Seneca County Public Health Director Vickie Swinehart had a stern warning for the Seneca County Board of Supervisors and public at large during an update at a meeting last week. As the supervisors met for their regularly monthly session, the county’s lead public health official said since keeping the coronavirus pandemic in check over the summer, things were going “the wrong direction.” 

“We’ve got to be vigilant,” Swinehart reminded the supervisors. “I’m very fearful of what’s going to happen after the holidays. Maybe consider getting together via Skype. We have 200 to 300 people in quarantine—that’s a lot of people.”

Her concern is in the number of cases, which has seen significant increases over the last two months. October was Seneca County’s highest month to date since the early days of the pandemic, with 41 total cases of COVID-19. Then the first nine days of November yielded 61 new cases. The three days that followed (Nov. 10 to 12) included 19 additional positive tests. 

Less than halfway through the month of November it doubled the previous high for new cases of the virus. However, hospitalization has remained stable with only a handful of cases requiring that level of care in Seneca. There had been a total of five deaths connected to COVID-19, according to the health department’s weekend update.

Swinehart attributed the rise in cases to Halloween, household dinner parties, and other small gatherings at people’s homes. It is a similar message from other local public health officials, who have seen similar increases because of those gatherings in places like Ontario, Yates, Wayne, and Cayuga counties.

She said the message, especially heading toward Thanksgiving, is to “think” before going somewhere. Even if it is a small gathering, it can cause community spread, and as contact tracing efforts have shown, small gatherings are the primary driver of new cases. 

For his part, Governor Andrew Cuomo has been railing against “COVID fatigue,” which he says has been a problem throughout the late-summer and fall. The state instituted new policies last week for businesses to abide by, which includes the closure of all bars, dine-in restaurants, and gyms at 10 p.m. While that is not a big deal for a county like Seneca, it was viewed as a blow to larger, more urban economies that rely on that kind of activity to keep communities financially flush.

Swinehart left it plainly with the supervisors, though. “We’re going the wrong direction,” she said. The county’s positive rate has been hovering just below five percent. If it stays above four percent for 10 days consecutively, then Seneca will be eligible for “yellow zone” restrictions.

A major issue, she said, is the lack of transparency and honesty people are having with contact tracers. Swinehart said that is a bi-product of people not wanting to quarantine. “We’re going to have to tolerate it, or we’ll be shut down. We’re going to get there eventually if our numbers continue to increase,” she added.

A concern for the supervisors, as well as public health officials, is the testing requirements for schools in ‘yellow zones’. It is required that 20 percent of students and staff be tested weekly, and Swinehart says she is not sure the county or schools have capacity for that.

“Please encourage everyone to be honest with contact tracers when they call,” she pleaded with the public during the streamed meeting. “Yes, quarantine is inconvenient, but it’s to help keep the county safe. It makes the job we’re doing more difficult, and puts the community at risk if we’re not honest with contact tracers.”

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