SCHOHARIE — Schoharie County in the second half of October is dealing with a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases that officials say could continue to get worse.
As of Wednesday, roughly 130 residents are in precautionary quarantine, the most ever for the county. Three dozen are self-isolating because of travel but more than 90 are in quarantine because of potential local contact with an infected person.
Compared with most other counties in the state, the numbers are strikingly low — 116 confirmed infections, 12 hospitalizations and two deaths since March 1 — but the worrisome thing is the sudden increase, said Amy Gildemeister, Schoharie County director of public health.
The state considers Schoharie County part of the Capital Region for some purposes and part of the Mohawk Valley for other purposes, including COVID epidemiology.
But it has the fewest residents of any county in either region, by far. And it has the third-lowest number of infections of any county in the state.
Since the start of the pandemic, 13,427 tests have been administered in Schoharie County, for a positive rate of 0.86 percent. The positive rate to date in nearby counties ranges from 0.6 percent in Delaware County to 2.0 percent in Albany and Greene counties.
Being a sparsely populated rural county has advantages and disadvantages, Gildemeister said: It’s a close-knit community, where many of the residents know each other and know each other’s business, so word can spread quickly when someone has a positive test — and anyone who’s been in contact can get tested or can monitor for symptoms.
“So that does definitely help. We have a lot of connections in the community because of that,” she said.
On the flip side, a small county’s health department has limited personnel to track down those chains of infection contact on its own.
County Administrator Steve Wilson said nearly half of Schoharie County residents who are employed commute to another county, so there’s a ready vector for importing the virus.
Gildemeister said some infections have been traced to the Keymark factory in Fonda, others to the Greene Correctional Facility in Athens, both of which have had large clusters this year.
However, she said, no county residents are known to have contracted COVID through the massive hotspot that developed at SUNY Oneonta. And SUNY Cobleskill has remained almost entirely infection-free.
“It really seems to come down to places where people are gathering,” Gildemeister said. Church events, parties and sporting events within Schoharie County have each been identified as infection sources.
Another concern in Schoharie County: community spread, a situation in which people get infected without coming in contact with a known source of infection.
“We’re seeing asymptomatic people who really don’t have a connection to anyone with COVID,” Gildemeister said.
She and Wilson said there has been some deliberate noncompliance with COVID safety measures, including party events. Some fines have been levied as a result.
More often, though, the county Health Department is seeing cooperation in keeping the pandemic at bay.
“We really appreciate all the efforts of everyone who’s trying to do the right thing,” said Gildemeister, who holds a doctorate in environmental health sciences.
“My biggest concern right now is that there are still some people that are holding events … I anticipate that this is going to continue to get worse. We’re just holding it back as long and as best we can.”
One thing Schoharie County generally hasn’t done as it fights community spread is identify infection clusters by location, a tactic used more frequently in neighboring counties.
Usually county health personnel are able to contract-trace everyone who was present and then reach out to notify them directly. However, when this isn’t possible, the Health Department publicizes the location.
This was the case with Clapper’s Glass Bar in Schoharie in early October.
The county’s profile as a small, closely connected place came into play again — the patrons at Clapper’s began to be pestered and harassed about COVID, even if they hadn’t been there on Oct. 2, 3 or 6, the dates with potential risk, Gildemeister said. That’s another reason why the county doesn’t publicize hotspots unless it has to, she said.