COVID cases surge in Southern Tier as students return to school

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ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) — COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and testing demands are all on the rise after the holiday season, putting the Southern Tier in a similar position to January 2021. Except for this year, cases are far worse, according to health officials.

After the New Year’s break, Chemung County reported more than 1,200 active cases with 582 reported as new infections. Those numbers are nearly three times higher than those of Steuben and Schuyler Counties combined. Steuben County Health is reporting 250 active cases and 121 new infections, while Schuyler County Health is reporting 112 active cases with 53 new cases.

“We could potentially see a number of COVID cases amongst the community that’s far higher than anything we’ve seen in the past,” Chemung County Public Health Director Pete Buzzetti told 18 News.

On Monday, Governor Hochul addressed the surge across New York State, warning residents that the numbers will continue to increase. Several school districts returned to in-person learning after a week of holiday gatherings with family and friends. The Governor assured worried parents that the return to the classroom is safe, but over the weekend, the virus proved deadly for 17-year-old Derrick Watson, a high school student from Rochester.

Some parents remained concerned as they send their kids off to school, which comes as school districts across the state equip themselves with more at-home COVID tests to distribute to any family who wants to test their student before they return to school.

“That positive can be caught before getting on the bus or before being dropped off at school. That will definitely help to slow the spread a little bit at school,” Steuben County Health Director Darlene Smith added.

Many questions if schools are epicenters of COVID infection and spread, but several health experts say no. They are seeing more transmission in the community that is being brought to school, rather than students being infected in the classroom.

“I would attribute that to the requirements inside the school, which is still pretty strict,” Buzzetti continued.

While schools in New York City require tests to return to school, the rest of New York State does not. However, the state recently adopted the CDC’s Test-to-Stay strategy to keep more students in school even when they are named a close contact.

Instead of mandatory quarantines for unvaccinated students identified as close contacts of a Covid-positive peer, those students could remain in school if they test negative for the virus at least twice during the week after exposure.

As school starts this week, the main goal for the semester is to keep education in person.

“As long as it is humanly and logistically possible to keep the kids in school every day for in-person learning, the superintendents are committed to doing that,” Smith concluded.

NBC News contributed to this report.

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