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Rise in COVID-19 Cases Ahead of Thanksgiving Concerns Health Officials

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health. Provided photo

Update: Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Nov. 6 said Monroe County is becoming a problem spot for COVID-19. The rate of positive tests has gone from 1.7% to 2.6%, and he said areas of Rochester, Pittsford, Webster and Penfield are of particular concern. Monroe County, along with Erie and Onondaga counties, will receive extra scrutiny over the weekend.
In response, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said the area had not yet been designated a micro-cluster. The areas are designated yellow, orange and red. Depending on the designation, restrictions are put in place.

Monroe County is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases and while the number of new infections is not posing an imminent threat of a lockdown, it is spurring reminders to practice the prevention trifecta: wear a mask, stay 6 feet apart and wash your hands a lot.

As of Nov. 5, Monroe County has had 100 or more new cases on five of the previous seven days. Hospitalizations in the Finger Lakes region have nearly doubled in less than two weeks. The number of patients requiring intensive care also has doubled.

“How did this happen?” Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health, asked.

“We are gathering,” he answered.

He talked about weddings, parties, going out for drinks, inviting friends over, hanging out in the break room and not wearing masks and encroaching on the buffer zone. Carpooling with masks off and the windows up. Going to choir practice.

“These are the stories behind the growing number of cases,” Mendoza said Nov. 5 during the weekly press briefing.

“Too many of us have stopped doing what we know works, and that is taking its toll,” he said.

Some of the increase is due to clusters in colleges. There has been little infection traced to school with in-person learning. The health department said on Nov. 5 it was investigating potential exposures at two Halloween parties on Oct. 30 – one on Spencerport Road near Manitou Road in Spencerport and the other on LaBaron Circle near Imperial and Drive and Webster Road in Webster.

For the most part, Mendoza said, the surge is from community spread.

The county reported that cases have risen significantly in the 14612 and 14626 ZIP codes of Greece, 14580 in Webster, 14609 which has parts of the city and Irondequoit, and 14450 in Perinton.

It’s not just one age group. Multiple days during the past week or so have seen new cases in the double digits in age groups into the 70s.

Mendoza said that between 30% and 40% of people with the virus could asymptomatic – therefore unknowingly spread the infection.

“It is now safe to assume that if you are going out in public, there is a chance you could be exposed to COVID-19 if you do not take proper precautions,” he said. “This is not a place we want to be for many reasons.”

One is the potential strain on the health systems, making it harder to care for the general population if hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID patients. Businesses also could be threatened if there has to be another shutdown.

County Executive Adam Bello said there are no plans right now to repeat the closures from the spring. But he said the power to stay open and try for some normalcy “is in our hand.”

Here are some other questions from the news conference:

What to do about Thanksgiving?

Mendoza said the greatest risk of contracting COVID-19 comes from large indoor gatherings. Whether to invite family and friends for the holiday, or to be a guest, is a personal decision, he said.
“I think everyone has to look at their individual circumstances and try to figure out what risk they’re willing to take. … It is reasonable that some people will want to take some risk. … If people are willing to have large gatherings, I strongly encourage to use your masks whenever possible and when seated at the table, spread out.”

That message of individuality would seem to contradict what officials have said for months about the need to limit exposure to other people and the community being in this together – particularly with the potential for many people to have the virus and not have symptoms.

“I think the shared responsibility comes with taking precautions,” he said. “It’s recognizing that any of us could be the problem. For that reason, we all want to do the right thing not only to protect our loved ones, but to protect our neighbors. That’s what it means to know we’re all in this together. We all have to do our part to keep one another safe.”

What’s the difference between rapid test and the PCR test?

Mendoza said the rapid tests are best used to diagnose someone who has symptoms or has had a close contact with someone known to be ill. For surveillance – meaning testing the general population – the PCCR (polymerise chain reaction) test is better because it also is more accurate. People whose rapid test comes back positive may be tested again with the PCR test to confirm the result. The state has a testing site at Monroe Community College. For an appointment, call (888) 364-3065.

Will hospitals have enough equipment for a surge?

Each day, Rochester Regional Health and UR Medicine track their inventory of personal protective equipment and other items needed to care for COVID-19 patients.

“We are prepared for large numbers of ill patients,” said Dr. Robert Mayo, chief medical officer of RRH.

The bigger problem might be for patients with other illnesses.

Dr. Michael Apostolakos, chief medical officer of UR Medicine’s Strong and Highland hospitals, said reducing the number of COVID cases is important to ensuring that the rest of community can get care. In the first wave, hospitals stopped elective procedures. That move delayed services for elective procedures, and also reduced the money coming into the health systems for those procedures.