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ITHACA, NY -- As COVID cases around the country surge, Tompkins County has seen its highest case numbers yet, this past week. With 135 active cases as of Nov. 16, Health Director Frank Kruppa urged continued vigilance and adherence to local guidelines.

“We’re discouraging non-essential travel and gatherings, and the official state rules are no gatherings over 10, so obviously we’re asking folks to follow that as well,” he said.

County Legislator Martha Robertson reiterated the importance of the basics as well.

“The guidelines come down to simple things,” she said. “Physical distance, refrain from gatherings and wear a mask. These things really do work.”

With the recent uptick in cases, Kruppa said there has been a bit of a strain on contact tracing, and the Health Department has had to bring in train individuals from other departments to help.

“We’ve been stretched over the last five or six days,” he said. “We’re meeting the demand but we could use a few days of low numbers to catch our breath and get our feet under us.”

With Thanksgiving looming, Kruppa knows there is an urge to gather, but encouraged people to “think seriously about their Thanksgiving plans.”

“It’s a generational holiday, and right now that setting is the highest risk setting for COVID,” he said. “You’re getting multiple groups together, sitting around eating without a mask on, and then maybe you have grandma and grandpa and older members of the family there who are more susceptible to having serious consequences.”

Kruppa, Robertson, County Administrator Jason Molino and Deputy County Administrator Amie Hendrix then participated in a lengthy Q&A session with residents about masks, community spread and other concerns.

Kruppa went into some detail about the best masks to keep yourself and others safe, and said that a good fit is most important.

“You want it to be fairly snug to your face, with two layers of fabric to keep things from getting through. If you can blow a candle out with your mask on, it’s not thick enough,” he said. “We’ve had lots of conversations about gators, and at minimum you want to double them up because they’re made of nylon […] Disposable surgical masks are good options, they’re made for this exact purpose. But they’re a big more difficult to come by and we want to make sure they’re available for healthcare settings when necessary.”

With the rise in cases and the cool weather making people more apt to eat indoors, residents asked if there was risk to eating in restaurants.

“We haven’t had a lot of experience here from restaurant exposure, but it has happened in other places,” he said. “Restaurants are risky because you have people coming together inside, multiple families, and you have to remove your mask to eat and drink. We understand that, but without masks the potential for spreading is increased.”

Over the past few weeks, the Health Department has put out multiple notices about employees at different places, including Walmart, Target, Wegmans and Outback Steakhouse, working during their infectious periods. Kruppa made the distinction that just because they were infectious does not mean they were symptomatic.

“They could work Thursday and Friday and then Friday night start feeling yucky, and then get tested Saturday or Monday,” he said. “We go back to 48 hours before the onset of symptoms for contact tracing, so it doesn’t mean they did anything wrong or knew they were sick. It’s just the way the disease evolves.”

As the pandemic wears on and winter moves in, all the members of the group expressed concern about mental health.

“Depression can be a problem in the winter even in a great year,” Robertson said. “We want to remind people we do have resources for any type of help you might be needing. Call 211 and people will be there to help you.”

Hendrix added that exhaustion plays into it as well, for both people on and off the frontlines.

“This is a pandemic and emergency like no other that we’ve experienced,” she said. “People are tired. They’re tired of wearing masks, tired of not seeing their families. I spent some hours at the Health Department and our nurses and contact tracers are doing an exceptional job, and as cases continue to rise they have to keep putting their lives on hold […] We’re 10 months in and it’s tiring.”

Kruppa agreed, and again encouraged people to seek help even if they’re not sure they need it.

“211 is a great place for folks to look, and please know our mental health and substance abuse providers are ready and willing to help,” he said. “More importantly, don’t wait until something is a crisis. Reach out and have a phone call with the mental health department or any provider.”

As the session came to an end, the group once again encouraged residents to spend Thanksgiving at home with the people they live with.

“It’s going to be a quiet, lowkey Thanksgiving,” Hendrix said. “That’s personally something I need, there’s been a lot of action lately.”

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