The long-predicted autumn coronavirus surge has arrived with a vengeance.
In Rochester and around the country, new infections and hospitalizations are rising rapidly, with a higher death rate following in their wake. The accelerating spread of COVID-19 has prompted dire forecasts of overwhelmed hospitals and new lockdown orders.
“We’ve been warning about these increasing numbers for weeks,” Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said Thursday during the county’s weekly COVID-19 briefing.
“Our current situation with our numbers, with our positivity rate, with our spread—it’s beyond troubling,” he said. “If these numbers continue in their current trajectory, the state will absolutely be in a position of having to impose increasing and new restrictions, which will inevitably lead to putting more shutdowns and lockdowns in place.”
Michael Mendoza M.D., the county commissioner of public health, echoed Bello.
“It has been a very eventful week,” he said. “Since Monday, we have added more new cases in three days than we did in the entire month of September.”
The autumn surge is evident in the newly launched Rochester Beacon COVID-19 Dashboard. The Beacon has partnered with HiGeorge, a data visualization company based in California, which offers localized, interactive datasets to publishers. The dashboard uses data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
In the last week, Monroe County recorded the highest number of new daily cases so far, 311, with the seven-day average reaching 246 versus 85 on Nov. 1 and 22 on Oct. 1. Total confirmed cases as of Nov. 15 were 10,453, and the death toll stood at 307. The county’s own data showed 1,786 daily active cases compared with 276 on Oct. 1 and approximately 1,120 during the spring peak in May. Area hospitals currently are treating 184 patients, with 33 in ICU beds.
The local numbers parallel the swiftly worsening situation nationwide. The number of new daily cases reached a record high of nearly 185,000 last week, data compiled by STAT show. Seven-day average of new daily cases on Nov. 15 was 142,751 versus 42,786 on Oct. 1. Total confirmed cases surpassed 11 million, with total deaths topping 246,000. The seven-day average of daily deaths was 1,172 compared with 716 on Oct. 1. And current hospitalizations had more than doubled to 69,987 versus 30,790 on Oct. 1.
The seven-day average of daily deaths across the nation peaked in April at more than 2,000, then dropped to fewer than 500 in mid-summer as people spent more time outdoors and COVID treatments improved.
With the return of colder weather and many students resuming in-school classes, the number of new infections has spiked. In the last week alone, new daily reported cases jumped 31 percent, hospitalizations due to the coronavirus increased 24 percent and new daily reported deaths rose 10.3 percent. On Saturday, more than 69,000 people were in U.S. hospitals. receiving COVID-related treatment.
As bad as these statistics are, they’re likely to get worse in the coming weeks. A model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington forecasts nearly 400,000 total deaths in the U.S. by Feb. 1, based on current conditions. With universal mask wearing—defined as masks worn by 95 percent of Americans—the forecast for deaths would fall to 337,669. However, if mask wearing is not universal and mandates for social distancing are ignored or eased, the death toll would rise to more than 500,000.
The current picture is not entirely bleak. On Monday, Moderna Inc. said the early results for the COVID vaccine it is developing show a 94.5 percent effectiveness rate. That follows last week’s promising news on another mRNA-based vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech that is 90 percent effective in preventing an infection, preliminary results show. Rochester has played a role in the testing of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
Neither vaccine is likely to be available to most Americans until spring, however.
The challenge now, both in Rochester and nationwide, is to once again flatten the curve of new infections to limit the number of deaths and prevent the health system from being pushed to the breaking point.
“The numbers have dramatically increased in the short span of less than a month,” Mendoza said during last Thursday’s briefing. “It’s an early indicator of things to come.”
He said that while it’s true most people who are infected will recover, many of those who test positive for COVID continue to have symptoms for weeks and months. And as more younger people get infected, there’s a greater likelihood of spreading the virus to older, more vulnerable members of the community.
The health commissioner noted that the fight has become more difficult with diminished public willingness to participate in contract tracing and follow-ups.
“We are feeling a lot more resistance from the public and there’s a lot less cooperation than we had earlier in the year,” he said. “More people who are refusing to share information about where they were (and) who they were with.”
Added Mendoza: “Let’s step back and remember that we are all in this together, that the pandemic is the problem and we are all fighting it collectively as a community, and that normal life is our collective goal.”
Bello underscored the urgency of combating the surge.
“The consequence of not taking this seriously today, of prolonging the situation we currently find ourselves in, will lead to more sickness and more loss of life,” he said. “It will lead to more businesses shutting down permanently and an economic hole that will be deeper and harder to climb out of. That does not have to be our fate, though. The time to change that is now.”
He added: “Just a few weeks ago, as a county, we had one of the lowest infection rates in the country. … I know we will do that again.”
A new executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week set stricter limits on when New Yorkers may be at bars, restaurants, liquor stores and gyms. In addition, the number of individuals who can be at “non-essential” gatherings at private residences must be kept to 10 or fewer. Much of Monroe County is in a yellow, or precautionary, zone under the state’s cluster action initiative. And the Harvard Global Health Institute risk-level map shows the Rochester region at the highest level.
“This is real, it’s serious,” said Bello. “The country is breaking records every day; here in Monroe County we’re breaking records of new cases. So, we can’t deny that this is real, we can’t deny the impacts that it’s having. We have to accept it, we have to acknowledge it, and we have to be smart in how we address it. … Wearing (a) mask is a small price to pay to keep our schools open and keep our economy moving.”
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. All coronavirus articles are collected here.