ALBANY — Medical leaders of several Capital Region hospitals joined Wednesday to provide an update on their preparedness for the seasonal flu and an uptick in COVID-19.
There is guarded optimism with both: With so many people taking precautions against COVID, the flu season could be a mild one. With so many preparations made for the peak of COVID activity this past spring, hospitals are ready now for any second wave that develops.
But there is also a growing sense that a second wave already has begun: The number of COVID-positive inpatients at Capital Region hospitals dropped from a high of 205 on April 10 to a low of just 15 on Sept. 27, but increased almost daily to a total of 80 as of Oct. 27.
“It seems as though for us, the next wave has started,” said Dr. Fred Venditti, chief medical officer of Albany Medical Center. “On a positive note, the severity of illness that we’re seeing seems to be less.”
The mortality rate also is lower. But there isn’t a certain explanation for either the severity or the mortality of infections decreasing after nine months in the United States.
Dr. David Liebers, chief medical officer of Ellis Medicine in Schenectady, said studies show fewer COVID patients dying in all age groups, which would suggest that the therapeutic treatments being used are working. Seniors are more vulnerable to the virus — those older than 59 have accounted for 85 percent of New York’s official death toll — but young people catch it as well.
Another theory is that all the mask-wearing is reducing the viral count, and that smaller virus doses result in a less-severe infection in patients, Liebers added.
State Department of Health statistics show a gradual increase in positive test rate across the eight-county Capital Region so far in October.
The seven-day rolling average, a better metric than a single-day positive test rate, has climbed from 0.6 percent on Sept. 30 to 1.0 percent on Oct. 27.
Over the same period, the number of tests administered also has increased. The single-day day peak in September was 6,182 tests on Sept. 26, while the single-day peak so far in October was 9,847 tests on Oct. 23.
Representatives of Albany Med, Ellis, Glens Falls Hospital, St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam, St. Peter’s Health Partners in Albany and Saratoga Hospital attended Wednesday’s briefing at Albany Med.
The hospitals had been in contact through daily conference calls before and during the height of the pandemic in an effort led by Albany Med to devise an effective regional response to the largest public health threat in a century, and they remain in weekly contact now.
Dr. Dennis McKenna, CEO of Albany Med, said the entire medical community mounted a heroic response as more than 9,600 people were infected in the eight-county Capital Region.
“In those last six months we have seen remarkable advances in three different areas,” he said. “They’re dramatic — it’s hard to remember what life was like before we had those advances in prevention, in testing and in treatments.”
One result that’s manifesting itself now is COVID fatigue, said Dr. Alan Sanders, chief medical officer of St. Peter’s Health Partners Acute Care. This is a risk for the medical community as well as the general public, he said.
“People are tired in many ways,” he said. “It’s a very large challenge for all of us working in hospitals to maintain a workforce that is not fatigued, that is vigilant.”
Dr. William Mayer, chief medical officer of St. Mary’s Healthcare, said the uptick elsewhere in the region hasn’t manifested at St. Mary’s — it hasn’t had a COVID-positive patients since September.
He said the pandemic is an ongoing crisis, rather than a natural disaster that comes and goes, so St. Mary’s is not becoming complacent. And doctors still encounter people who don’t believe there’s a continuing public health crisis.
Liebers, an infectious disease specialist, said the upcoming flu season could be a challenge: The seasonal influenza has similar symptoms as COVID and treatment consumes the same resources. Simultaneous waves of patients with flu and COVID could strain resources. But the two diseases also can be controlled with the same techniques — mask wearing, social distancing, hand hygiene — that have become so familiar in the last seven months.
“We don’t know where that curve is going to go,” Liebers said. “It may be a tough winter but we can make it a better winter with sticking to everything we’ve been doing so far.”
The takeaway? He is at once cautiously optimistic and very concerned. “Flu seasons are quite unpredictable.”