TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—With the holidays approaching, Tompkins County officials held a forum and information session attempting to field community questions and, crucially, discourage people from gathering together to avoid the type of small parties that have been a source of infections.

A litany of topics were covered, including new state guidelines in New York, vaccination distribution and the strain that the recent rash of COVID-19 positive tests has put on the county’s ability to conduct contact tracing investigations and the like. The forum was hosted by Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson and can be viewed in full here.

General Updates

One point that several community members have been anxious about is whether or not the recent increases in positive tests in the county would pass the threshold that New York State has set to declare certain zip codes outbreak centers, accompanied by a set of new density and business restrictions to limit the spread of coronavirus. As of Monday, Tompkins County had seen 126 positive tests over the previous seven days.

“At this point, I don’t see us there yet,” said Deputy County Administrator Amie Hendrix, though she noted that more information is coming from the state on a near-daily basis about what would qualify the area in one of the three restriction zones. “But we do see the increase in cases, so we continue to watch and monitor that.”

County Administrator Jason Molino told the Ithaca Voice over the weekend that there had not been any contact from the state about instilling any restriction zones on Tompkins County.

As for reactions to the case spike, Molino said that some county employees have been reassigned and trained to be part of the contact tracing team, and that other staff members have been redirected to the county’s Emergency Operations Center. Public Health Director Frank Kruppa acknowledged that the contact tracing team has been “stretched” and needed nurses from other nearby counties to help complete the contact investigations. He also spoke about the need for caution around the holidays, particularly for the next several weeks as people would normally be organizing holiday parties and family celebrations. Those things are fine if the people attending are from the same household and have been together during the COVID-19 pandemic, but otherwise should be avoided.

“What we don’t want is to bring a family from the town over who might not have been in that bubble, now you have the chance for people to expose one another,” Kruppa said.

Kruppa reiterated the state’s rules on travel between non-contiguous states and New York, including the traveler health form, testing requirements and quarantine mandates (which currently are a negative test from within three days of arriving in New York, then a three day quarantine and another negative COVID-19 test on the fourth day). He and Hendrix acknowledged the exhaustion some may be experiencing as the country enters the eighth month of quarantine, but emphasized that caution now should pay off by shortening the total length of the pandemic.

“We’re used to Thanksgiving as a generational holiday (…) Right now, that setting is probably the highest risk setting for the transmission of COVID,” Kruppa said. “Maybe you have grandma and grandpa there who are more susceptible to having drastic consequences from contracting COVID.”

Recently, the state also issued new regulations regarding restaurants and bars, which require them to end in-person service at 10 p.m., as well as gymnasiums. There have been some cases related to medical service facilities, Kruppa said, but there have not been any clusters associated with those locations or medical workers.

As for how the local colleges are attempting to return for the spring semester, Hendrix said the plans haven’t been solidified officially yet but are in the works as all three local schools (Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College) formulate their potential spring semester plans.

“They are looking at how they are going to continue to monitor teachers and students,” Hendrix said, commending the three schools for combining forces, particularly Cornell in the form of its sampling efforts and surveillance testing program. She did not offer specifics on the school’s plans at this point, though. “They are really consistent with trying to protect the community to the best of their ability.”

Vaccine Distribution

If there’s been anything encouraging from this stage of the pandemic, it’s that some sort of vaccine appears to be on the horizon. Both Pfizer and Moderna have issued optimistic announcements about their vaccination trials and look to be on schedule for distribution in the next few months.

Having a vaccine is one thing, but distributing it is another. Kruppa acknowledged that even when one is produced and given to municipalities to administer to people, the early stages are likely to see low overall availability and thus will be doled out to higher risk populations.

“We understand that in the beginning, there’s going to be smaller amounts of the vaccine available, so we’re talking about hospital workers and high-risk folks like nursing homes and long-term care facilities will be priority populations,” Kruppa said. “From there, as more vaccine becomes available, we will move into doing broader community distribution as those criteria expand, as the vaccine becomes more available.”

Cayuga Health System has agreed to help distribute the vaccine when it does become available. The looming cloud over the potential vaccine is who will trust the immunization enough to receive it, either those who are traditionally skeptical of vaccines or those who don’t trust the speed with which the coronavirus vaccine is being developed.

“We’ve got some work to do to make sure people feel comfortable and are able and willing to get the COVID vaccine when it’s available,” Kruppa said. He, obviously, said he trusts the vaccination verification process.

Of course, Kruppa emphasized that people need to make sure to receive their flu shots, which have taken on even more importance this year as public health officials warn that a bad flu season could strain the nation’s hospital system further.

Downtown COVID-19 testing facility

The update on the impending downtown COVID-19 testing facility was brief but seemed promising. Hendrix said that Cayuga Health Systems and the county were collaborating to find somewhere downtown that could test people in order to cut down on travel times to the Shops at Ithaca Mall, and to provide some relief to site workers from having to stand outside in the bitter cold for hours on end.

“Acknowledging that it’s going to be colder, we are looking for a site that could be potentially inside,” Hendrix said. “I will say that it’s probably going to be a smaller site than what we can do at the (Shops at Ithaca Mall) sampling site, that’s a very large facility and you can have a lot of cars go through. We’re hopeful that we’ll have that in the next couple of weeks.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com