Another COVID-19 surge in Finger Lakes, Western New York: ‘There’s no doubt about it’


ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The recent regional resurgence of COVID-19 in an issue that needs to be tackled by collaboration and cooperation as we head into the holiday season.

That was the message Monday from county officials and hospital leaders during a virtual COVID-19 press briefing. Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza were joined by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Erie County Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein, University of Rochester Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Apostololakos, Rochester Regional Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Mayo, and hospital leaders from the Buffalo area.

“We’re coming together to raise awareness of our rapidly rising COVID-19 infection rates,” Bello said. “What’s more concerning is the corresponding spike in hospitalizations. We both recognize this is a regional problem, and a regional call to action.”

“We are in a fourth spike,” Poloncarz said. “There is no doubt about it.”

Both the Finger Lakes and Western New York have witnessed a recent surge in terms of new COVID-19 cases, and the regions have the two highest average positivity rates of all regions in New York state, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office. Both regions currently have average positivity rates that are more than twice the New York state average.

According to the Erie County executive, this issue is not isolated to just Monroe and Erie Counties, but the overall regions.

“Some of the counties with the highest rates are the counties in between Monroe and Erie, like Orleans, Genesee , Wyoming, and in the Southern Tier — areas that also have a correspondingly lower vaccination rate than Monroe and Erie,” Poloncarz said. “I bring this up because I want people to understand that this is not just a Buffalo or Rochester issue. This is an issue for all of Western New York and the Finger Lakes, and actually they are worse than you would expect because they have a less dense population. That’s why we think it’s very important to get this message out today.”

“Rural counties have the highest [positivity] rates in the state right now,” Burstein said. “We know from experience that high number of cases mean increases in hospitalizations, and very sadly, some of these people will die.”

Bello reported 347 new COVID-19 cases in Monroe County Monday, bringing the county’s seven-day average of daily new cases to 418; up from 241 and 218 last month, respectively, and up from 260 and 238 from this date last year, respectively. 515 new cases were reported Saturday, and 337 new cases were reported Sunday.

The seven-day average positivity rate also increased, to 7.7 percent.

Monroe County health officials reported four additional COVID-19 deaths Monday, bringing the total to 1,459.

Additionally, Bello reported that there are currently 289 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Monroe County, including 82 in an ICU. Those new numbers are up from 229 and 52 last month, and up from 183 and 33 on this date last year.

In Erie County, Poloncarz said area hospitals there have been at 90% for the past couple of weeks, adding that Erie is experiencing accelerating rates now seen since the initial COVID-19 wave.

“These numbers paint a clear and concerning picture of what’s happening,” Bello said. “We’re yet again seeing an increase in infection rates and hospitalization rates, which are happening for a number of reasons: The return to school, new college semester, colder weather, and of course, the delta variant.”

“We know that a lot of these cases from people gathering in private parties and gatherings in homes,” Poloncarz said. “We need you to be careful.”

The Monroe County Executive said the current COVID-19 situation is as bad as it’s been since the community was coming down from the holiday spike of last year, but it’s different now because the numbers are on the upswing, but also because vaccines are available.

“These increases are a major concern and we do not want a repeat of last year, when we saw continued increases, strains on our hospital systems, and restrictions imposed by New York state,” Bello said. “Now is the time to double down on what we know what works, to bring down our case numbers and the corresponding hospitalizations.”

“None of us are interested in implementing mandates like we saw in the past, so we’re asking our public to act appropriately,” Poloncarz said. “It will help our health care heroes — we need to protect them.”

The Monroe County executive referred to similar mitigation strategies as a way to slow the spread.

“I’m asking our residents to return to vigilance, and here’s how: First and foremost, get vaccinated,” Bello said. “This is without question the most important thing each of us can do to end the pandemic. Also, if it’s been six months since your Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and you qualify, get your booster shot. If it’s been two months since you first received your Johnson & Johnson vaccine, get your booster shot. If you have a child between 5 and 11 years old, you too can get them vaccinated.”

Residents are encouraged to register for a vaccination appointment, or booster appointment, online through the Monroe County website. There are also appointments available for children in the 5-11 age group.

The Monroe County executive also said it’s important to return to common mask-wearing practices when in public setting where physical distancing cannot be achieved.

“The next most important step we can all take is to wear a mask in public settings,” Bello said. “Whether you’re shopping at the grocery store, or gathering with your friends. Even if you’re vaccinated, masking can help stop the spread.”

Bello also called for awareness for another common mitigation strategy: Recognizing symptoms and staying home when sick.

“If you’re feeling sick or showing symptoms, stay home,” Bello said. “Call your doctor and seek a test. These are common sense strategies, and will work again if we all work together. We are ten days out from Thanksgiving and the kickoff to the time of year where we all want to spend time with friends and family, but the vast majority of people who are going to be quarantining on Thanksgiving aren’t even sick yet — think of that. We have to double down on strategies to get healthy.”

Reiterating the importance of vaccination, the Monroe County executive said that eight of every 10 local patients in the ICU with COVID are not vaccinated, and nine of every 10 on ventilators due to COVID are not vaccinated.

“You have ten times the risk of being hospitalized if you’re not vaccinated,” Bello said. “Masking and distancing will help the short spike, but the long term answer is clear and simple: It’s vaccination and getting your children vaccinated.”

“Despite 70% of the local population being vaccinated, 80% of patients are not vaccinated in our hospitals,” said Dr. Apostololakos, URMC Chief Medical Officer. “They are in their 50s, opposed to vaccinated people in an ICU, who are usually 75 or older. The vaccination is protection. Our ICUs are stressed, our hospitals are stressed and the vaccination of the rest of our population will help with that. We are concerned about beds being utilized for preventable diseases, that we can use for non-COVID illness and I’m concerned about the harm that could occur if we don’t stem the tide.”

“Since March of last year, communities across Upstate New York have been grappling with an unprecedented health challenge in COVID-19,” Dr. Mendoza said. “It has affected every aspect of our lives, and it has taken many lives. The vast majority of us did the right things, and we based our decisions on science and facts. We hunkered down, wore masks, and practiced social distancing, and we got vaccinated — to the tune of more than 700,000 in the Finger Lakes and counting.

“So we are left wondering why,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We are still seeing case numbers that are rising, and we are left wondering why the things we did mattered, or if they did. Well, I’m here to tell you today, without question, that our efforts did matter and they still matter. It is difficult to quantity prevention efforts, and we can’t come up with a number of exact cases that were averted, or number of lives saved, but I have no doubt that we would be facing a much greater hardship today if it were not for the sacrifices and responsible actions that we all took to protect ourselves.

“Above all else, I want to thank you for making the difference that you have made,” Dr. Mendoza said. “I also have to ask you not to let down your guard just yet. Even with the vast majority of eligible adults vaccinated, we are still seeing a surge in cases in the vaccinated and unvaccinated. In fact, a case last year means something very different than it does now. We know more about treatments, and we have a highly effective vaccine.”

According to the Monroe County Health Commissioner, breakthrough cases represent about 30% of new COVID-19 cases locally in recent weeks.

“2021 is a new stage of the pandemic,” Dr. Mendoza said. “As we look ahead to when COVID becomes endemic, we need to keep our focus on preventing serious illness and death.”

Watch the full briefing

Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.

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