed to give the health department advance warning if the region will be placed into the Yellow category.
“We have not gotten that call yet, so I’m hopeful that means that we’re not going to be going Yellow next week. We’re still waiting to hear,” he said.
In Genesee County, designated a Tier 3 county by the state, it will be placed into the Yellow Zone if the geographic area has seven-day rolling average positivity above 3.5 percent for 10 days and the geographic area has 15 or more new daily cases per 100,000 residents on seven-day average.
It will go to Orange if it has a seven-day rolling average positivity above 4.5 percent for 10 days and has 15 or more new daily cases per 100,000 residents on seven-day average.
And it will move into Red if it has a seven-day rolling average positivity above 5.5 percent for 10 days and has 15 or more new daily cases per 100,000 residents on seven-day average.
The criteria are similar for Orleans County, a Tier 4 county.
“I think we’re getting close to this. Our raw numbers definitely put us above three-and-a-half in Genesee (3.9 percent) and for Orleans, it’s 4 percent for Yellow and we’re definitely above that,” Pettit said. “From the numbers, we may even be in jeopardy of going into the Orange level.”
Increased spread of the coronavirus will result in more restrictions to businesses, mass gatherings, places of worship, dining establishments and schools, Pettit said, and could mean reverting to lockdown measures implemented at the outset of the pandemic in the spring.
But, there is hope, Pettit said, in the news that a vaccine is around the corner.
“That’s a big positive that we’re finally moving toward. We’re getting to the point now (where) two manufacturers (Pfizer and Moderna) that have basically completed their Phase 3 trials and have published their findings … both of those seem very promising,” he said.
“They’re both reporting over 95-percent efficacy, so that’s a great number that actually rivals some of our long-term, other standard immunizations for measles, mumps, rubella. Those are around 97- to 98-percent effective.”
Pettit said that once the companies receive emergency use authorization from the FDA they will be “pumping out … 20 million doses by the end of the year from each one, and they’re going to keep ramping them up.”
He also indicated that other manufacturers are developing vaccines, and more will be available after the first of the year.
“That’s really what we have been waiting for … so we can start getting our folks protected and moving beyond these restrictions,” he said.
Pettit said the local health department has a mass vaccination plan in place that mirrors the state’s in that the first phase will target people at the highest risk – nursing homes, vulnerable populations, health care workers – and that later phases will provide immunization to those with underlying conditions and the general public.
He spoke of “closed pods” – giving the vaccine in doses of 500 to 600, for example, at nursing homes, senior facilities and health care systems.
“Once that starts opening up, obviously, we will be utilizing our community partners – pharmacies, health care providers, us (health department) conducting public clinics – trying to get this vaccine out as quickly as we can to the public,” he said.
Pettit said businesses could be included in this process and asked owners of larger companies to let him know if they are interested in holding a “closed pod.”
The public health director’s comments on related areas:
Shout-out to the Business Community
“We know that it has been a long nine months and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better. We’re entering a new phase here, so to speak, and things seem to be getting a little more active, and we have our new micro-cluster strategy that the governor has put out there,” he said.
“Overall, you guys have done a great job. While we looked at the type of case contacting in businesses over the last five, seven, eight, nine months, it really does show that you guys have taken this seriously. You guys have put together very solid and appropriate COVID plans. I know that it has not been easy. A lot of you have struggled through this – financially and trying to stay open and delivering the services in a safe and effective way.”
He said his department is advocating on their behalf.
“We’re well aware that the governor is calling the shots on these different strategies and how he’s putting restrictions in place, but we do advocate – we try to push back locally through our state association on things that don’t make sense. Why are we doing this or why do we have to have these types of restrictions?”
Providing Current COVID Numbers
“Obviously, our numbers have been increasing significantly, locally, and we continue to share those on a daily basis,” he said. “In Genesee County, we’re averaging close to 20 cases per day.”
Pettit said there were 281 positive cases in the county on Sept. 1; 311 on Oct. 1; 375 on Nov. 1; and 635 as of yesterday.
“From October 1st to now we’ve doubled our positive cases, and from November 1st – less than three weeks -- we have over 250 cases in Genesee County alone,” he said. “Orleans’ data tracks very similarly – a little less, but proportionately about the same.”
In Genesee County, almost 700 people are in mandatory quarantine with over 130 active cases – the highest numbers since the pandemic took hold.
“With that, our cases and our case investigations are identifying 10, 15, 20, 25 exposures per positive case, which is really driving a lot of these quarantine numbers,” he reported.
Driven by Two Types of Situations
-- Social gatherings, such as parties, birthday parties, gatherings after Halloween, based on actual data.
“Social distancing, masking is not being adhered to on the private side of life,” Pettit said. “You guys on the business side have to follow your safety plans and are required to make sure people wear masks when they come into the store, employees are masked and social distanced, but that’s not the case, obviously, when some folks go home or are having gatherings.”
-- Workplace exposures, primarily driven by employees working symptomatic.
“It’s difficult this time of year when we’re in our traditional flu season and other types of colds and viruses are circulating – everybody has sniffles and a little scratchy throat, but unfortunately, these are all COVID symptoms,” he said. “What we’ve been seeing over the past month and a half is related to workers coming to work and having mild symptoms, but they work anyways, and depending on the practice in the work environment around masking and distancing, it has led toward fairly significant transition and spread between coworkers. They take it home to their families, share it with their loved ones and there goes the cycle.”
Pettit mentioned the latest restrictions mandating bars, restaurants, gyms and bowling centers to close at 10 p.m. and the “controversial” decision to limit private gatherings to 10 or less.
“Obviously, that’s (the 10 person limit) is impossible to enforce and there is no local push for that. It’s more educational on our side … encouraging folks to think about their exposure and risk,” he said.
Data from the Finger Lakes Region
Pettit reported that in the Finger Lakes Region, which includes Monroe County, the seven-day rolling average is 343 positive cases. In Genesee County, the seven-day rolling average is hovering around 5 percent and in Orleans County, it is more than 6 percent.
The hospitalization rate has jumped from .6 per 100,000 in October to 2.35 per 100,000 now, a cause for concern as flu season approaches, he said, adding that more and more testing is being done each week.
The average age of a person testing positive in the region is 39, with 1 percent of the population reporting COVID-like symptoms on a daily basis. In schools, there have been 604 positive cases involving students and 279 involving teachers.
Options for Those to Get Tested
Pettit talked about traveling out of state and the testing that needs to be done upon return, but said many are hampered due to a shortage of testing sites and the likelihood that these optional test won’t be covered by insurance.
“Testing continues to be limited in Genesee and Orleans counties,” he said. “Sen. (Charles) Schumer was out yesterday (in Medina) talking about rural testing and trying to increase capacity for all rural counties. Bottom line, it still is symptomatic testing. We are working on partnering with UMMC and Oak Orchard Health to try to increase rapid testing in our communities, but we don’t have a lot of access to the test kits.”
He said free testing sites run by the state are at Monroe Community College, Niagara County Community College and at the Buffalo Sabres’ parking lot in Downtown Buffalo. They are open seven days a week and appointments are required.
“I encourage folks to utilize that as needed especially for travel-related or screening -- for maybe going to a nursing home to visit a loved one or (to go to) school, whatever the need may be,” he said.
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