Dr. Mendoza on COVID-19: ‘Numbers are increasing, it’s not just a blip’

Coronavirus

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Monroe County Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza spoke with News 8 Monday about the county’s new masking recommendations, vaccination requirements, school prospects, the delta variant, and more.

Masking update

Earlier Monday, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Dr. Mendoza announced a new recommendation that all residents, vaccinated and unvaccinated, begin wearing masks in all public indoor facilities, consistent with current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Sunday, the CDC listed Monroe County with “substantial” COVID-19 transmission. The CDC’s reporting comes days after it recommended areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission mask up indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Areas with “substantial” transmission, according to the CDC, record 50 to 99 cases per week, per 100,000. CDC data Sunday showed Monroe County at 50.02 per 100,000 from Sunday, July 25 to Saturday, July 31.

“I’m very optimistic that people see the numbers are increasing, it’s not just a blip,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We are clearly entering a phase where the numbers are very consistently increasing. And my hope is that people will look at the numbers and come to the same conclusion that we have: Wearing a mask, even if you’re vaccinated, will go a long way toward preventing that spread indoors.”

Additionally, the officials announced Monday all Monroe County employees will be required to wear masks or face coverings in public and common areas at all county-operated facilities, effective Tuesday.

Schools

With schools set to reopen in about a month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on local districts in areas of high transmission rates Monday to start planning, and institute a vaccination requirement for teachers and district employees — similar to the one he announced last week for state employees and patient-facing health care workers at state hospitals.

“I think school districts should say ‘vaccinate or test,’” Gov. Cuomo said. “Schools open in one month and if you don’t set a policy today, you’re going to have chaos in one month.”

Under the governor’s plan, state employees must show proof of vaccination or undergo regular testing in order to head into work.

“I believe school districts should say today, teachers must get vaccinated or tested weekly, if you are in a CDC high-risk area, the red or the yellow zones,” Gov. Cuomo said. “I think they should say that to teachers today.”

Officials from the New York State United Teachers union said they support encouraging more vaccinations, but not a vaccine mandate:

“We have advocated since the beginning of the year that any educator who wants a vaccine should have easy access to one. We would support local efforts to encourage more vaccinations, such as through programs that require that those who are not vaccinated get tested on a regular basis. But it’s critical that districts come up with plans to make testing available on-site and at no cost. What we have not supported is a vaccine mandate,” the union said in a statement.

Dr. Mendoza said the goal for now is for all schools to be open in full, but admits the ever-evolving pandemic makes it difficult to plan for the future.

“Our goal is for all schools to be open full time as normal,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We know there won’t be anything totally normal about the school year to come, but anything we can do now — and I think masking is what we can do right now to get the odds in our favor if you will. Vaccination now will be helpful in five weeks, but we know that schools need to plan sooner than that. They’ll be planning all along, so we want to do everything we can to put the odds in the favor of having our kids back in school full time.

“The reality is indoor spaces include schools, and if the rate continues as substantially as it is, and if we continue to follow the CDC guidelines, then we will have to be masking up at schools,” Dr. Mendoza said.

Vaccine requirements

Also Monday, Bello and Dr. Mendoza announced Rochester’s major health care providers will require their unvaccinated health care workers to undergo regular COVID-19 testing beginning in September.

In line with New York’s vaccine mandate for state employees, and patient-facing health care workers at state hospitals, employees of Monroe Community Hospital, the Monroe County Department of Public Health, Rochester Regional Health, URMC, the University of Rochester and UR Medicine affiliates will need to be vaccinated by Wednesday, September 8, or undergo frequent regular COVID testing.

The September 8 target date is two days after the state’s mandate which is effective on Labor Day, September 6.

While details vary slightly at each employer, Dr. Mendoza said “all have agreed on a common approach to ensuring a safe environment for staff members and the people they serve,” including:

  • Employees will be required to document their COVID vaccine status–vaccinated, choosing not to be vaccinated, approved medical exemption or approved religious exemption
  • Soon after September 8, unvaccinated employees will be required to undergo frequent regular COVID testing, to wear masks indoors and practice social distancing at work
  • Employees who decline to report their status or to undergo testing will face disciplinary consequences
  • Employees vaccinated after September 8 can be released from the testing, masking, and distancing requirements once their fully vaccinated status is documented with the employer

“In the hospitals, they’re requiring either a vaccine or testing,” Dr. Mendoza said. “So people still have that choice, but we certainly hope people will get the vaccine because we know that’s the most effective way to stop this virus in its tracks, but there are going to be people, for whatever reason, who are not yet vaccinated. We want to keep our patients safe, we want to keep our colleagues and our health care heroes safe, and we want to make sure we’ve done everything we can to prevent the spread in our hospitals. If we can’t get everybody vaccinated, we’ll want to cover our bases and test everyone else.”

The health commissioner said the overarching plan remains the same as it has been: Follow the science and keep people safe.

“We hope we’ll keep our patients safe, we hope we’ll keep out health care staff and employees safe,” Dr. Mendoza said. “That is the No. 1 goal — our goal all along has been to take the science and apply it to keep our health care workforce safe. Last thing we want to see is a surge in our hospitals again. We just don’t want to get to that point, so we want to do everything we can right now to prevent the problems.

Where we are, where we’re going

Monroe County’s daily new COVID-19 cases and average positivity rates have been steadily climbing since late June. After weeks of relatively low COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Finger Lakes region, the numbers have more than doubled in the past 10 days, according to the New York State Department of Health:

The health commissioner said Monday that virus hospitalizations is usually a lagging indicator and that a surge in new cases will inevitably mean more hospitalizations.

“My hope is that if we can prevent the spread, we never have to see the day where hospitalizations go up, and deaths later go up,” Dr. Mendoza said. “But we also know that looking back through the pandemic, when we’ve seen cases go up, and we haven’t been able to nip it in the bud, hospitalizations increase and deaths follow. And we just don’t want to get to that point.”

The delta variant is now the dominant coronavirus train in the U.S. and after being discovered in local samples a few weeks back, the health commissioner says he believes the variant, which is more contagious than earlier strains, is present in Monroe County.

“Based on national data and the regional level, there’s no reason not to suspect the delta isn’t here in full force,” Dr. Mendoza said.

The health commissioner said that delta is a “new beast,” adding that it’s more transmissible and contagious than earlier iterations of the coronavirus. He also said he understands if people are feeling overwhelmed with the flood of new updates and developments on the pandemic front recently.

“There’s a lot of information coming out today, and I can understand why people feel like there’s a lot coming at us all at once,” Dr. Mendoza said. “But the reality is we’ve been planning for this day, and hoping it would never come, but we’ve been planning for this day now for weeks and we’re slowly going to reevaluate as every day and week goes by, and we’ll be looking at the numbers, and try to convey, as best as possible, what we know, and share that with the public.”

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