SCHENECTADY ‘COUNTY — While COVID-19 has been kept at bay locally for most of the summer, county officials acknowledge a spike may be inevitable.
“We’re bracing for a fall that would likely include upticks in cases,” said county Interim Public Health Director Keith Brown.
County public health officials are encouraging the public to receive early flu vaccinations in order to preemptively reduce potential strain on the health care system, keeping hospital beds and emergency rooms open for a possible surge in patients.
“Even if you dropped the health care strain on emergency rooms by 30 or 40 percent, that’s a big deal,” Brown said.
Vaccines will also help officials weed out the flu from COVID, the symptoms of which are similar.
“It’s really crucial that we not have people walking around with the flu masking symptoms that might be COVID-19,” Brown told the county Legislature on Monday.
Brown said the reopening of colleges and public schools, fitness centers and the colder weather pushing people indoors are all factors for a possible increase.
“That ratchets up the risk because of people being in a close confined space,” Brown said.
To prepare, the county has been holding biweekly meetings with the city school district’s leadership team and briefing them on the contract tracing process.
(The Schenectady City School District on Monday announced it was shifting to an all-virtual school year for students in grades 7-12, citing a grim financial outlook.)
Officials are also deepening outreach with community organizations to stress the importance of safe practices, as well as to determine the most effective locations for community testing, the sites for which have rotated around the city since April.
The county is also discussing with the state Department of Health the deployment of rapid antigen tests that could see results returned in as soon as 15 minutes, a development Brown said would be a “game-changer.”
“They have signaled they’re willing to work with us on that,” Brown said on Tuesday.
At present, county-run testing sites have been testing as many as 75 people per day.
Brown tells the public they should expect a four- or five-day turnaround.
The inability of labs to rapidly return test results has been a problem nationwide, and a delay cited by officials as a factor in the outbreak at a nursing home in Essex County, where the virus spread undetected at a facility for 19 days as the facility waited for routine test results. The outbreak killed six residents, with 88 people testing positive as of Monday.
As of Tuesday, the county-run Glendale Home had zero staff members or residents who are currently positive.
Brown also wants to use pending state funding slated to be distributed to counties to bolster staff, hiring public health education coordinators, a communicable disease specialist and hourly interns — all of whom could do contact tracing.
At present, the county’s contact tracing capacity is adequate, Brown said, and has been effective at locating contacts — but that’s subject to change during an increase.
“Right now, we have enough capacity but we don’t know what this looks like moving forward,” Brown said.
With each successive sector of the economy opening, the department is further strained:
The state, for instance, requires county public health departments to inspect all gyms and fitness centers within two weeks of opening on Aug. 24.
An uptick would have a cascading effect by pulling staff from one task to another.
As of Tuesday, 86 people in the county are currently positive, an increase of eight over the day before.
New positives jumped last week into the double-digits — reaching 24 last Monday and 20 two days later before dropping off — measures Brown attributed squarely to social gatherings.
“As we have reopened and loosened up a bit, it’s clear that there are some precautions that are not being followed in the community,” Brown said.
Numbers statewide remain low. With an infection rate of 0.98 percent, Monday marked the 25th day in a row with a rate below 1 percent (The number in the Capital Region was slightly higher at 1.3 percent; and in Schenectady County, 2.1 percent).
And as the state attempts to stave off the virus, which is surging across much of the U.S., Alaska and Montana were added to the state’s 14-day self-quarantine list. The list now contains 30 states and three territories.
Elsewhere, Albany County officials are monitoring a climbing hospitalization rate.
While the number of residents hospitalized remained stable at seven between Aug. 14 and Aug. 24, the number is now 12.
Just one person was hospitalized on Aug. 1.
Schenectady County has not seen a comparable increase — six people were hospitalized as of Tuesday — but Brown warned of younger people unknowingly spreading the virus to older family members.
“One person’s behavior does have an impact on other people,” Brown said.
The county will hold community testing at two locations in September: Schenectady Inner City Ministry Food Pantry (SCIM) on Mondays (except Sept. 7) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the Schenectady Islamic Center parking lot on Thursdays from 2 to 6 p.m.
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