WATERTOWN — As the delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads across the nation, driving a spike in cases of the disease, Jefferson County officials are pushing for residents to get vaccinated.
Chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators Scott A. Gray said Monday that the county and state’s combined testing regime has not yet identified a delta variant of the virus, but officials assume the variant is here nonetheless.
“We suspect it’s here,” he said Monday. “We haven’t been notified by the state, but we expect it’s in the county.”
Catching cases of COVID-19 driven by the delta variant of the virus can be complicated. The symptoms aren’t any different from the earlier variants, although those with the delta variant may get sicker faster. Vaccinated people typically experience no symptoms or very mild ones.
Rapid tests can’t differentiate between variants, so the state has been sending random samples of county tests to a specific laboratory to test for the delta variant.
The Jefferson County Public Health Service issued a public warning on July 22 that a Carthage High School class reunion held July 16 and 17 had caused an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.
Mr. Gray said that cluster of cases is suspected to be caused by the delta variant.
“How quickly it spread, and how fast people got sick, that was kind of an indication,” Mr. Gray said.
He said the county continues to aggressively quarantine people potentially exposed to the virus, as a mitigation strategy to contain the delta variant.
Mr. Gray said the best way to avoid getting sick or requiring hospitalization from the delta variant is to get vaccinated. Breatkthrough cases are much rarer than infections in unvaccinated people, and then the vaccinated people who do get sick rarely need hospitalization and are much less likely to die from COVID-19.
“Vaccinations are still important, and we are really going to have to make every effort to ramp up our vaccination efforts to cover as many people as we can,” he said.
The CDC currently shows Jefferson County has fully vaccinated 66.3% of its eligible population, which is nearly everyone age 12 or older, and 78.3% of people have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
“We’re in pretty good shape on vaccinations, but we expect with this uptick there are going to be a lot of people looking to get vaccinated,” Mr. Gray said.
Public health officials have been warning for months that the fall weather, which drives most social interactions indoors and into poorly ventilated areas, was likely to bring a spike in COVID-19 cases no matter what. With the delta variant, it’s likely those anticipated cases will spike even higher than originally expected.
But with a relatively strong vaccination rate, which will get even stronger as the recently vaccinated get their second doses and achieve fully vaccinated status two weeks later, Mr. Gray said measures beyond vaccine promotion may not be necessary.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo urged local governments to follow CDC guidance that asks vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in certain areas with high or substantial transmission rates, as even infected, vaccinated people and asymptomatic carriers of the virus can spread it.
The CDC currently rates the county’s level of community transmission as moderate — a step under the substantial level of spread that warrants a public mask mandate under the CDC’s current guidelines.
The positivity rate in the county has increased in recent weeks, however. At the beginning of July the county had a 0.8% positivity rate, which has increased slowly to 2% as of Monday. Monday’s 2% positivity rate is the highest in more than two months.
Mr. Gray said, if conditions warranted it, he would consider signing a state of emergency decree, like he did in March of 2020. With a state of emergency declared in the county, Mr. Gray would be empowered as the executive to issue an emergency order requiring masks in public settings.
“I would be prepared to do that, but that would be based on the conditions, and they would have to be severe,” Mr. Gray said.
Even with that tool, Mr. Gray said getting more people vaccinated is the main way the county plans to tackle the threat of the delta variant.
“The difference between now and when we were under the state of emergency is that back then we had no means to correct the problem, and now we do,” he said. “We have the vaccine, it is plentiful and we can accommodate any number of people at a time.”