Vaccines and masks are helping to keep in check a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, Saratoga County Health Commissioner Dr. Daniel Kuhles said Wednesday.
Just over 70% of Saratoga County residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Kuhles said during a press conference at county offices, protecting against worse outcomes as the Delta variant of COVID-19 drives a rise in cases.
“It’s that high vaccination coverage level that has kept hospitalizations low, even though cases have risen like they have in the region, the state and the nation,” Kuhles said.
He said the county was averaging about 45 new cases a day, a rate that he said had plateaued in the past week. Since Aug. 1, around 25% of new cases have been among people ages 18 to 29, while people ages 30 to 39 made up 17 percent of the cases, he said. Just 2.2% of the county cases have been breakthrough infections of vaccinated people, but the share of breakthrough cases has increased in recent weeks, representing about 40% of cases in August.
Breakthrough infections of vaccinated people have led to few serious illnesses: 0.24% of vaccinated county residents have had a breakthrough infection; 0.009% of fully vaccinated residents have been hospitalized and 0.0013% of fully vaccinated residents have died.
“The main message is the vaccine and vaccine coverage is doing what it was designed to do, which is prevent hospitalizations, severe illness and death,” he said. “The data is showing that vaccines remain the most effective tool in our battle against COVID.”
County leaders trumpeted the county’s vaccination levels, which they said were the third-highest of any county in the state, outside of New York City.
“Yes, the numbers are going up, however, the best way for individuals to be protected is to get the vaccination,” Ted Kusnierz, chair of the board of supervisors, said at the press conference. “It’s been demonstrated scientifically that if you get the vaccine, there is a high probability you will not be admitted to the hospital if you do contract the Delta variant of COVID… The best way for the public to protect itself is to get the vaccine, get the vaccine, get the vaccine.”
Kuhles and other county officials also detailed a new $3.5 million contract to offer school-based COVID testing in school districts across the county this coming school year.
The contract with Quadrant Biosciences, based in Syracuse, will provide for weekly saliva testing of students, teachers and staff in districts throughout the county, providing real-time surveillance of possible COVID-19 outbreaks. The contract will be funded through a $3.9 million federal grant, with the remaining $400,000 going to staffing and administering the testing regime. County officials said test results would be turned around in 24 hours and the contract would extend the length of the school year.
Kuhles said testing frequency will be based on federal guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accounting for community transmission rates and factors like participation in extracurricular activities, but noted that students would generally be tested about once a week.
While districts across the county — and the broader region — are working together on reopening plans, county officials said they will not dictate masking or vaccine policies to districts.
Jonathan Schopf, a county supervisor from Clifton Park helping lead a new county public health task force, said the decision would be left to districts but that county and district leaders hoped for broadly similar rules in schools. He said school districts were aiming to release reopening plans by Monday.
“The county is not taking any position or mandates as far as what schools are going to do at this point — that decision is up to individual schools,” he said. “They are free to make their own individual decisions, I’m sure there is going to be some variances in the schools, but we are hoping for a broadly cohesive plan so there is a general consensus among the districts.”
The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended universal masking in schools this year, but many parents have strongly resisted another school year with students required to wear masks. Reopening plans released recently by Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa school district leaders have indicated mask requirements will be in place when students return next month.
As local school districts signal the potential of mask requirements, some parents have argued masks are doing more harm than good, citing concerns about the social and mental well-being of students required to wear masks.
During more than an hour of public comments at Shenendehowa’s Tuesday night school board meeting, a slew of parents outlined their opposition to mask requirements, arguing parents should have the “free choice” to send their kids to school with masks or not. Some parents said they would never allow their children to wear masks to school regardless of the district’s policy. One parent suggested mask requirements would put kids at increased risk of sexual abuse.
“We do not want or need you to co-parent with us regarding the health of our children,” one of the parents told the school board. “We are not asking to unmask all children, we are asking for parent choice, parents’ choice to mask or unmask.”
While Kuhles, the county health commissioner, said decisions about mask mandates would be left to elected officials and school boards, he did say masks have proven to be an effective strategy to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection.
“Masking is known to be an effective layer of prevention in schools and other locations,” Kuhles said. “It prevents the wearer from being exposed when being worn consistently and correctly and it can also act as a type of source control if the wearer of the mask is infected and prevent exposure to others.”