Mandates relaxed, masks are off, but cases are on the rise


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ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – Mandates are relaxed, most masks are off, but COVID numbers in the Southern Tier are hitting unprecedented levels. County officials and doctors are saying the region has hit a new peak, the highest it has ever experienced. In Chemung County, there are more than 400 active cases. In Steuben County, there are more than 300 active cases and in Schuyler County, there are 57 active cases. In the Northern Tier, Bradford County saw 256 cases over the past 14 days while Tioga County saw 317 cases.

“I will have to say that from our standpoint, we’re pretty disappointed,” Chemung County Health Director Pete Buzzetti explained to 18 News.

With the colder months in front of us, COVID cases are not going down anytime soon. In fact, experts expect them to increase as the winter looms near. As a state, New York is lower than its peak last year, according to Arnot Health, but the Southern Tier is experiencing an exponential spike according to officials.

“Our last update which we made today we reported 42 new cases. That brings us to 413 total active cases. This is more COVID cases we’ve ever seen. This is worse than last year, we are seeing some additional hospitalizations of younger individuals,” Buzzetti said.

Steuben County Public Health agrees with Buzzetti, saying they are seeing more cases among younger people, including some children who are not eligible to get their shot.

“Even probably more concerning than that is the fact that we do have 31 individuals in the hospitals,” Steuben County Health Director Darlene Smith said.

At the peak last winter, Steuben County saw about 50 hospitalizations. The increase now is caused by multiple variants, including delta, which continues to rapidly spread across the country.

“The delta variant is certainly the factor that’s triggering the uptick and COVID cases,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Stephen Heneghan added.

Younger residents are also contracting COVID-19 at a higher rate than ever before. Those 65 and older were the first eligible for the vaccine and as a demographic, have strong vaccination rates. Younger Americans are not rushing to get vaccinated, according to Smith, who says there is a lot of misinformation about the vaccine on social media.

“About 60 to 65 of our cases yesterday are under the age of 40 so that, that is a significant change from what we have experienced last year,” Smith continued.

While health officials continue to push vaccination, Buzzetti says that masking and social distancing may return in some settings due to the continual spread of the virus.

“I would say it’s time to go back to what we did before, which was mask use and social distancing,” Buzzetti said.

Doctors hoped the vaccine would prevent all COVID-19 infections, but Dr. Heneghan explains that even the early data suggested that breakthrough cases were possible. He still recommends the vaccine because it protects against severe infection.

“The chances of getting very sick, being hospitalized in the ICU, or dying is very much improved by having a vaccination,” Dr. Heneghan added.

Government officials are debating several mandates at both the state and federal levels. In September, President Biden announced a potential testing mandate for employees at companies with 100 or more employees. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration Program (OSHA) would have to implement this sort of rule because the President’s power is limited. In New York and Pennsylvania, mask mandates continue to be debated in schools, and required vaccination for healthcare workers is under court review. One lawmaker in New York says vaccine mandates are not necessary.

“I don’t think it’s necessary. People have to make that decision for themselves,” Assemblymember Palmesano, N.Y. Assembly District 132, said.

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