TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Amid a spree of new COVID-19 cases in the county, Tompkins County officials held a wide-ranging coronavirus update broadcast via YouTube on Thursday afternoon.
The full guest list: Tompkins County Medical Director Dr. William Klepack, Dr. Andreia deLima and Dr. Martin Stallone of Cayuga Medical Center, Tompkins County Legislator Shawna Black, Deputy County Administrator Amie Hendrix and interim County Administrator Lisa Holmes, as well as a few drop-ins from others. Conspicuously absent was Public Health Director Dr. Frank Kruppa, though that is only because he is on vacation.
The first part largely focused on the status of the Delta variant locally, and while it’s not clear exactly what share of the total caseload the variant makes up currently, Klepack seemed fairly convinced that it is the prevalent strain in the county, much like the rest of the country. The health department has said that once Cornell University finishes sequencing the COVID-19 tests they will know the actual Delta prevalence here.
“That delta variant spreads between people much more easily. It’s nearly twice as spreadable as the old UK variant,” Klepack said. The majority of infection, at this point, is being caused by domestic travel and people gathering in groups, Klepack said.
Earlier in the day, the health department released previously unseen data regarding the rate of vaccinated people and unvaccinated people who have tested positive for coronavirus since the beginning of the year. One crucial statistic was confirmed by Klepack during the forum: nobody who has been vaccinated for COVID-19 has required a hospitalization for COVID-19 afterwards in Tompkins County.
“The vaccines are preventing severe disease,” he said. Beyond that, he also addressed the fact that vaccinated people are testing positive at all, especially here where vaccinated people make up more than half of the last few weeks of positive cases: “It’s important that are numbers are small. When your numbers are small, you can sometimes get unusual things surfacing which don’t really rise to being significant.”
Klepack clarified that, while it is clearly possible to contract the coronavirus after vaccination, the chances are very low.
“It’s very unusual, if you’re vaccinated, to become infected,” Klepack said. “It means if you have 1,000 vaccinated people, maybe one will become infected, maybe four. Those are very good odds.”
Black then began dabbling in questions from the audience that were being submitted in real-time, and those that were submitted beforehand. Prompted by a question, Klepack said he has not seen any data that would support that any specific vaccine is allowing more breakthrough infections versus any others.
DeLima stated that a CDC study showed that regarding infections among vaccinated people, 46 percent had received Pfizer, 38 percent had received Moderna, and 16 percent had received Johnson and Johnson, though she noted those percentages are skewed because the majority of people received Pfizer or Moderna.
DeLima said that the safest thing to do, especially in the face of what appears to is to wear masks again, regardless of vaccination status. Klepack then tackled the question of whether or not a new variant could develop that is resistant to the vaccine, which he admitted “can keep me up at night.” The best way to fight that, though, is to simply boost the vaccination numbers—if a resistant variant did come about, then Klepack said the current vaccines could be tweaked with different mRNA information to help defeat new COVID strains.
“We don’t want to go there, we don’t want that dangerous variant to come about,” Klepack said.
de Lima agreed.
“That goes back to the message of vaccinating everyone. That’s how a virus mutates. They need people so they can multiply, and the more they multiply, the higher chance of a mutation coming about,” she said.
Otherwise, a few questions centered on the legality of mask mandates for certain businesses.
“Businesses can determine how they want to operate their business, and they can ask for employees and members of the public do wear masks in their facilities,” Hendrix said. She continued that certain businesses, who have been in touch with the county administration, have already restarted mask mandates. “It’s happened, and I think we’ll continue to see it in a lot of other places.”
Following that, Holmes was non-commital in response to a question about the county instituting a New York City-esque vaccination requirement for certain venues like restaurants, gyms, etc. “It would need to be debated on the local level in terms of the county legislature. I don’t see any evidence of that in the near-term but we’re a county that follows the data and best practices, and we’ll act as needed for the safety of the community.”
In Cornell University’s world, it was announced during the forum that there will be four COVID-19 vaccine clinics held during the move-in period, in partnership with Wegmans, for students who have been unable to receive the vaccine so far—many of whom, Cornell’s Sharon McMullen noted, are from overseas. About 90 percent of students have already been vaccinated, McMullen said, with a deadline of mid-August for students to report their status to the school, which has instituted a vaccination requirement for the Fall semester.
As for CMC employees, Stallone said there will likely be some sort of combination vaccine requirement/testing regimen for employees who are exempt from vaccine requirements, though the hospital’s board of directors is meeting Thursday to finalize those plans.
On school districts, Hendrix said that without state guidance, which the state has officially declined to give, she believes schools in the county will adhere to CDC guidance, which some schools have already announced.
“There will be more guidance coming, but we ask for your patience, as all of these schools are working together,” Hendrix said.