By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
ALBANY — The COVID-19 surge is expected to last through the end of January, according to county officials.
The current surge in Albany County — with an unprecedented 1,003 new COVID positive cases in a one-day period Friday — is anticipated to follow similar surges of the omicron variant in other parts of the world, Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen, M.D., said at a press conference Friday.
“The forecast, according to the modeling that is being done, is that this will peak quickly,” Whalen said. “Our numbers will likely continue to grow through the end of January, and then hopefully, if the models follow what has been seen in South Africa and in the United Kingdom, we will hopefully see a steep drop-off.”
“I know people are tired of hearing these messages again and again, but we really need to work together and band together in our preventative efforts over the next couple of weeks to get over this surge,” Whalen added. “This is a critical time.”
Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy urged residents not to panic over the rising case numbers.
“Just two days ago, we had 471 positive cases and that was the highest we had, but we have learned a lot in the last two years. We learned how to move on and to base it on hospital statistics,” McCoy said Friday. “Before that record, it was 351, set way back on Jan. 12, a year ago.”
To address the latest surge in infections, the county has partnered with Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple and the state to hand out at-home test kits and KN95 masks, which were distributed locally at the village and town offices right before Christmas.
McCoy addressed concerns of vaccinated individuals who have become infected with a break-through case.
“I know people who aren’t really going out, who are so careful… They have been doing everything right for two years, but now they are COVID positive,” McCoy said. “The vaccine is doing its job — it is keeping people out of hospitals and it is keeping people from getting really sick. All the anti-vaxxers and those who don’t want to get the vaccine, look around you — 59% of the people in the hospital are unvaccinated. The people who are getting deathly sick are unvaccinated. The people who get COVID and have a little headache and a cold — the vaccine did its job.”
“We never said the vaccine was going to stop you from getting it,” McCoy added. “It was going to prevent you from getting deathly sick. So please, don’t panic.”
The county at press time had distributed 9,000 test kits in schools and to individuals, and 500 more tests were expected to go to school districts this week, with a second batch of test kits and face masks anticipated for distribution in communities shortly, McCoy said.
The full impact of the steep rise in cases Friday remained unknown, the county executive said at Friday’s press conference.
“We still don’t know the impact this spike in infections will have from today with the 1,000 new positive cases, but hospitalization and ICU numbers remained relatively stable over the course of the past two weeks,” McCoy said. “But if you look at New York City, there is a rise in hospitalizations, particularly among children. It went up 400% in New York City and in Suffolk and Nassau counties. I don’t want that to happen here — I am hoping [the omicron variant] comes in quick, and then leaves as quick as it came in.”
While the number of infections countywide has spiked, the number of hospitalizations has not risen proportionally, McCoy said.
“The reasons hospitals are not overwhelmed right now is largely because of our high vaccination rate,” he said. “I take pride in our vaccination rate — we are at 79% of the entire population of Albany County with at least one dose of the vaccine and 72% of the population is fully vaccinated. We can stop this and get back to some type of normalcy if everyone just gets the vaccine that is eligible to get the vaccine.”
Even with the high number of infections in December, the county saw 24 virus deaths, compared to 63 COVID deaths in December 2020, McCoy said.
Thea Dalfino, M.D., chief medical officer at St. Peter’s Health Partners, said her hospital had 82 COVID patients as of Friday, with 11 in the intensive-care unit and six on ventilators, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.
The hospital, however, is being overwhelmed with individuals looking to get tested for COVID-19, she said.
“In the hospitals, we are being overrun in our emergency departments with patients coming in with very mild symptoms or some with no symptoms requesting COVID testing,” Dalfino said. “We are making a plea to either get the at-home tests if you can find them, or go to urgent care or call your health care provider. Our emergency departments are for our sickest patients — those with shortness of breath or prolonged fever or severe dehydration. We really need to have our testing supplies for the patients who absolutely need it and who we can potentially treat.”
Deliveries of COVID treatments such as monoclonal antibodies were expected to be delivered to area hospitals this week, Dalfino said.
The dramatic rise in infections was not unexpected, Whalen said.
“We are starting to see what we had forecasted, which is exponential spread,” Whalen said. “This is likely due to the omicron variant.”
In the first half of December, omicron accounted for 30.9% of COVID infections statewide, Whalen said. Between Dec. 15 and Dec. 28, that number had risen to 74%.
“So omicron is the predominant strain that is circulating in New York state and we know that omicron is more transmissible than the delta variant, so this means more people will get infected,” Whalen said.
It is not too late for individuals who are unvaccinated to get inoculated, Whalen added.
“Vaccination is the best strategy to get us out of this, it is the best strategy to protect yourself and your family,” she said.
Face masks and social distancing remain critical during the surge, along with vaccinations and booster shots, Whalen said.
“All the community mitigation strategies that we discussed will be crucial in the next few weeks,” the health commissioner said. “It is true and there is some good news that omicron preliminarily seems less severe than the delta variant and that symptoms may be a little milder. The mild symptoms that we are seeing are likely due to the fact that people getting break-through cases are vaccinated. I don’t want people to think that if you are unvaccinated and you get omicron that it won’t be as bad.”
The omicron variant is more highly transmissible than previous iterations of the virus, so the total number of infections is higher, Whalen said. Going to the hospital for testing is strongly discouraged, she added.
“If you have mild symptoms, the hospital is no place to be tested for COVID-19,” Whalen said. “We know that tests right now are a scarcity. If you are feeling unwell, you should get a test if you can, but for now, given the spread that we are seeing, I would assume that your symptoms are attributable to COVID-19.”