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The Tompkins County Health Department hosted a COVID Town Hall on Dec. 9, during which leaders talked about the cause of the uptick in cases, the COVID vaccine and the omicron variant.

There are currently 886 active cases in Tompkins County (as of Dec. 14), a sharp uptick from the 340 cases reported a week prior on Dec. 7, and the 175 cases reported a week before that on Nov. 29.

“A large impact has been from the holiday travel and folks either leaving the area and/or gathering together for the holidays,” Public Health Director Frank Kruppa said.

Claire Espey, the Tompkins County director of community health, said that the county is considered high transmission by CDC standards, as there are more than 100 total new cases per 100,000 people within a seven-day span.

At the Town Hall, Kruppa said the county is not planning on using mandates as a tool for addressing COVID anymore, however Gov. Kathy Hochul instituted a mask mandate that went into effect on Monday, Dec. 13. Kruppa said he believes the most important thing remains getting vaccinated.

“We need everyone who can be vaccinated to get vaccinated,” he said. “We’re obviously reporting cases in vaccinated individuals, but you’re less likely to get COVID if you’re vaccinated. And if you’re under 65 or 70, you’re less likely to need hospital care if you get COVID. All those things are extremely important to limit spread.”

Espey said transmission has predominantly from household exposure in people who live together and an uptick in cases in higher education. Cornell University announced they would be moving to alert level red on Dec. 14 after more than 400 cases were identified over the weekend.

Despite the high number of cases, hospitalizations have remained low. As of Dec. 14, 10 people were hospitalized. Dr. Marty Stallone, CEO of Cayuga Medical Center, said the hospital is seeing less severe illness in vaccinated individuals, and almost all of the young people who are sick are unvaccinated.

“The protection [from the vaccine] is overwhelmingly obvious,” he said.

Cayuga Medical Center isn’t immune from the staffing shortages going on in healthcare around the state and country.

“We’re trying super hard to maintain staffing at the level the community deserves,” Stallone said. “The good news is we’re fully operational at this point.”

The panelists also addressed the omicron variant, which is the newest variant taking over the world. Very preliminary reports suggest the variant is much more transmissible, but generally results in milder symptoms, especially in those who are vaccinated. Kruppa said there’s still much more studying of the variant that needs to be done before they can make any recommendations.

“It’s going to take some time to understand,” he said. “One thing I would say is it doesn’t change our treatment protocols in hospital or healthcare settings, and it doesn’t change any recommendations we would make. Get vaccinated, wear a mask indoors and avoid large gatherings. Everything remains the same.”

There have been confirmed cases of the omicron variant in Tompkins County since the COVID Town Hall, with the Health Department confirming as much and Cornell stating that there have been quite a few cases on campus as well.

The PCR tests at the mall site can detect the hallmark “S-gene dropout” of the omicron variant, but confirmation has to be made through sequencing at Cornell University, which does take time. Kruppa said sequencing is not a diagnostic tool, but a health and research tool to understand the disease that’s prevalent in the community.

Kruppa and Stallone also encouraged those who are already vaccinated to get booster shots, as “vaccine effectiveness does wane over time,” according to Stallone.

“To regain a higher level of protection over time, there does need to be a reinvigoration of the immune system,” he said.

Kruppa noted this was common in vaccines, as many vaccines you get as a child are done in series, plus people need to get a flu shot every year.

They also encouraged everyone to get tested if they have any symptoms at all.

“If there are any potential COVID symptoms, go get tested and follow public health instruction,” Stallone said.

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