PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (WFFF/WWTI) — After a spike in COVID cases and hospitalizations, more than a half-dozen counties in New York’s North Country have declared a state of emergency.

Lawmakers and health experts from Clinton County gathered inside the Legislative Chambers in Plattsburgh Wednesday afternoon to explain their response. Case counts and infection rates there more than doubled since December 2020, said Mark Henry, chair of the county legislature. A year ago, the county had 101 COVID cases. On Wednesday, the county reported 304 new infections, bringing the total since March 2020 to 8,339. More than a third of the county’s 52 COVID deaths occurred since September 1, he said. 

Clinton County is one of four counties in New York that did not rescind its original state of emergency, but the situation is prompting leaders from Jefferson, Lewis, St. Laurence, Franklin, Essex, and Hamilton counties to call on the state for assistance.

“Clinton County is working on every level to do all that we can to mitigate this spike,” Henry said. “One important part of this is joining with our North Country counties in extending our declaration of emergency as well as working with New York State to obtain needed resources, especially expanded vaccination and testing.”

Also on Wednesday, Jefferson County officials at a community briefing on public health and health care announced the state of emergency. Participating partners at the meeting included Chairman Scott Gray, Public Health Director Ginger Hall, Health Planner Stephen Jennings, and representatives from Fort Drum and local area hospitals.

Their decision was based on the increase in cases throughout the region and to avoid overwhelming the health care systems. “Our very strong concern is with people inside, during the colder weather, the holiday gatherings that illness will spread to an even greater level than we are currently seeing, we will experience another spike in and that our capacities already burdened may give way,” said Hall.

“The glass is full,” Gray added. “This is not a preemptive measure. This is a call to action right now.” Beginning the briefing, Gray reflected on the COVID spike the North Country saw in January and February 2021.

As of December 8, Jefferson County had 62.13 of average daily COVID cases per 100,000 residents. If the county’s daily COVID rate increases in December to match the rate it increased last year in the same timeframe, Gray said it would reach 88 cases per 100,000 residents in December. He also said that in November, COVID deaths accounted for 20% of hospital discharges. If things don’t change, the county predicts 30 to 40 more COVID-related deaths in the next few months.

Jennings also shared data from the county’s COVID index. He confirmed that nearly 44% of all reported COVID cases to date in the county have occurred since September 2021, and 36% of all hospitalizations have also been since September. Cases have also risen 30% every month since August, and the county predicts that hospitalizations will also increase 30% between November and December.

Taking this data into consideration, the group addressed how their State of Emergency will be a call to action to focus on the strain local hospitals are facing, especially as emergency rooms are overwhelmed and some have had to divert patients across the state.

“We have been exceeding 20 patients per day. That’s just 20 COVID patients, out of hundreds of patients that are in the hospital,” said Thomas Carman, Samaritan Medical Center’s Chief Executive Officer. “That is concerning, too, because if I look back at this same time—one year ago, we had less than 10 patients in the hospital. We didn’t peak last year until January. If we stay on this trajectory through January, we could be overwhelmed.”

With the state of emergency, the biggest change is a mask mandate for all businesses. The emergency declaration states that businesses will now be permitted to deny customers who are not wearing masks.

Gray used Fort Drum as an example, with the military base seeing lower infection rates due to mask mandates and vaccine requirements. “Masking the social distancing does work. Our infection rate is below that of what the county is currently experiencing,” said Col. Matthew Mapes, Fort Drum’s MEDDAC Commander.

Jefferson County will also require all CDC guidance including social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, and getting the COVID vaccine with all doses and boosters. The state of emergency is set to end in 30 days, with county leaders will reassess whether they should extend the declaration by January 8.

In weekly briefings with county officials, Henry has stressed the need for rapid tests for nursing homes, schools, and residents. Clinton County has taken advantage of the state’s offer of assistance from the National Guard; two personnel have recently been sent to nursing homes.

Clinton County’s Public Health Director, John Kanoza, said COVID symptoms can feel like a normal cold, which is why he urges that people not wait to get tested.