ESSEX COUNTY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Last Wednesday, Dec. 29, Andrea Whitmarsh sent out Essex County’s final COVID-19 case update of 2021. That update reported a total of 153 new coronavirus cases over the span of five days, from Dec. 24-28.
The next update came on Monday, Jan. 3. It chronicled another five days – Dec. 29 to Jan. 2. This time, the new case count was 485.
“I want to say – we knew,” said Linda Beers, Essex County Public Health Director, in a phone call on Tuesday. “This happened before, in the original COVID spread (referring to the holiday 2020 season). With people gathering and getting together, we knew. Whenever we have a lot of human interaction, when there’s a virus in a pandemic state, we will have spread. That’s just the way it is.”
The way it is in Essex County is a current case count of 386 active cases, and 4,475 over the course of the pandemic, as of Monday. While those numbers are still plenty far south of southern parts of New York, the growth is still a lot at once for Essex County, with a population of 37,381 people as of the 2020 census.
As Beers says, Essex County knew to be ready for another holiday season where gatherings could lead to a new wave of coronavirus case spread. Like everywhere, the difference this year has been the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Essex County responded the same ways many counties have, by sending out messaging asking for residents to take care, get vaccinated if they haven’t, and use a lot of discretion when deciding whether to celebrate Christmas or New Year’s Eve with family. She says many people did exactly that, and that the buildup of herd immunity is a force in which she still believes.
Be that as it may, Whitmarsh says that Essex County has consistently been seeing its highest-ever daily case numbers over the last two weeks, two to three times as high as they’ve ever been.
“As Linda said, it’s not that this was unexpected, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging to manage,” Whitmarsh said on Tuesday.
The managing of the spread is always a challenge. In Essex County, one reason for that challenge comes down to staffing and communication. It’s a tall order for the public health department to respond to case reports in a timely manner; doing so requires each case to be communicated with on a one-to-one basis. That means tracking people down, logging contacts and their contacts, and a lot of legwork.
“As you can imagine, none of that happens extremely quickly,” said Whitmarsh. “It’s labor-intensive. If you have so many cases per day, and only so many staff, we can only get through so many cases per day.”
Another issue comes down to distance. Although Essex County has its community centers, like Ticonderoga and the county seat of Elizabethtown, it’s largely a very rural place in the Adirondack mountains.
Right now, Essex County is working to improve both the distance issue and the staffing issue in one go. Even for a less well-connected county than those closer to big cities, the answer lies online.
“The answer is changing the process,” said Beers. “The process we’ve been working on, isolation and quarantine (…) that process is not working anymore. When a virus gets so large that it’s everywhere, it’s not working.”
Now, Essex County is working on creating a new set of online resources for its residents, similar to sites Beers points to in Saratoga, Erie and Onandaga counties. Instead of having to track down every positive case by phone to tell them what to do and log them into a state system, the county health department will push access to an online database that lets those who test positive do a lot of that logging, and get a lot of that information, on their own. There will still be options to print out forms and keep a hard-copied paper trail of the process.
Essex County will still operate a phone hotline for those who can’t access the internet. But, especially with at-home coronavirus tests available, Beers sees the change as adapting to reality; and she feels her residents are plenty savvy enough to adapt along with the department.
“I’ll be frank,” Beers said, “there’s no way that we know about every COVID case in the county. I have absolutely talked to people who tested positive, who didn’t know that in Essex County we have a link where you can enter the results of your at-home test. They didn’t get that messaging, they weren’t sure, they didn’t want to. But I believe very clearly that all of them – many of them – did the right thing. They said, ‘I didn’t go to work, I knew what to do.'”
When a spike goes up, nobody can look into the future and know with absolute certainty when it will come back down. But Essex County Public Health looks at the data in front of them and hopes that coronavirus cases will have settled down again by the start of February.
In the meantime, area medical centers like Elizabethtown Community Hospital saw some congestion around Thanksgiving, but much of that has calmed back down, as more and more reported cases come back with mild symptoms – a fact which can be chalked up in part to the number of booster shots that have circulated around the region. In Essex County, nearly 70% of residents are fully vaccinated against coronavirus. That’s the kind of hope Beers and Whitmarsh look to.
“The Essex County Public Health Department has served beyond its capacity for two years. We have to right ourselves,” said Beers. “This pandemic is about getting smarter and understanding that there has to be an end to the pandemic.”
Essex County shares COVID updates regularly on Facebook.