WATERTOWN — Infections of COVID-19 are spiking in the north country, with both Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties hitting record numbers in recent days.
On Wednesday, St. Lawrence County reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases in a single day since the onset of the pandemic last year, recording 165 positive tests.
On Tuesday, Jefferson County also reported 165 positive tests. That’s not a single-day record for the county, but it represented 35% of all tests conducted that day, a record-high percentage.
The dizzyingly high number of cases recorded in the region this week led both the St. Lawrence County Public Health Department and the Jefferson County Public Health Service to issue warnings and reiterate advice for preventing spread.
Public health officials in both counties stressed that people should stay at home if they feel sick with any symptoms. Those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should isolate from other people, even in their homes, and seek COVID-19 tests, remaining in isolation until results are returned.
They also stressed the importance of mask wearing in public spaces, regular hand washing and above all, vaccination.
Stephen A. Jennings, public health planner in Jefferson County, said it’s now critical for people ages 18 and older to get their COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.
“The vaccines have waned enough, so people are not protected from COVID without those booster shots to increase immunity to a protective level,” Mr. Jennings said.
People who are more than six months out from their second shots of Pfizer or Moderna can receive boosters, and those who are two months out from a Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccination are eligible as well.
“Without the booster shot, it’s as if people previously vaccinated have not been vaccinated at all,” Mr. Jennings said.
Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chair Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, on Wednesday said the JCPHS is slammed with managing isolation and quarantine and is being assisted by the state to ease that process.
The main focus, he said, is monitoring the hospitals across the county.
“They’re close to their high water mark in terms of the number of patients,” he said.
Jolene F. Munger, interim public health director for St. Lawrence County, said hospitals have been swamped, both with COVID-19 cases and influenza.
She said there were almost no flu cases last year because of the COVID-19 precautions people were taking.
“Now, people have stopped doing any kind of precaution, flu is widespread and this is the first time in four years it’s been this widespread this early in the season,” she said.
Overstretched hospitals can make it very difficult to seek any kind of care, emergency or routine. Hospital emergency departments are seeing more use because urgent care offices are backed up with testing appointments. Emergency rooms are further backed up with their own COVID-19 test appointments. Health care workers are quitting due to burnout or vaccine mandates, straining capacities.
In St. Lawrence County, Mrs. Munger said officials have requested that the state open a combined mass testing and vaccination site.
“We would like both up here, wanting to give more people a place to get tested, to take the strain of testing off the hospitals,” she said. “You can go almost anywhere in the county and get vaccinated, but we’re just not seeing the rate. If you look downstate, some of the places that have a higher vaccination rate than we do don’t have the hospital capacity issue.”
According to the North Country COVID Vaccine Dashboard, which was last updated Nov. 16, St. Lawrence County has 61% of its total population vaccinated with at least one dose, and Jefferson County has 57% of its total population vaccinated with at least one dose. Those figures are based on data from the New York State Immunization Information System.
Mr. Gray said Jefferson County officials have also requested assistance from the state, mostly for administering testing.
“We definitely need more testing,” he said.
He said there’s talk at the state level to reinstate the drive-thru testing programs that contracted with BioReference Laboratories, which is the program that allowed Samaritan Medical Center to offer tests at its outer Washington Street campus.
“That would be most beneficial,” Mr. Gray said. “We can’t stress enough the importance of testing right now. If you’re backlogged and people can’t get access to testing, that just complicates the spread.”
He said there doesn’t seem to be a need to offer a mass vaccination center in Jefferson County to provide booster shots because booster doses are readily available and demand has evened out compared to the demand seen for the first doses in late 2020 and early 2021.
Mr. Gray said he and other county officials are weighing the value of potentially declaring a state of emergency again.
“A state of emergency is on the table; that would get us state assistance,” he said. “We’ll look at what the benefits of that are. Obviously it allows us to do emergency orders, like if we had to do a mask mandate, but that would not be the reason we do it.”
The state of emergency could potentially provide access to state and federal aid to stabilize the county’s overtaxed health care facilities, giving them a chance to stabilize.
“If there are identifiable benefits to declaring a state of emergency, I am prepared to do that,” he said.