WATERTOWN — The north country is entering another COVID-19 spike, according to testing data, local physicians and public health experts.
In Jefferson County, officials are anticipating a spike in cases over the next two weeks, after a wastewater test for the city of Watertown on Aug. 17 found there is a significant amount of the virus in the community. “There are four categories, from undetectable or unquantifiable all the way up to quantifiable, and we are in that top category,” said Steven Jennings, public health planner with the Jefferson County Public Health Service.
Mr. Jennings said the last time Watertown’s wastewater showed such a high level of COVID-19 presence was in January.
Dr. Asim A. Kichloo, chief of hospitalist services for Samaritan Medical Center and a lead doctor on the hospital’s COVID ward, said the local spike reflects a statewide trend, and it has a bad outlook.
“Things are going in the wrong direction, at the state level and here in Watertown,” Dr. Kichloo said Monday.
Cases have been climbing in recent weeks across the north country, and public health officials have been preparing for an anticipated spike as the summer comes to a close. Monday’s Jefferson County COVID-19 update reflected that the county now has a 14-day average positivity rate of 3.1%. This is higher than at any point since May. St. Lawrence County’s 14-day positivity rate on Monday was 5.61%, and Lewis County’s 14-day average is 3.8%.
Since Aug. 9, Jefferson County has been listed as a community with substantial transmission of the virus by the Centers for Disease Control. Lewis County has been listed as an area of substantial transmission since Aug. 3, and briefly stepped up to become an area of high transmission on Aug. 5. On Aug. 16, St. Lawrence County became an area of high viral transmission as well.
The CDC recommends people in counties with a substantial or high level of transmission should wear masks whenever in public, regardless of vaccination status.
Across the seven counties of the north country, only Clinton County has a moderate spread of the virus according to the CDC. On Monday, Clinton County had the lowest positivity rate at 1.7%, with Jefferson County’s 3.1% as the second lowest.
Dr. Kichloo said many healthcare workers felt as if they’re preparing for a marathon of emotional and physical challenges, one they’ve run before.
“It is looking grim from a healthcare perspective,” he said.
Doctors, nurses and support staff in hospitals and medical offices across the region are seeing an increasing number of people presenting with COVID-19 symptoms. Dr. Kichloo said as of Monday that Samaritan Medical Center had admitted six patients for COVID-19, whereas last week by Monday they had only taken in three patients.
In response to the rising case levels, healthcare providers across the region have begun taking measures to protect their patients and staff. Samaritan Medical Center announced that, effective Monday, visitation for most patients will be paused and most outpatient clinic patients will not be permitted to bring support persons to their appointments.
Dr. Kichloo said this presents another complication for healthcare workers. In the absence of patients’ families, hospital staff have to take on the emotional work of supporting their patients.
“Healthcare workers have to take on a few other roles as well, being able to fill the void of not having a family member at your bedside,” he said. “That can be emotionally draining to do. It takes its toll on us.”
Facing down this next spike in cases, likely driven by the highly infectious, and for the unvaccinated highly dangerous, delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, health experts are strongly pushing for people to get vaccinated.
Mr. Jennings and Dr. Kichloo said they are hopeful more people will seek out vaccines now that the Federal Drug Administration has fully approved the Pfizer vaccine, and expect that the military mandate for all soldiers and staff to receive a vaccine will help boost local numbers with Fort Drum.
Dr. Kichloo said it’s important for each person to push to convince one person in their life who is vaccine-hesitant that vaccines are safe and effective.
“We can all do out part, maximize the outreach, even by having a small chat with friends or family about the necessity of getting vaccinated,” he said. “If you convince even one person, that starts a domino effect and it can go a long way.”
Mr. Jennings said for those who remain unvaccinated, whether they are unable to receive a dose or unwilling, it is imperative that they continue following CDC guidance, which calls for mask wearing indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission, like most of the north country.
Mr. Jennings said the outlook right now is that the upcoming spike may not be as bad as the first spikes in cases seen in 2020 and early 2021, before vaccines were widely available in the U.S., but officials remain cautious.
“Vaccines are very effective, but they aren’t foolproof, and this virus has proven itself two steps ahead of our science before,” he said.