ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Rapidly rising COVID-19 hospitalizations has brought on a second local pandemic state of emergency, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello announced Tuesday.
The first county state of emergency was issued back in March 2020 as the pandemic was just getting started locally and abroad. That state of emergency expired in July of this year as vaccination rates increased, and new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths fell to pandemic lows.
Bello and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza hosted a COVID-19 briefing at noon on Tuesday to update residents on the pandemic where they were joined by University of Rochester Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Apostololakos and Rochester Regional Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Mayo.
State of emergency
The county executive began the briefing by declaring a state of emergency in Monroe County due to rising COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Bello said he proclaimed the state of emergency to give the county more flexibility to counter the latest surge of COVID-19, but added that there would be no sweeping mandates instituted Tuesday, rather the introduction of a phased approach should conditions worsen.
“I am responsible for taking the steps tailored to the issues that Monroe County residents are currently facing,” Bello said of the state of emergency.
Bello said phase one of the approach would include the implementation of preventative measures, opposed to mandates seen earlier in the pandemic, or elsewhere currently in New York state.
Some of these preventative measures include mask requirements in county buildings, and other common mitigation efforts like encouraging masking in public, social distancing, hand washing.
“You don’t manage a public health crisis by dropping a hammer,” Bello said. “That’s why we’re going with the phases approached.”
Additionally, Bello said Monroe County would provide 750,000 rapid at-home test kits for residents to use before they gather over the holidays. The county executive said the number of rapid test kits reflects the county population so “everyone who wants a test, can get a test.” He said more information about rapid test kits and how they will be distributed throughout the community will be available in the coming weeks.
“This is not the same pandemic as last year,” Bello said. “Phase one enacts proactive measures, not just restrictions. By year’s end we should see that these common sense solutions are working. We do not need to live in a permanent pandemic.”
Bello said phase one of the state of emergency will include the following measures:
- A facemask requirement in all county operated facilities for both county employees and members of the public.
- Reinstating a work from home policy for Monroe County employees who are able to do so.
- Encouraging local governments, public and private sector employers to follow suit by instituting masking requirements for their employees who work in close contact with other individuals, and allow employees who can work from home to do so.
- Expanding rapid test operations in the City of Rochester, Greece, and Pittsford — Monroe County has purchased 750,000 rapid tests for distribution to help ensure safe gatherings over the holiday season.
According to the county executive, state of emergency measures will stay in place until COVID-19 hospitalizations are stabilized locally. Bello said people are eight times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID if they are unvaccinated. The county health commissioner echoed the sentiment of vaccine effectiveness.
“Monroe County has had 256 COVID-19 deaths since March and more than 90% of the deceased individuals over the age of 65 were not vaccinated,” Dr. Mendoza said.
The Tuesday briefing comes as Monroe County continues to see a surge of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. As of Monday, Monroe County was averaging 378 new COVID-19 cases per day over the last week, along with an 8.8% seven-day average positivity rate, the highest it has been since January 12, 2021 (9%).
Monroe County Department of Public Health officials reported 511 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday.
Additionally, the Finger Lakes region currently has 443 COVID-19 hospitalizations — the highest since February 5, 2021 (448) — including 108 in an ICU, according to the New York State Department of Health.
The local hospital leaders said hospital capacity was being stretched thin due to unvaccinated individuals.
“20% of the population that is unvaccinated is accounting for 90% of the hospitalizations,” Dr. Apostololakos said.
According to the Monroe County Department of Public Health Monday, 485,419 county residents are fully vaccinated, with 531,769 who have received at least one vaccine dose — 82.2% of the county population.
“We have to get our vaccination numbers up,” Bello said. “I don’t want to go back to shutting down our economy.”
As local hospital capacity reaches critical levels, health care officials say they are working diligently to not have to cancel elective surgeries, with a priority on more urgent procedures, adding that being flexible remains important.
“We will only postpone surgeries that are safe to postpone,” Dr. Apostololakos said.
“We are not entirely sure what the state will say on Friday,” Dr. Mayo said. “Although we are working closely with them, they are taking it day by day because it changes day by day.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced an executive order Friday aimed at boosting hospital capacity ahead of a potential winter spike in COVID-19 cases. Hochul’s order allows the state health department to limit non-essential surgeries, if needed, to ensure capacity.
Bello said he’s been speaking with the governor on how this executive order will impact Monroe County, and said he will discuss the possibility of requesting assistance from the National Guard to address staffing shortages in hospitals.
“We have beds, we don’t have staff,” Bello said.
Dr. Mayo said there were “significant” staffing needs, but said managing hospital capacity was a multi-faceted effort. Dr. Apostololakos said health care staffing issues predated the pandemic, but the past year and a half has exacerbated the issue.
Gov. Hochul said the order also will allow the state to acquire critical supplies more quickly. The move comes amid growing concerns about hospital beds and staffing — as well as a new concerning coronavirus variant.
The local COVID-19 surge comes as the World Health Organization issued a warning regarding a new coronavirus variant, known as omicron, which was first identified in South Africa.
WHO officials said Monday that the global risk from the omicron variant is “very high” based on the early evidence, saying the mutated coronavirus could lead to surges with “severe consequences.”
WHO said there are “considerable uncertainties” about the omicron variant. But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.
While no deaths linked to omicron have been reported so far, little is known for certain about the variant, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade vaccines. Last week, a WHO advisory panel said it might be more likely to re-infect people who have already had a bout with COVID-19.
“There is a lot we don’t know about the omicron variant,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We know it will come to us likely at some point, but we should take control over what we can control and get back to basics; six feet of distancing, and masking.”
To date, there have been no confirmed cases of omicron in New York, or the United States. The local health commissioner said delta is the more immediate concern for Monroe County.
“We know delta is here, and it’s here in force,” Dr. Mendoza. “We know who’s eligible to get the booster, should get the booster. We know there is waning efficacy, and a booster will help a further increase in hospitalizations. Let’s focus on what we can control. We know delta is here so rather worry about things that are our of our control, I think it’s prudent to manage what we can.
President Joe Biden said Monday that the omicron variant of COVID-19 “is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
Speaking from the White House Monday morning, Biden urged Americans to get fully vaccinated, including booster shots, and return to wearing face masks indoors in public settings to slow any spread.
“Do not wait. Go get your booster if it’s time for you to do so,” Biden said. “And if you are not vaccinated, now is the time to go get vaccinated and to bring your children to go get vaccinated.”
The United States began restricting travel to at least eight African countries Monday as the reports of the variant popping up in countries around the world emerged.
Watch the full press conference here:
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