A lot of COVID-19 talk is about the number of new cases and the percentage of tests that come back positive.
Lately, the numbers have been overwhelming as Monroe County has reported 1,843 cases from Nov. 27-Nov. 30 – more than it did in some months combined.
One set of numbers has triggered some questions that the experts aren’t ready to answer. According to data compiled by the Center for Community Health at the University of Rochester Medical Center showed that as of Oct. 21 and then as of Nov. 18, the rate of COVID cases among whites in Monroe County had nearly doubled. The data showed that as of the same dates, the rates among Blacks increased 25% and the rates among Latinos increased 37%. The data was posted as part of the COVID-19 dashboard from the Monroe County Department of Public Health.
Why did rates increase dramatically among whites and less so among minorities?
“As a prevention medicine specialist, I’d like to say a lot of it is due to people following masking and physical distancing behaviors,” said Dr. Linda Clark, president of the Black Physicians Network and senior health advisor with Common Ground Health. “I would like to say that. I’d also like to say the energy we spent was well worth it in the (Black and Latino) community.”
But she can’t hang her hat on that. “We need to look at the data over time,” she said. “I don’t want to jump to supposition.”
Monroe County Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza also didn’t have a definite answer.
“Before we make any conclusions, let’s remember that we’re only diagnosing what we’re testing,” he said in a separate conversation than the one with Clark. “So I think we have to make sure we’re increasing capacity for testing in the city.”
The rates of cases are expressed in terms of 100,000 population for the purpose of apples-to-apples comparisons. But that doesn’t mean the number of people tested in each group is the same.
The county and the city are trying to boost the number of people tested. The Rapid Response Team is working on identifying sites in each quadrant where residents can get tested even if they don’t have symptoms.
The Rapid Response Team focused testing in the city for about two weeks in the early fall. Clark said that during that time the rate of positive tests was only slightly higher than the rate of positive tests for the county.
She said early in the pandemic, Blacks and Latinos were more likely to contract the virus because they were more likely to be front-line workers and had to rely on public transportation.
“Now that everybody is out and about, we’re seeing more geographic spread,” she said. “We’re seeing more spread due to social interaction as opposed to needing to go to work. That may, I emphasize may, be a reason for greater distribution in whites at this point.”
In other COVID news:
Hospitals on edge with rise in cases
On Dec. 2, the hospitals in the URMedicine system had 221 COVID-19 patients and those in the Rochester Regional System had 224. That’s more for each system than the combined number just a month ago. And the number of cases from Thanksgiving have yet to be known.
Some of the people hospitalized are nursing home residents who can’t return to their facility until they test negative, and hospital officials said that can take weeks.
But their message is clear: COVID-19 cases are rising, hospitalizations are going up, and the system is being stressed, both in its physical capacity to house patients and the emotional capacity of staff to care for them.
UR Medicine announced Dec. 2 that it was delaying certain elective procedures to preserve beds and providers to care for COVID patients and others.
Dr. Michael Apostolakos, chief medical officer at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said patients can be confident of receiving care at their doctor’s office, the hospital or an ambulatory center.
“This is not a reduction in elective surgeries because of fear of patients getting COVID,” he said during a Dec. 2 video news conference.
In the spring and early summer, many patients stayed away from their primary care doctors out of fear, sometimes to their detriment.
“We do not want to see non-COVID illness worsen because of fear of COVID-19 that will make patients not seek medical care,” Apostolakos said.
Rochester Regional Health is not yet postponing some elective procedures, and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Mayo also encouraged people needing care to see their providers.
But the message is that if the community does not flatten the curve of new cases by wearing masks, physical distancing and sticking only with their household, Gov. Andrew Cuomo could order a pause on elective surgeries, as he did recently at hospitals in Erie County.
Testing sites for asymptomatic residents
The Monroe County Department of Public Health announced it would work with the city, Irondequoit, Brighton and Gates to host sites where residents who are not showing symptoms of COVID-19 could get a free, self-administered rapid test. Children younger than 18 would have to be accompanied by an adult.
The initial sites are:
- Rochester: East High School, 1801 E. Main St., Saturdays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays beginning Dec. 5
- Brighton: Temple B’rith Kodesh, 2131 Elmwood Ave. 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays starting Dec. 8.
- Gates: 4 to 7 p.m., Dec. 9 and 16, Gates Memorial Park. Pre-registration required.
Information on additional targeted asymptomatic test sites will be posted on the Monroe County COVID-19 website, www.monroecounty.gov/health-covid-19.
Vaccine trials still need participants
Reports of one or more vaccines being available “soon” may be leading people away from research studies at a time when researchers still need participants in trials that gauge whether the vaccine really works.
“My impression, and maybe I’m wrong, is everybody sees this so close in the future, why bother joining a study, I’ll just get the vaccine when it’s available to me,” said Dr. Michael Keefer, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
That could be a long wait. Health and government officials are working out the priorities for vaccination. Essential and frontline health care workers, the elderly and people with underlying conditions likely will receive the vaccine first, and even that initial rollout could take a few months. It could be a year before the general public has an opportunity to be vaccinated.
To boost participation in trials going on in Rochester, several entities have teamed up on a media campaign.
For people who’d like a vaccine without the wait, being in a trial may speed the process. The trials aren’t a guarantee because participants are randomized into two groups – one that receives the vaccine and other that gets a placebo. Participants and researchers don’t know which is which. But in a URMC trial of the AstraZeneca vaccine, two-thirds of participants get the real thing. Participants who get the placebo are likely to move up in the line if and when the vaccine is approved.
For more about the trial and for vaccine facts, go to BringRocBack.com.