Ontario County leaders: COVID-19 numbers ‘the highest they’ve ever been’


CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. (WROC) — Officials in Ontario County hosted a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday morning to update residents on the COVID-19 pandemic where they discussed masking indoors, encouraged vaccinations, current hospital capacity, gathering safely for the holidays, and more.

Officials in attendance for the briefing included Ontario County Administrator Chris DeBolt, State Sen. Pam Helming, Assemblyman Jeff Gallahan, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Marren, Director of Public Health Mary Beer, UR Medicine Thompson Health President/CEO Michael Stapleton, Finger Lakes Health President/CEO Dr. Jose Acevedo, and President of the Eastern Region at Rochester Regional Health Dr. Dustin Riccio. 

“These next few weeks and potentially months will by trying and highly dynamic, with things changing at a moment’s notice.” DeBolt said.

Mask mandate

Last week, Ontario joined Livingston and Wyoming as local counties to announce they would not be enforcing the state’s new vax or mask mandate.

Ontario County Administrator DeBolt issued a statement last week, saying the county does not have sufficient staff to enforce an indoor mask mandate.

“Given our limited resources, and the toll the pandemic has already taken on our Public Health staff, we need to focus our limited resources on the most efficient and impactful public health intervention strategies, DeBolt’s statement said. “For Ontario County, that includes continuing vaccine and booster distribution, facilitating testing in schools to keep children in the classroom, and conducting case investigations and cluster and outbreak management protocols.”

DeBolt said Wednesday that an inability to enforce, is not an endorsement to not mask.

“Ontario County’s inability to effectively enforce the governor’s mask mandate — I didn’t intend to imply that masking isn’t important,” Debolt said. “It is important to protect yourself and everyone around you. Don’t wear a mask just for yourself, do it for your community.”

“We never said we didn’t support the mask mandate,” Marren said. “We said we didn’t have the resources to enforce it.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on December 10 that due to rising COVID-19 rates statewide, masks will be required to be worn in all indoor public places unless businesses or venues implement a vaccine requirement.

“I struggle to wrap my head around a realistic situation of enforcing it,” DeBolt said. “our best effort would be to go out there and give residents in this community the reasons to why it is so important to mask up. We didn’t adopt it or not adopt it.”

This measure is effective December 13, 2021 until January 15, 2022, after which the state will re-evaluate based on current conditions. The new business and venue requirements extend to both patrons and staff.

A violation of any provision of this measure is subject to all civil and criminal penalties, including a maximum fine of $1,000 for each violation. According to the governor, the respective business would face the fine for a violation, not an individual for not wearing a mask.

Local health departments are being asked to enforce these requirements, officials from the governor’s office said, but the governor pledged $65 million to assist counties statewide on enforcement efforts.

“I want more communication, more transparency on what these resources are that are coming to the county,” Helming said. “What is included in the $65 million? How much is coming to us? What do the guidelines say?”

“I do not yet have the details on the $65 million that will be going to counties to help enforce this mandate,” DeBolt said. “We were also notified that we would be getting N-95 masks. We are expecting them next week or the next two weeks. We do not know how many we will be getting.”

Hospital capacity

According to the New York State Department of Health, the Finger Lakes region has 502 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized, including 138 in an ICU. According to the Ontario County Department of Public Health Tuesday, 44 of those 502 regional patients are from Ontario County.

“We had a crisis last week,” Stapleton said. “Our ER is built for 24 people and we had 44. We had 19 patients for beds we didn’t have here. When we called the state for help, the closest available bed was in Orange County, and that is the picture.

“To sum it up: We can safely care for our community, but that is being threatened,” Stapleton said. “We are pleading with the community to get their vaccine. Not because someone told you too, but for your community.”

Officials say the number of local residents being treated in hospitals for COVID is causing a strain on health care workers.

“This is really about capacity,” Dr. Riccio said. “We are backed up. We are asking for community support and with that comes making smart decisions, both with flu and COVID. We expect this flu season to put us in a difficult position, in all locations.”

“My primary concern is staffing at our hospitals,” Sen. Helming said. “My office has received numerous calls from inquiries to address the staffing issues we are having. I’m very concerned about the long term wellbeing of our employees — they need relief and assistance. They cannot continue under the current circumstances.”

“Even though it’s a time of celebration, it’s also a time to be safe and secure,” Assemblymember Gallahan said. “Many need to understand the stress that our hospitals are in right now.”

Leaders say it’s important to respect local health care workers by following basic protocol like masking.

“I want to make an appeal to the public,” Marren said. “A year ago, our [health care] staff were held high on a pedestal, but not they are treated with verbal abuse, and that is not right. We, as adults, should be following the children who are wearing masks. Wear your mask, be safe, and keep your kids in school.”

Helming criticized the state’s vaccination mandates for health care workers, saying it is causing an added stress to an already stressed environment.

“All of the hospitals have provided exception care, but the vaccine mandate and the restrictive policies have made their jobs so much harder,” Helming said. “When mandates are forced down by the state, the impact we feel here in our smaller hospitals is tenfold.”

The latest

According to the NYSDOH dashboard, Ontario County posted a 12.9% positivity rate on 490 COVID-19 tests Wednesday and the county is averaging 64.5 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week. For reference, Monroe County is averaging 51.5 for the same metric.

“It’s pretty scary going into the holiday,” Beer said. “The numbers we’ve experienced the past month are the highest they have ever been. 144 residents won’t be gathering with their family this season.”

The health commissioner encouraged residents to pursue booster shots, especially for older family members.

“I would implore you to get your family members who are in nursing homes to get the booster — it’s critical” Beer said. “It is so obvious, when you look at the date that boosters are very critical. Our booster rates are not high enough.”

The health commissioner also encouraged unvaccinated people, a minority of the Ontario County population to consider getting their shots.

“Our vaccination rates are high, but they are not enough,” Beer said. “Last year, we saw the holiday as a problem, but this year we have the tools and medications that have been proven effective. I hope we get through this holiday safely.”

Officials at the press conference encouraged residents to get tested for COVID-19 before participating in holiday family gatherings.

“Residents should take advantage of these free clinics,” Gallahan said. “There are accessible. If you have friends or family members who are compromised, please pay attention and take necessary action.”

“Use your head, try to keep your numbers smaller,” Beer said. “It can be done, and use common sense.”

The county administrator said the the first delivery of the state’s at-home test kits were expected to arrive Wednesday.

“We are expecting the first delivery of test at-home kits from the state today,” DeBolt said. “it’s going to be separate from what the president announced. We expect about 4,400 test kits today and the same amount over the next few weeks with a distribution event scheduled for December 30 to hand out these kits.”

Ontario County Administrator DeBolt said, as of Wednesday morning, there was no confirmed cases of omicron in Ontario County, but he said residents should behave as if it is present.

“A lot has been in the news about omicron,” DeBolt said. “I just confirmed this, we do not have a sequenced case in Ontario, but we should all assume that omicron is going around in our community. We do not have as robust detection equipment here as other counties, or around the world, but we should assume it’s circulating here.”

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

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