ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – As the calendar flips to fall, many people across the globe are wondering when the pandemic will end. After more than 18 months, the United States is still seeing COVID-19 cases spike as the cooler months approach and mask mandates drop. Here in Chemung County, many of the restrictions have been lifted, but some are returning in certain sectors. Several health officials still say the vaccine is the best tool to fight the virus, despite more breakthrough cases developing every day.
All of this information begs the question of if the region is better off than a year ago. Chemung County Executive Christopher Moss, as well as other county executives from across the state, participated in a book, Our Darkest Hour: New York County Leadership & the COVID Pandemic, outlining their reflections on the pandemic so far.
Moss recalls March 2020 when he had his first COVID meeting with several area officials, including the Department of Health.
“[I thought] ‘Are we ready if this were to come here?’ Not really thinking that it would or you know how bad it was going to get,” Moss recalled.
Chemung County was one of the first in the state to close the schools days before Governor Cuomo’s office made an executive order, transitioning all New York schools to remote learning. The Elmira-Corning Regional Airport also created a protocol to accommodate international travelers returning to the region.
“For some reason, our numbers stay relatively low when everybody else’s [numbers] were super high, but then our turn came late September and October,” Moss continued.
This summer provided a glimmer of hope for many, as restrictions lifted due to decreased case numbers. Pete Buzzetti, the Chemung County Health Director, recalled how low the numbers were in July 2021 compared to this month, saying the vaccine’s effectiveness is a tool to combat the virus. He added that he expected a spike after Labor Day and during the start of the school year.
“We’re worse than last year,” Buzzetti remarked.
What does the data show? Last year on September 1, 338 people were tested in Chemung County, and zero tested positive. This year on September 1, 870 people were tested and 21 people tested positive, which is a 2.41 positivity rate. Doctors at Arnot Health say the relaxing of the COVID guidance from the CDC, New York Department of Health, and Chemung County Department of Health may have contributed to the spike.
“A year ago, a lot more people were very cognizant of social distancing and obviously limiting the amount of time they spent with others,” Dr. Justin Nistico, infectious disease expert at Arnot Health, said.
Some call this a pandemic of the unvaccinated, saying those who do not have the vaccine are more likely to experience severe COVID, hospitalization, or death.
“Those that are in hospitals and pass away since the vaccine has been released have been unvaccinated. That’s not to say that the vaccinated are out of the woods,” Buzzetti added.
The vaccine became widely available at the end of last year and the beginning of 2021. Now, breakthrough cases are emerging amid several contagious variants, like delta and mu. County Executive Moss does not agree that this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated, saying vaccinated residents can still get COVID-19.
“With you on the numbers rise what you have to remember is nobody said that the vaccine was a cure. The vaccine hopefully is going to make sure that you don’t have issues or complications that could be deadly,” Moss said. “If we had 20 percent more of the population in Chemung County vaccinated would we see as many positives, probably not.”
Dr. Nistico is also concerned about the stagnant vaccination rate, which Moss said is sitting at 55 percent for the first dose.
“With lower individuals vaccinated in the region and activities being much higher [COVID] spread is also increasing,” Dr. Nistico continued.
Cases are still high and vaccination rates are continuing to increase, but county offices are more prepared for the predicted case spike this fall and winter.
“We have some infrastructure built we have staff. We’ve been through this before,” Buzzetti concluded.
Taking a look back, the data may not show it, but there is progress in the fight against COVID. The pandemic continues to rage on as booster shots, vaccine mandates, and mask protocols return.
“If I had to give Chemung County residents a grade, I think we’re good B+ or A-,” Moss concluded.