ALBANY — So … who’s up for a few conflicting signals on the pandemic?
The nation’s top COVID doctor says Tuesday the pandemic is over.
Then a day later says it’s not over, but is in a new, milder phase.
Then two days later says it’s by no means over and is still global.
Meanwhile, upstate New York and Vermont remain the nation’s worst COVID zones, with infection counts growing daily but likely incomplete.
Because the actual number of infections is increasingly difficult to tally.
And on Friday, the state Department of Health ended its Virtual Call Center, which assisted local governments with contact tracing. So people who test positive or have been in close contact with an infected person may no longer get a phone call from a case investigator.
The shutdown comes more than a year after some local governments gave up on universal case investigation and tracing in favor of vaccine promotion, lacking resources to do both.
Two months ago, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that state and local health departments not attempt to investigate every new case, but instead guide the population on how to prevent additional infections.
This transition has been gradual over the course of months, and has moved some of the responsibility for managing the pandemic response to the public itself.
A bright spot in all this is that many infected people appear to be having milder symptoms and are at lesser risk of hospitalization or death.
Schenectady County is one of many counties upstate where COVID is making a rebound, due perhaps to the spread of new subvariants of the omicron variant.
The number of new infections per day and hospitalizations is still far less than in January 2021 and January 2022, but is markedly higher than just a month ago.
The one-week average of known new infections per 100,000 county residents was 43 a day on April 28, up from 15 a day on March 28.
Ellis Hospital had 24 COVID-positive inpatients on April 28, up from four on March 28.
Three people looking out for the health of Schenectady County — a doctor, a public health manager and a government leader — spoke to The Daily Gazette for this story.
Each said, independently of the others and without prompting, that the actual number of infections in the county is probably higher than reported but the severity of infections is generally less than a year ago.
Interim County Public Health Director Keith Brown said the county was aware of 380 cases Thursday.
“We suspect that that’s underreported because about a third of that number are self-reported,” he said “The hospital’s numbers are what I’m more worried about.”
Dr. David Liebers, an infectious disease specialist at Ellis, said this current mini-spike seems to be following the profile of Omicron in January, when a huge number of infections were reported but a smaller percentage of cases were serious enough to require hospitalization.
“I think what we’re seeing today is we’ve got many cases out there but fewer hospital admissions,” he said. “I think the illness for various reasons is less severe. Our hospitalized patients, my sense is they’re staying for a shorter period of time. The mortality in our hospital is way down from two years ago, when you’d see 15 to 20%.”
Liebers said vaccination remains the best protection against severe illness. About a third of those admitted to Ellis are unvaccinated, which is disproportionately high in a county where 86% of the population has had at least one dose of the vaccine.
“Clearly, vaccines prevent severe disease and death but the protection against mildly symptomatic infection is not great,” he said. “But that’s not what we’re worried about. We’re worried about severe infections.”
Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman said the effort to protect public health continues — without impact on the county budget so far, thanks to federal and state allocations.
“We had a very favorable state budget with increased funding for our public health departments,” he said.
The county’s role at this point is to advise how to avoid or respond to infection. As a county manager, he never had emergency powers to do much more than that, nor did he want them.
“I can’t make you wear a mask or vaccinate,” he said.
As April ends, the level of COVID infection and hospitalization in the county, Fluman said, is comparable to a normal influenza season.
“As long as severity stays low, we have to revert to normalization,” he said. “We’re doing SummerNight this summer.”
Before the pandemic, the annual SummerNight block party would draw upward of 20,000 people to the closed-off streets of downtown Schenectady, a shoulder-to-shoulder celebration of the kind unthinkable in 2020. It was also canceled in 2021.
A widespread theme in official messages from governments at all levels is that after 26 months of public education, the public is going to take a bigger role through whatever is left of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schenectady County still offers free vaccines and testing, Brown said, but “It’s really going to be more of a self-management. It’s just general good practice we’ve been trying to get people to follow for a long time.
“The reality is, with vaccination, the boosters, the precautions, and now with the test-and-treat options, the danger of COVID has gone down a bit.”
The stress on the medical system is also less, Liebers said.
“We’ve been able to essentially integrate the flow of COVID-19,” he said. “The routine in the hospital has not been interrupted with this current mini-surge like we’ve seen in the past.”
Here’s a statistical look at Schenectady County and its 158,000 residents, 26 months after the first case of COVID was confirmed in New York state. Data are drawn from state Department of Health databases and the county’s COVID dashboard:
- 7,437 county residents age birth to 19 have tested positive for COVID but only 41 have been hospitalized with it.
- 1,055 county residents age 80 or older have tested positive but 165 have been hospitalized with it.
- 34,144 county residents have had lab-confirmed positive tests, 33% of them in the first four months of this year.
- 301 county residents’ deaths are attributed to COVID, 12% of them in the first four months of this year.
- 133,863 county residents have had at least one dose of vaccine; 123,789 have had a complete initial series; and 71,499 have had booster doses.
- Ellis Hospital’s COVID-positive patient census has ranged from one (most recently on March 29, 2022) to 90 (Dec. 16, 2020). Ellis is the only Schenectady County hospital treating patients for COVID treatment but not every inpatient is a county resident, and not every sick county resident goes there for treatment.
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