ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) — As the holidays approach, New Yorkers have hit a positive COVID-19 milestone. Ninety percent of all adults have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and more than 700,000 shots have gone into arms this week alone. This good news comes with some bad news. Coronavirus cases are spiking in several regions, including the Southern Tier.
The region has a five percent positivity rate compared to 0.64 percent positivity six months ago on May 24, 2021. The increase in cases comes as more people remove masks and gather indoors. Experts say vaccination is the key to ending the pandemic, but masks are certainly helpful in stopping the spread.
“Mask use would always help,” Chemung County Health Director Pete Buzzetti said. “This kind of stuff is about risk reduction, not risk elimination.”
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz instituted a mask mandate beginning Wednesday at 6 a.m. Masks must be worn in all public, indoor facilities. This does not apply to facilities with a 100 percent COVID-19 vaccination requirement for entry. This new policy is in response to the rise in cases in Erie County.
It’s part of a four-phase plan Poloncarz announced on Monday. But with this plan, Poloncarz hopes to not reach the remaining phases.
“None of us wanted to do phase one…but we feel we must,” Poloncarz said.
As for the Southern Tier, mask mandates are not on the table right now in Chemung County, though it remains an option if needed.
“The county executive and I have left all options on the table, but you know right now that’s not something that we are talking about,” Buzzetti added.
In Steuben County, officials held an extensive meeting Tuesday, saying cases there are increasing rapidly. Steuben County Manager Jack Wheeler says emergency rooms at their hospitals are near or at full capacity; however, he cannot institute a mask mandate. Both Wheeler and Steuben County Public Health Director Darlene Smith are appointed officials, not publically elected ones. Thus, a mandate is up to the legislature.
“That’s a policy decision that the County Legislature would need to make. In my discussions with legislative leadership, it does not look like that’s the direction that the county is going to go in,” Wheeler told 18 News Wednesday.
Their current data can be found at the Steuben County COVID-19 Dashboard.
Larger counties like Erie and Monroe have jumped ahead of New York State Department of Health guidance. Just last week, both counties opened up booster shots to all adults before the FDA, CDC, or NYDOH signed off.
“A county like Erie or Monroe has a lot more latitude to I guess unilaterally implement some of these measures that we [Steuben County] do not have,” Wheeler continued.
Health experts say masks are the key to this holiday season with more indoor gatherings with family and friends who live outside of the area.
“The role of putting the mask back on really helps to slow the spread, flatten the curve again. There are different types of respiratory particles or viral particles that could be shed. If you had no mask, the distance traveled [of the particle] is a lot greater than someone who’s wearing a mask,” Dr. Justin Nistico, Arnot Health infectious disease specialist, said.
In the Southern Tier, mask mandates will stay on the sidelines for now, but officials say it is a tool that could help slow down the transmission of the virus.