The electronic signs on the expressways around Rochester aren’t flashing the message “COVID is still a risk … Mask up.”
Even though 57% percent of Monroe County residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine and about 50% have received both doses, COVID-19 hasn’t gone away.
“We are still seeing anywhere from two to five patients admitted a day with COVID and the vast majority are unvaccinated persons,” said Dr. Michael Apostolakos, chief medical officer of Strong Memorial and Highland hospitals in the UR Medicine system.
As of June 2, Strong Memorial has about 70 patients admitted because of COVID and the UR Medicine system has about 100. At the peak of COVID, Strong had 300 patients and the system had 400.
COVID accounted for about 10% of admissions, a significant amount that continues to tax the system, Apostolakos said. “It’s kept the hospital quite full and quite stressed.”
The story is similar at Rochester General, which had 55 patients admitted because of COVID.
“It’s important that no one forget that COVID is still a very serious illness,” said Dr. Robert Mayo, chief medical officer at Rochester Regional Health.
Apostolakos and Mayo held an online news conference June 2 to talk about the situation at the region’s two hospital systems.
Pre-pandemic, UR Medicine was at 105% hospital capacity. In the early stages of the pandemic, many people delayed care – many out of fear of contracting COVID.
“We are now back seeing as many patients from the community with non-COVID illness as we were before,” Apostolakos said. “On top of that, we’re caring for another 60 or 70 patients. So it may not sound like a lot, but a hundred percent plus another 10% makes us very full and very stressed. And we’ve had a staff that’s now been working almost continuously at a high level for 18 months. It’s a lot of stress from working, from worrying about family members and worrying about loved ones, from worrying about their jobs.”
A year ago, Mayo and Apostolakos were urging residents to wear masks and practice physical distancing to slow the spread of the virus in order to save hospital space for people with other illnesses and to prevent health care workers from being overwhelmed.
Now, their message is for residents to get vaccinated – to protect themselves and to continue to protect the health care system.
“What could help our institutions and our staff more than anything is if our community, were to get vaccinated fully,” Apostolakos said. “We’d like to see at least 70% or 80% of the population that’s eligible get vaccinated.”
Apostolakos and Mayo answered questions on a range of COVID topics. Here is a selection:
Possible vaccine mandate among health care workers: Both said vaccination rate is higher among hospital staff than among workers in nursing homes and long-term care facilities here and nationwide. Mayo said RRH is speaking individually to employees to understand and alleviate their concerns. Employees who are not vaccinate are tested twice a week. As for requiring vaccination, both said that is a decision requiring community input and they would follow state guidelines.
Age of patients being admitted: Age is trending younger, which correlates with the ages of people vaccinated. As for patients with serious illness, Rochester General Hospital reported patients in the intensive care unit range from 25 to 101 years old, with 60% of patients younger than 60.
Demographic data on the Monroe County dashboard has not been updated since April 1. However, it cautioned that because of the surge in cases from November through January, a large number of cases lacked information about race and Latino origin.
The data did have an explanation that age-adjusted case, hospitalization and death rates were highest among Black and Latino residents.
Breakthrough infections: There are reports of people who’ve been vaccinated still contracting COVID. However, the doctors said those people’s illnesses tend to be milder and aren’t likely to be hospitalized. Reports are that the existing vaccines are effective against variants of COVID, such as the UK variant. However, data is being collected to determine the extent of the effectiveness.
Closure of the vaccination site at Kodak Hawkeye location: The mass vaccination sites run by FEMA and the state in Rochester on St. Paul Street, and sites in Buffalo and Albany closed at the end of May when the agreement with the federal government ended. The Hawkeye site opened March 3 and administered more than 184,000 vaccinations. Hawkeye and the other sites, “played a critical role in ensuring equitable distribution of vaccines throughout New York communities, particularly when the vaccine was in short supply,” according to a statement from the state Department of Health. “With sufficient vaccine supply and thousands of providers enrolled in the NYS COVID-19 vaccination program, New York State will continue its efforts of ensuring that all eligible New Yorkers have access to the vaccines.”
Over the past few weeks, Rochester-area health officials have said people want to be vaccinated in more intimate settings closer to where they live or in setting where they feel comfortable. That has led to more neighborhood pop-up clinics and unconventional sites – which may continue as health officials try to reach people who so far have resisted pleas to get vaccinated.
Concern about a spike in cases after Memorial Day: Unlike winter holidays, most Memorial Day celebrations were held outside. Also, vaccine is plentiful – unlike right after New Year’s. Apostolakos said he didn’t anticipate a spike in cases but said he’d be monitoring the numbers for the next 10 days. Monroe County has had a string of days in which it reported fewer than 100 new cases — and on some days fewer than 50.