WATERTOWN — Jefferson County has declared a state of emergency as regional COVID-19 cases spike to unprecedented levels, county officials announced Wednesday.
During a press conference Wednesday morning in the Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chambers, Board Chair Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, announced that the county will be re-initiating its state of emergency, hoping to take measures that reduce the spread of the disease and cut down on hospitalizations. One of those steps includes a requirement for county residents to wear face masks in public.
The leaders of the county’s three hospitals, as well as public health officials and Fort Drum leaders, stood alongside him during the conference.
“This is not a preemptive measure, this is a call to action right now across the entire community,” Mr. Gray said. “We have to stop, we have to slow down what is happening right now.”
He said the county’s health care system is enduring heavy stress at the moment, and without action local hospitals are at risk of failing.
Public health officials at Wednesday’s conference said the entire north country region is seeing an unprecedented spread of COVID-19 in the community. Of all cases ever recorded in Jefferson County, 43% came in over the last three months, since Sept. 1.
Cases increased by more than 300% between August and September, then rose by 30% from September to October, and again by 31% between October and November. Officials said there’s nothing indicating the rate has slowed, and they expect about a 30% increase in positive cases between November and December.
The state of emergency includes a county-wide requirement for residents to wear masks in public and socially distance from others, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has continued to recommend since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
Mr. Gray said the mask requirement stops short of a mandate, as it doesn’t include enforcement or reporting measures, and it isn’t being instituted by an emergency order; rather, it’s built into the state of emergency itself.
“We’re not here to be punitive to anyone,” he said. “We’re here to ask them to rise up to this challenge, we’re here to ask them to help us and help the health care facilities.”
Jefferson County is joining with five other north country counties to declare this state of emergency, accounting for six of the region’s seven counties. Jefferson County is the first to include a mask requirement in its emergency order.
Officials stressed how poor the county’s COVID-19 status is at the moment. Jefferson County is seeing more cases of the disease, more hospitalizations and more deaths now than ever before, and there’s no indication the spread is going to subside anytime soon without direct intervention.
In the last roughly three months, the county has seen 36% of all its COVID-19 hospitalizations, and now 20% of patients leaving the hospital after COVID-19 treatment have been discharged due to death.
Hospitals in the north country are nearing critical levels of use. Samaritan Medical Center’s bed capacity, or number of beds occupied by patients, has hovered in the 80% range for many weeks, and all three hospitals in the county have had to divert emergency patients to other hospitals at various points in recent weeks.
Emergency medical service providers in the region have been overtaxed as well, waiting for over an hour and a half to have their patients treated or driving them to far-flung hospitals in Westchester County to the east or Buffalo to the west.
Mr. Gray said the steps the county is taking now should help cut down on the stressors on the local medical system from top to bottom. The county has already begun working with the state of New York to run a free drive-up testing center out of Samaritan’s medical facility on outer Washington Street, a step Mr. Gray said should help free up urgent care centers and emergency rooms, where a majority of residents are getting tested for COVID-19.
“When you open up urgent cares, you relieve pressure on the emergency rooms ... we then start to slow these diversions we’re seeing, and diversions are happening within all facilities periodically,” he said.
The county is now also recording more deaths than ever, with 23 county residents dead from COVID-19 in November.
Stephen A. Jennings, public health planner for Jefferson County’s Public Health Service, said the county recorded three more deaths on Wednesday.
“Those three were unvaccinated,” he said. “We are seeing some (deaths in) people who were vaccinated, but they all had significant pre-existing conditions.”
Mr. Jennings said the county has done relatively well in administering first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to adults, but needs much improvement on vaccination rates for children younger than 18 and booster shots.
“We have, as of yesterday, 1,740 children aged 5 to 11 vaccinated (with a first dose); that’s 16.7% of that population and that is not enough, we need more,” he said. “And 3.5% of those children have been fully vaccinated.”
Booster shots are available to any fully vaccinated individuals aged 18 and up who are six months out from their Pfizer or Moderna second dose, or two months out from their Johnson & Johnson shot. Mr. Jennings said the county Public Health Service estimates 13,139 boosters have been given out, accounting for 15.4% of the population.
“That’s nowhere near enough,” he said. “The vaccine is waning, we’re seeing hospitalizations and breakthrough cases. People who got vaccinated from January to March are breaking through more.”
Public Health Service Director Ginger Hall said the county’s state of emergency is a necessary step in stabilizing the overtaxed health care system and public health infrastructure in Jefferson County. As the weather cools, she said officials are anticipating the viral spread will only worsen, while local urgent care and emergency room facilities are already near their breaking points.
Mrs. Hall stressed the importance of getting vaccinated, which she said is the best tool available to prevent significant illness, hospitalization or death.
“It is imperative that immunocompromised individuals receive a third dose, and that all eligible individuals receive a booster as soon as possible,” she said.
Jefferson County is offering second-dose appointments and children’s vaccinations, while local pharmacies and doctor offices are offering the boosters. Mr. Gray said he’s heard of monthlong wait times for booster appointments, and said he is hopeful the state will soon open a booster shot clinic in Jefferson County.
“That’s going to be the next thing we will work on, getting some action from the state,” he said.