ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza resumed their weekly COVID-19 briefings Tuesday.
Joined by Dr. Paul Graman, clinical director of URMC’s infectious disease division, and Dr. Emil Lesho, healthcare epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist at Rochester Regional Health, they discussed the delta variant, CDC masking guidance, fully reopening schools, and more.
Where we are today
In Monroe County, COVID-19 the amount of new cases and seven-day average positivity rates have been steadily rising in recent weeks.
In Monday’s weekly update from the county, the average positivity rate was 2%, the highest it has been locally since May 30. However, regional hospitalization rates have remained steady, even decreasing slightly over the same time frame:
“We’re pleased with very low number of cases in the hospital, and today we have fewer than 10 patients with active COVID infections in our hospital and none of them are in the ICU or on a ventilator,” Dr. Graman said. “That’s the lowest number of COVID cases in our hospital since last summer. So that’ terrific, but we’re worried about these increases in the number of cases in our community because typically hospitalization numbers lag, so we’re fearful of what’s to come and that’s why everyone needs to get vaccinated.”
“We were, for several days, without any new positive COVID cases in the hospital, but unfortunately we saw a little bit of an uptick,” Dr. Lesho said. “We have one to two patients now on a ventilator in the ICU. All of these patients, to my knowledge, that are sick and in the hospital are unvaccinated.”
Beginning Tuesday, Bello said the Department of Public Health will resume their weekday daily COVID-19 updates, after several weeks of a weekly iteration while rates were low.
“Starting today, we will reinstate our case reporting every weekday so that the public can see what we’re seeing and understand what’s happening in Monroe County,” Bello said. “Today we will be reporting our highest single day total in a while. We do not want to see this trend continue and as can be expected, the vast majority of these cases are among unvaccinated residents.”
While new cases have been increasing, local vaccination rates have plateaued in recent weeks. As of Monday, 432,662 county residents were fully vaccinated, and 456,382 have received at least one dose — 61.5% of the county population.
In a three month span, between March 17 and June 16, 301,783 county residents became fully vaccinated. Since June 16, only 30,881 county residents have become fully vaccinated.
To date, 1,346 Monroe County residents have died from COVID-19.
Overall, the health commissioner says Monroe County is in decent shape, comparatively, in regards to the pandemic.
“The good news is we are doing well when compared to many other parts of the country,” Dr. Mendoza said. “It is not a secret as to why this is happening — we have a higher overall vaccination rate. So many people in our community have stepped up and said ‘not here, not now.’ Monroe County is well ahead of the curve; nearly 70% of those eligible to receive the COVID vaccine have had at least one dose, and 62% have completed the vaccination series.”
The county executive said most of the new cases in the community are coming from clusters, rather than the prevalence of community spread.
“Right now we’re seeing a lot of clusters develop,” Bello said. “There are a lot of positive cases, we think, that are relatively contained through the contract tracing we’re finding in clusters. One of the things we’re looking at very carefully is whether or not that trend continues and if we see it contained, or evidence of widespread community transmission. How the variant spreads among those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated if you start to see a high level of transmission, even among vaccinated people, that would have to be revisited.”
“The delta variant is at the top of everyone’s minds,” Bello said. “Nationally we are seeing case numbers, and in some cases hospitalizations, rising quickly, and the delta variant is making up an ever-increasing percentage of these cases. Locally we are starting to see our numbers slowly rise, but they’re still relatively low, and relatively contained, and we haven’t seen a significant increase in hospitalizations. However, we are concerned because we do not want to see these trends continue in the wrong direction.”
Earlier this month, the delta variant was discovered in some local COVID-19 samples.
“While there is no way to get an exact percentage of positive COVID-19 cases in Monroe County that can be attributed to the delta variant, it is highly like that a significant portion of those cases here are from the delta variant, given what we are seeing elsewhere in the region,” Dr. Mendoza said.
The delta variant was first identified in India in December of 2020. It was detected in the U.S. in March.
According to the World Health Organization, Delta is estimated to be about 55% more transmissible than the alpha variant, which originated in the United Kingdom. It has since become the dominant coronavirus strain in the United States, but Health experts say the good news is that the vaccines being used in the U.S. are highly effective against the virus.
CDC masking guidance
The local coronavirus briefing comes hours after reported indicated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would backpedal Tuesday on its masking guidelines and recommend that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging, according to a federal official.
However, the county executive says a local mask mandate is not being considered at this time.
“Right now we are not considering reinstating a mask mandate in our community,” Bello said. “We don’t think we’re at that point right now, and I’m also not considering a mandate at all for vaccination for Monroe County employees. We do not believe those steps are necessary now and I don’t anticipate those steps will be necessary in the future, because I’m confident — beyond confident in this community’s ability to come together, and keep everyone healthy.”
“We’re looking at the positivity rates, we’re looking at the total case numbers, and again we’re looking at trends,” Dr. Mendoza said. “If we can attribute the majority of new cases to known clusters and continue to stay out of community transmission then I don’t think it will be necessary for vaccinated people to wear masks. Now if we see additional evidence that there is spread in the community, knowing what we know about delta being more transmissible, more contagious, then that will tip our hand in favor of recommending that, but were not there yet thankfully and I’d like to try to keep us from getting to that point.”
The health commissioner said people should feel free to continue to mask if they choose to do so.
“Anybody who is vaccinated and who wishes to wear a mask is certainly welcome to do so,” Dr. Mendoza said. “That’s a personal choice and we should not judge people.”
For much of the pandemic, the CDC advised Americans to wear masks outdoors if they were within 6 feet of one another.
Then in April, as vaccination rates rose sharply, the agency eased its guidelines on the wearing of masks outdoors, saying that fully vaccinated Americans no longer needed to cover their faces unless they were in a big crowd of strangers.
In May, the CDC further eased its guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.
The guidance still called for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings, like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but it cleared the way for reopening workplaces and other venues.
Subsequent CDC guidance said fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks at summer camps or at schools, either.
For months COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations were falling steadily, but those trends began to change at the beginning of the summer as a mutated and more transmissible version of the coronavirus, the delta variant, began to spread widely, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.
Both the county executive and public health commissioner agree that the goal is to have local schools fully reopen come the fall, and they say the best way to make that happen is to increase the county’s vaccination rate.
“With the fall fast approaching, we all want to make sure our schools are able to fully open come September,” Bello said. “So vaccination continues to be the best tool we have; the best way to protect yourself and family, to be sure our kids get back in the classrooms, is to get vaccinated. The vaccine is safe, effective, and free, so please, if you’re eligible and have not done so yet, please talk to your doctor, and to your family, and please go get a vaccine.”
“As the county executive said, continue to get vaccinated because we now have the luxury of stopping this virus before it closes our schools and fills our hospitals,” Dr. Mendoza said.
New York state has not released guidance for reopening schools this fall, guidance that Monroe County Superintendents requested in a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month.
“The belief is that the delta surge that we’re seeing in other parts of the world and country will be shorter-lived, so the hope is it could potentially come and go in our community, if ever, before the school year even starts,” Dr. Mendoza said. “So I think we have to revisit this in August because things are moving pretty quickly.”
Near the end of Tuesday’s briefing, the health commissioner said people do not to be afraid.
“We have control over what we can take in terms of precautions right now,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We have the vaccine and it’s widely available. We know what works, so don’t be afraid. I’ve said it early on and I’ll say it again: Facts over fear. We know the vaccine is highly effective, maybe even more effective than we thought in January and February. We have a highly effective tool to prevent this illness and prevent this spread and to end this pandemic in the near future. Let’s focus on what we know works and what we can do, and not be afraid of the things we don’t know yet.”
Watch the full briefing
This is a developing story. News 8 WROC will provide updates as they become available.