Monroe County reported more new cases of COVID-19 in three days than it did the entire month of September.
“It has been a very eventful week,” Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health said during his weekly update.
From Nov. 9-11, the county recorded nearly 650 new cases. On Nov. 13, it recorded another 300.
Just the previous week, the county had been designated by the state as a yellow zone, meaning the rate of positive cases passed the 3% threshold. By week’s end, the positive rate had increased to 4.34%.
Yellow is the lowest level of the microcluster zones. Orange and red levels bring tighter restrictions and could mean nonessential businesses and schools close.
Hospitalizations also jumped. On Sept. 10, there were 26 people hospitalized in the Finger Lakes region and six were in intensive care. On Nov. 5, there were 146 people in hospitals and 21 were in intensive care. Hospitalizations increased by about 100 from Oct. 29 to Nov. 5.
“Let’s step back and remember that we are in this together,” he said. “The pandemic is the problem. We are all fighting against it collectively, as a community, and that normal life is our collective goal.”
The eventful week began with news about a vaccine trial. Pfizer and BioNTech reported interim results that showed the vaccine being studied was more than 90% effective. The data were from 94 cases, which means it’s still early and plenty of questions need to be asked and answered.
Rochester Regional Health is one of the worldwide study sites, and Dr. Edward Walsh held a news conference to put the findings in perspective. Other studies are underway, and it’s likely that that more than one vaccine ultimately will be used against the virus.
Here are highlights from the both COVID-related news conferences.
Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine
Expectations. The stock market soared on Nov. 9, partly with the result over the weekend of the presidential election and partly on the Pfizer announcement that day.
“What other people do with this kind of data often is out of proportion to the facts that we have,” Walsh said. He said the interim results are encouraging but not final.
“What it says is that if can stall and pandemic long enough to bring a vaccine like this and some of the others through to their conclusion … if we can just be patient enough to wait a bit, it will be very gratifying.”
The results come from study participants who received two doses – although individual participants do not know whether they received the vaccine or a placebo. Walsh said the more time that passes, the more researchers will know how long the protection lasts.
“While waiting for longer term analysis, you also have the pandemic that is very rapidly spreading,” Walsh said. “You have to balance between that and moving early.”
Availability and distribution. Several companies are part of Operation Warp Speed, a move by the government to get a safe, effective vaccine to the public as quickly as possible. But companies still have to ramp up production and then there is the issue of distribution – including the order in which it’s administered to different groups of people. Walsh said one issue is the storage of the vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine at the point in its development has to be kept at minus-112 degrees Fahrenheit. Walsh said it’s not likely that neighborhood pharmacies and doctor offices could store the vaccine.
Monroe County update
Contact tracing. The Monroe County health department contacts a person who is confirmed to be positive for COVID-19, explains the isolation procedure and identifies as best it can all that person’s contacts. Mendoza said the number of contacts per case has gone up almost four. “If you have 271 cases, that times 3 ½ is the number of contacts we’re identifying.” The county works with the state on follow-up.
Testing in schools. Monroe County’s designation as a yellow zone means there are restrictions. Among them: the size of public and private gatherings, mandated closing times for gyms, bars and restaurants and testing of students and staff where schools hold in-person learning.
Mendoza said that parents should be able to opt out and that county will acknowledged good-faith efforts on the parts of schools to hit the weekly testing goal of 20%.
Mendoza said that as a parent, he initially had reservations about testing in schools but has come to see the value. He said even though there has been little to no documented transmission in schools, testing will provide another window into the potential spread of the illness.
“We believe that asymptomatic carriage among younger children is more common than among older people. But we don’t actually know how big that difference is. Testing in schools should help us answer that question.”
Mendoza and County Executive Adam Bello said the increase in local cases can be traced to gatherings where people did not wear masks and did not stay far enough apart. But Bello said police aren’t going to count cars in a driveway and knock on the door to make sure there aren’t more than 10 people in the house.
Enforcement. Each time Gov. Andrew Cuomo has talked about the increase in cases, he invariably said that local governments need to enforce the guidelines.
He said that type of enforcement implies that people respond only to the threat of punishment. He said the motivation behind the restrictions is to protect public health and keep the economy open.
But there is a potential hammer for business that ignore the rule. Bello said the Monroe County health department, the State Liquor Authority and the state police have a coordinated strategy for investigating complaints against establishments. He said people can call the county’s COVID hotline at (585) 753-5555.