Bello, Dr. Mendoza express optimism, hope as COVID-19 numbers decline, vaccination increases

Coronavirus

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Monroe County Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza joined Dr. Nana Bennett and Wade Norwood of the Finger Lakes Vaccine Task force for the weekly coronavirus briefing Thursday.

Downward trend continues

Monroe County’s COVID-19 descent from the holiday peak continues. The Monroe County Department of Health reported Thursday:

  • 142 new cases (51,993 to date)
  • Zero new deaths (1,154 to date)
  • 181 viral hospitalizations, 53 in ICU in Finger Lakes rgion
  • 1.6% seven day rolling average positivity rate in Monroe County
  • Average of 127 new cases per day over the past week

A few weeks ago, the Finger Lakes region had the highest positivity and hospitalization per population rates in New York state, but that is no longer the case.

“I want to focus on a message of optimism,” Dr. Mendoza said. “Things are beginning to change, things are beginning to reopen, in all the ways we have been longing for.”

“This is the first time we’ve really been able to feel hope about that end date,” Dr. Bennett said.

As things have improved, the county executive said it’s important to remember the precautions that helped flatten the curve.

“It’s important to keep our numbers down to protect ourselves and our families,” Bello said. “It is also to protect the hospital systems and the workers there. Earlier last year, we showed them an incredible amount of support and gratitude when our numbers were relatively low, but over the last few months they went through an incredible ordeal — at a time when our health care workers were away from their families in the hospitals, working long hours with little relief.”

Vaccination

Vaccination efforts went smoothly in the City of Rochester Wednesday, as officials were scheduled to complete 1,000 appointments for COVID-19 vaccines on the first full day of operations at the new mass vaccination site in the former Kodak Hawkeye parking lot.

The site is located at the corner of St. Paul and Avenue E on the city’s north east side and is scheduled to operate daily from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. with approximately 1,000 COVID-19 shots administered each day.

While initially reserved for city residents in specific zip codes, appointments for the new site have since expanded eligibility to include all Monroe County residents currently eligible to receive the vaccine under New York state guidelines. Click here to find out if you’re eligible.

“This week was an amazing week,” Dr. Bennett said. “We, for the first time, received almost 40,000 doses and that brings our total allocation to over 200,000. So by the end of this week we will have vaccinated almost 20% of the population in our region.”

Through federal, state, and county organization there are now multiple sites throughout the community for vaccinating those currently eligible in Phase 1b.

“Monroe County is vaccinating residents who are 65 and older,” Bello said “We have an allotment for that, there are still appointments available on our website today and tomorrow for residents who are 65 years and older.”

“About 60% of our allocation went to individuals who are 65 and older,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We’re really trying to focus on our older population here in Monroe County because we know they’re at a greater risk.”

The county executive said the county is also partnering with Wegmans to help vaccinate grocery store workers throughout the area.

The recent approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could prove to be a game changer in the vaccination efforts, according to officials.

MORE | How the 3 COVID-19 vaccines compare

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a different type of vaccine than Pfizer and Moderna, but at the end of the day, it is equally effective,” Dr. Mendoza said. “The Johnson & Johnson is a one-dose vaccine, there is no need for a second dose at this time for Johnson & Johnson, but when you look at the science of the studies — that were done a little differently which makes them a little difficult to compare, but when Johnson & Johnson comes online, which will be very soon, I want to encourage everyone to consider that as an equal alternative to Pfizer and Moderna.”

“There is much more work that needs and remains to be done, but I am incredibly confident, as is Dr. Mendoza, that those who are eligible can be ready to respond when vaccine becomes available,” Norwood said. “If those who are not eligible can continue to spread the word on how important it is. If we remain wearing our mask, social distancing, and if we can continue to spread the message of health and protecting each other, I am confident that we will emerge from this not less, but better than when entered this pandemic state.”

Mutating strains

Earlier Thursday, Rochester Regional Health officials confirmed mutated COVID-19 strains found in four patients who were tested in January and February.

“Rochester Regional Health has identified a new mutation in four cases of individuals who were COVID positive,” Dr. Mendoza said. I was made aware of this late last night, and we are working very closely with the New York State Department of Health and the Wadsworth Lab.”

The health commissioner recognized that there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to variant COVID-19 strains, but said for now it’s important to maintain proper precautions that have become standard practice over the past year.

MORE | Confirmed case of UK COVID-19 strain in Ontario County

“The variant strains does not change anything about what I’m advising, which is to continue to do everything you can: Wear your mask, maintain social distance, and get vaccinated if you can” Dr. Mendoza said.

Dr. Mendoza said the variant strain discovery was not a surprising one.

“There’s no reason to think the variants haven’t been in our community,” Dr. Mendoza said. “It was really only a matter of time before we could isolate it. As I understand it they have not indicated that these are variants, as I understand it, these are mutations that may be related to variants.”

Schools

Greece Superintendent and the President of the Monroe County Superintendent’s Council Kathy Graupman said earlier this week that she was “optimistic” about the prospects of reopening Monroe County schools for full in-person instruction before the end of the academic year, but acknowledged that much of that will be the state’s decision.

The Finger Lakes Reopening Schools Safely Task Force released an interim report sharing data collected through this past school year illustrating the little to no COVID-19 transmission in the local school districts.

“We are all on the same page,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We want to reopen schools safely and the report highlights all of the wins we’ve had and all the work we have yet to do and I do want to reiterate we want to reopen the schools as safely as possible.”

Reopening schools fully will depend on the trajectory of the virus in the community.

“The No. 1 driver in our community that would make reopening schools safer is the new cases per 100,000 over the seven-day average,” Dr. Mendoza said. “What we need to do is make sure our new cases number goes below that CDC guidance, so reopening can be considered.”

Many parents in local school districts are calling on the state to issue new guidance for schools to reopen full-time, including an adjustment to the six-feet of distancing policy which has made it difficult for schools to navigate full in-person instruction.

“We have asked the schools to provide to us statistics on the number of teachers and staff who have been vaccinated,” Dr. Mendoza said. “From the selected districts, the numbers are actually quite reassuring; I’m hearing numbers well over 50%, in some cases 70 to 80%.”

The health commissioner says health departments continue to study the safety and practicality of high-risk youth sports, which got the green light to resume locally last month.

“We will take that back and work in partnership with the state health department to determine if any modifications need to be made for high risk sports,” Dr. Mendoza said.

Travel

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced updates to state COVID-19 restrictions, including traveler quarantine police during Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing.

For travel restrictions, the governor announced domestic travelers are no longer required to quarantine or test-out within 90 days of full vaccination. International travelers continue to follow CDC quarantine guidance.

“If it’s been two weeks after your final dose, you will not need to quarantine upon arrival back in New York after traveling in the United States,” Dr. Mendoza said.

Watch the full briefing:

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

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