TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Though it featured a smaller number of panelists than normal, Wednesday’s COVID-19 update from Public Health Director Frank Kruppa and Tompkins County Deputy Administrator Amie Hendrix did provide a renewed glimpse at the status of the pandemic locally, including the ongoing rise of the Omicron variant during the holiday season.

As usual, the session focused on a wide range of topics, from the current variants in Tompkins County to the changing guidance from the health department concerning isolation and quarantine time periods. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube here.

As is customary, some of the information relayed was a reiteration of things Kruppa has stated repeatedly in interviews, public press releases and more. But it offered more clarity on the specifics of the pandemic’s impact here, and allowed Kruppa to contextualize some of the more eyebrow-raising figures reported daily, like new positive tests, and some of the health department’s new strategies, like encouraging the use of daily home tests.

“It’s not surprising to see the case numbers going up,” Kruppa said. See recent trends at the COVID-19 Dashboard. “What’s important, and what we’re really focused on, is the severity of illness. For a while there, our hospitalization numbers were pushing into the high-teens and low-20s, which we hadn’t seen in quite some time.”

Kruppa did clarify, though, that the health department has determined that much of the “hospitalization increase” was not actually from Omicron variant cases, though that is the dominant strain nationally, but were actually leftover cases of the Delta variant. Hopefully, this reinforces the notion that the Omicron variant largely causes less severe illness than previous strains of COVID-19—though more definitive evidence of that will come as the weeks go on and there’s more data to analyze from Omicron outbreaks, which seem inevitable.

“Over the last few weeks, as far as hospital intakes are concerned, about 75 percent of the people that presented to the emergency department with COVID-like symptoms that were discharged, meaning they weren’t admitted to the hospital, were of the Omicron variant,” Kruppa said. “About equally, 75 percent of people that were admitted to the hospital, were Delta variant. So we still know that the severity that we see, reflected in our hospitalizations, was driven by the Delta variant.”

The session also touched upon the new guidance that was published by the Health Department regarding isolation and quarantine time.

Contact tracing and case investigations have been a subplot of the recent explosion of cases over the last six weeks or so. Those processes have been greatly hampered by the load of cases that have emerged without a subsequent response of staffing increases that would provide more workers.

“The short answer for why there are delays is sheer volume,” Kruppa said. “With the shift in isolation and quarantine to five days, and the volume of cases, the effectiveness of health department-ordered quarantine is starting to diminish. By the time we are able to get to those cases, five days will have passed, and for someone in quarantine [someone who hasn’t actually tested positive], it’s even more likely that those five days have passed.”

As for test-to-stay programs, which has been a popular topic in school-concerned circles during recent weeks. With a goal of keeping as many students as possible in classrooms, test-to-stay would include rapid tests throughout the beginning of a quarantine period if a student is deemed a close contact of a person who tests positive but is asymptomatic. But with the shortened isolation and quarantine times, Kruppa said he felt it was more of a moot point, and urged adults in schools to get vaccinated and boosted because of the further reduction that creates in quarantine period (same with students who are fully vaccinated).

“That sounds really good, we want to keep kids in school if they’re asymptomatic when you test them three times,” Kruppa said. “The challenge is that that’s very labor intensive to do that, [testing] supplies are still in very short supply. […] So in coordination with our local school districts, the health department decided that we’re not going to authorize test-to-stay at this point.”

People are also being encouraged to take at-home tests to lighten the load at the Cayuga Health System testing site at the Ithaca Mall. Kruppa acknowledged some backlogs at the site, but said that those have been somewhat fixed as students have left town and the initial post-holiday wave ended (though another seems in progress).

He continued that people who are symptomatic or are close contacts of a person who has a confirmed case of COVID should go to the mall site. However, he encouraged people who are conducting surveillance testing, like before attending a gathering (which is discouraged) or traveling, to get an over-the-counter test for that type of screening process.

“Nobody’s claiming they’re perfect, there are false positives and negatives,” Kruppa said. “But if you take a test before you go to a family gathering for example, and you test positive and then don’t go to that family gathering, you’ve now interrupted the transmission of the disease.”

Matt Butler

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