It seems like every day Tompkins County sets a new record for most positive cases — either for a daily total or for the overall total. On Sept. 2, the county crossed the 400-case threshold for the first time ever. By the next day, the total was 439 active cases. On July 22, there were only 4 active cases in the county, but cases have continued to rise dramatically.
However, while there isn’t much that’s “good” about those statistics, it’s important to contextualize them. Despite the current 354 active cases on Sept. 7, only five people are hospitalized. That’s pretty much on par for the spring, and down significantly from January, where there were hospitalizations in the high teens and low 20s. In April of 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, there were seven hospitalizations while there were just 27 active cases. Thirty-four people have died in total.
This is proof that the vaccines are working to prevent severe disease, even if it’s not providing perfect protection against contracting COVID-19.
It’s also important to acknowledge the effect of the higher education communities on Tompkins County’s numbers. At a COVID town hall on Sept. 2, Public Health Director Frank Kruppa said a large number of those positive cases are coming from the surveillance and arrival testing done at Cornell University as students returned to campus the past couple weeks. Cornell reports a total of more than 26,000 students, which combined with the 5,000 at Ithaca College, effectively doubles Ithaca’s permanent population. Thus, Kruppa noted, the county is bound to see an uptick when students return.
“College students live communally, they share spaces, they gather,” he said. “So that’s really some of the driving force. It’s not that they were doing anything wrong […] They’re doing what was asked, so I don’t want folks to think the students were misbehaving.”
Another notable statistic is the fact that the rate of infection is so high for vaccinated people in Tompkins County. Kruppa said the percentage of positive cases that are recorded in vaccinated people has been hovering between 35-55%, not an insignificant number. However, he again noted the large number of college students testing positive would make that number jump because all students at Cornell and Ithaca College are required to be vaccinated.
“It’s still rare in New York to be vaccinated and get COVID, but that isn’t the case in Tompkins County,” Kruppa said.
He said one reason for this is the fact that the county’s vaccination numbers are as high as they are. As of Sept. 6, 68,821 people in Tompkins County have been fully vaccinated — that’s nearly 70% of the county’s total population.
“When you have a very highly vaccinated population, cases are going to be in that population,” Kruppa said. “We’re also learning that with the delta variant in particular, you can become positive and transmit [the virus] to others.”
He added that because there’s no way to avoid vaccinated people getting the disease, his focus is on the severity of the disease. As noted before, the rate of hospitalizations remains low, despite the high number of cases. Kruppa said there have been some vaccinated people hospitalized, but it has largely been people who have underlying diseases, such as COPD or other lung-based issues. Even then, he noted, vaccinated people generally are admitted to the hospital for a short stay of added support, and then recover at home. No vaccinated people have died in Tompkins County.
“All the people who have needed [intensive care] and who have died have been unvaccinated,” Kruppa said. “So the message here is please get vaccinated. [Vaccines] are keeping people out of the hospital.”
In the town hall he also touched upon the recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine for people ages 16+ by the FDA.
“Full approval means now the FDA believes they have enough information from studies and the larger population to say yes, the vaccine is safe and effective,” he said. “I know a lot of people who didn’t want to take it until it was approved, so hopefully more folks are seeking the Pfizer vaccine.”
Pfizer was previously allowed to be administered under emergency use authorization, which Kruppa said still had more stringent regulations than prescription medications.
He also said he believes that the vaccine should be mandatory for schools now that it’s approved, but said it’s not his decision to make. As a father himself, Kruppa said he understands parents’ anxiety about their children returning to in-person learning this year, but said he thinks it’s the right decision.
“Last year we know kids were safer in school than they were outside of school in terms of COVID exposure,” he said. “We had minimal transmission within our schools.”
However, he noted that the delta variant is different because it’s much more transmissible than previous iterations of the virus.
“But that’s why we’re not just going back to school like we did in 2019,” he said.
The state has mandated masking in all schools, and Kruppa said state officials are currently working on initiating a vaccine mandate for adults in the buildings.
“We’re still waiting for details on that, but I’ve been working with local districts on testing programs […], been working with school nurses and staff on isolation and quarantine protocols. Our goal is to keep kids in person and in school.”
There have been many calls for mask mandates within the county as well, but Kruppa said he’s leaving that choice up to the individuals. Though he communicates regularly with business owners and has told them he highly recommends a mask requirement, he isn’t going to go as far as enforcement.
“I’m not saying there’s no risk of public exposure, there’s always some level of risk, but generally speaking, what we’re seeing is [cases coming from] more prolonged contact with inconsistent masking,” he said. “That’s where we’re seeing transmission.”
Kruppa also clarified the protocol for vaccinated and unvaccinated if they test positive for or are exposed to COVID-19. If someone tests positive they’re in isolation for 10 days. If you’re a close contact and you’re unvaccinated or you’re vaccinated and symptomatic, you must quarantine for 10 days. If you’re a close contact and are fully vaccinated with no symptoms, you do not have to quarantine at all. However, those people should still wear their masks and maintain social distance.
He also acknowledged that COVID-19 is shifting from a pandemic to endemic, meaning it’s just going to be part of our disease pool from now on.
“It’s where we are, COVID is here,” he said. “Our goal is to keep people as healthy as we can, focus on keeping them out of the hospital, and it’s extremely important we get back to business and do the other things that help us be healthy.”
He said that he’s been grappling with that change in mindset himself, but that if most folks are only getting mild symptoms and staying out of the hospital — “that’s a win.”