COVID-19 positivity rate plateaus, even as Monroe County keeps breaking virus records

Coronavirus

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza gave an update on COVID-19 in the county during their weekly briefing on Thursday.

County’s current COVID climate

Although cases spiked sharply for the past few weeks — bringing a concern of an upgrade to an orange zone designation with new rules and restrictions — the county executive said the situation seems to be stabilizing.

“Fortunately here in Monroe County, we’re not there [orange zone] yet,” Bello said. “Our positivity rate over the last couple days has plateaued. So far within the COVID yellow zone cluster areas we’ve actually seen a small decrease over the last several days, so we’re not at the orange zone yet and I don’t think it’s inevitable we’ll get there.”

While the positivity rate has shown signs of plateauing, the health commissioner said the county’s update for Thursday would break another single-day increase record for new cases.

MORE | Bello, Dr. Mendoza on COVID-19 yellow zone in Monroe County: ‘Wake up call for the community’

“We are not yet done with the final counts, but it appears we will be at 373 new people that were infected with COVID-19 yesterday,” Dr. Mendoza said. “That’s a record, and that’s a record I don’t want to break. Unfortunately, we keep breaking records, including hospitalizations.”

Editor’s note: For those following the Monroe County COVID-19 dashboard’s daily updates, you’ll notice the state’s seven-day rolling averages above are slightly higher. That is because the Monroe County dashboard is the countywide data, while the state’s reports are specifically for the yellow zone micro-cluster (which impacts most of Monroe County, but not all of it).

With cases increasing locally, statewide, and across the nation, officials say it’s important to be safe during the holidays to prevent the situation from worsening.

“We are now one week away from thanksgiving,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We hold our future in our hands, hospitals are becoming very full. Hospital capacity isn’t about beds and lights, it’s about people. We are burnt out, we are tired and we want the community to step up and help us.”

New York state COVID-19 rules restrict private gatherings of more than 10 people. Officials say people should try to change their daily routines as they can to slow the spread, and to save the hospitals from being overwhelmed.

“Look at all your social gatherings, not only between your peers, but the peers of your children — now is not the time for playdates,” Dr. Mendoza said. “These are some of the steps that we ask that you take in the community. Here at the health department we are working very hard, our workforce is reaching capacity. We do not want to get to the point where we are unable to serve you.

Schools

Both the county executive and health commissioner agree that increased testing in schools for the virus has shown good results.

“It has shown that there are not a large number of cases in buildings and schools, and as of today, schools are still not a source of spread in our community,” Bello said. “I don’t see any reason why a school should have to close and I have been working hard with superintendents, the community and the governor’s office to keep them open.

MORE | Why opting out of student COVID-19 testing in Monroe County schools is discouraged

“That is my No. 1 priority right now,” Bello said. “In order to continue doing that, we need to keep our numbers heading down in the right direction, so we have a lot to do in our community.”

“The other bright note is we learned that since this screening began, we found the actual rate of asymptomatic virus cases in the schools is very low,” Dr. Mendoza said.

Shutdowns?

The county executive said that a possibility of a shutdown like the one the county had in the spring is unlikely due to increased knowledge about the virus.

“If you remember earlier this year, back in the spring, when the shutdown had to occur, it was because we didn’t know a lot about the virus,” Bello said. “This is different. We know a lot more about the virus, we know a lot more about what causes the spread, and we know a lot more about slowing down the spread.”

The health commissioner said that a shutdown is the last thing officials want, but said behavior needs to be altered to prevent it from happening again.

“We need to think about how are we going to take steps, as though we were going to be in a lockdown, without having to be in a lockdown, because none of us want that,” Dr. Mendoza said. “Reconsider carpooling. If you’re going to go to work, think about driving alone and if it’s possible, try to work from home. If you have a meeting, consider using Zoom.”

Some non-essential businesses would be forced to close if Monroe County became an orange zone, including gyms, salons, and barbers, but the health commissioner says those businesses haven’t been a cause for spread locally.

MORE | Hair appointment surge: Barbershop says customers worried about another shut down

“Gyms, hair salons and barbershops — they are not among the types of businesses we’re worried about,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We are seeing sporadic cases in nursing homes, not nearly as many as we were seeing early in the year, thankfully. In general it has been introduced by staff so we are keeping up the testing.”

Added resources

As cases continue to rise locally, there has been an increased workload from the Monroe County Department of Public Health. Bello announced approval Thursday to create 50 new temporary positions within the health department to assist the county’s COVID-19 response.

“The positions start at $15 per hour and applications and to apply will be available starting tomorrow at monroecounty.gov,” Bello said. “We’re reassigning staff from various county departments to help with the COVID-19 effort and one of those assignments is to expand call operations.

On the issue of testing availability for the public, the county executive said that New York state approved an expansion of COVID-19 testing at the MCC drive-in testing site. It will now be a seven-day per week testing operation. Bello said the state is also working on expanding other avenues for free community testing.

“We have advocated to New York state for them to increase the testing availability to the public, and I’m glad that state has responded to our request,” Bello said. “Today I can announce that because of this increase and demand and community participation, the MCC drive in testing site will be expanding to seven-day a week operation.”

Contact tracing

With the increased number of cases in Monroe County, more and more residents have been contacted by health department contact tracing teams. The county executive offered some insight into that process and how it works.

“Contact tracing is really a two-step approach,” Bello said. “There’s the investigation, which is beginning on contact tracing. They call an individual who tested positive to let them know they tested positive, isolation, what that means and talk about who they’ve been in contact with.

MORE | Advocates say gyms unfairly blamed for virus spread, worried about potential orange zone closures

“That information is then given to a contact tracing team,” Bello said. “We have a partnership with New York state on the contact tracing side of things to make sure we stay on top of that because, remember, every person who tests positive in the investigation stage, 200-300 people per day — they’re also going to give a list of five, 10, 15 other people that need to be called.”

“Throughout the pandemic I would say we’ve been unable to reach 25-30% of people,” Dr. Mendoza said. “What we’re seeing more now is people will pick up the phone, but they won’t tell us the full story and I think it comes from wanting to protect family and friends, but the reality is if we can’t contact them, then they have no reason to take precautions that they really need to take.

Enforcement

With new rules and regulations in place, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has urged local governments to enforce the restrictions, but the county executive said the issue is bigger than the idea of a ticket.

“In a public health, crisis and in a pandemic, enforcement is more about law enforcement, with a ticket and fine,” Bello said. “The consequence of violating a public health order is that we get sick. It’s not immediate, it’s not a ticket that you get that night, but over time as we violate and loosen our adherence to the guidance, we become sick.”

Where we stand

While diligence is encouraged, the health officials said there is an end of the pandemic in sight — in regards to Pfizer and Moderna vaccine developments.

“That both of these candidates for the vaccine appear to be very effective, is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it appears to be visible,” Dr. Mendoza said.

“At the end of the day I think the smart way to approach this is to try to go find the virus where it us so you can tailor the response to where it’s spreading,” Bello said. “Before we have to get to an orange or red zone, what I would like to see is a greater prevalence of testing and how we can work with different industries to see how we can do that.”

Monroe County’s COVID-19 yellow zone positivity rate was 3.87% Tuesday, according to an update from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office Wednesday. That positivity rate was up slight from Monday’s 3.68%, but below the updated rolling seven-day average for the cluster, which is 4.74%.

MORE | Gov. Cuomo: ‘You will see a tremendous spike in COVID-19 after Thanksgiving’

While a zone update isn’t expected until at least Monday, based on the guidelines, the positivity rate has consistently surpassed the 4% criteria.

To qualify for orange zone designation, Monroe County would have to meet the following benchmarks:

  • Geographic area has 7-day rolling average positivity above 4% for 10 days AND
  • Geographic area has 12 or more new daily cases per 100,000 residents on 7-day average

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

Watch the full briefing:

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