EDITOR’S NOTE: The press conference is rendering now and will be attached shortly.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza held their weekly coronavirus briefing to give an update on the viral data, vaccine efforts, and more.
Trending in the right direction
The county executive said Monroe County’s COVID-19 numbers continue to drop.
“Our numbers continue to trend in the right direction and continue to go down, which serves as a reminder we have to remain cautious and vigilant, but our efforts are working,” Bello said. “Our seven-day average of new positive continues to trend down. Our seven-day average positivity rate yesterday was down to 2% and a month ago it was 5.3%. The last time we were at 2% as a county was November 1.”
The county executive said the trends reflect in regional hospitalization data as well.
“Our hospitalization and ICU numbers, which the state monitors very closely, also continue to improve,” Bello said. “Just a month ago there were 692 hospitalized and 139 in the ICU. So we’ve gone from 692 a month ago to 225 individuals today, so we’re clearly moving in the right direction.”
The health commissioner echoed the county executive’s sentiments Thursday.
“We’ve seen the numbers improving very steadily over the last several months and I think it’s important to understand why those numbers are improving,” Dr. Mendoza said. “When we look at these numbers I think there are four reasons why the numbers are improved as they have.
“No. 1 is behavior and I want to extend my thanks to the community,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We are wearing our masks, we are avoiding large crowds. No 2 is seasonality: There is always a theory that these coronaviruses demonstrate some element of seasonality meaning there may have been a predictable improvement in February and March anyways so that is good. For all the people who have come infected, 50,000 people in our county those individuals are not immune so we have fewer people susceptible to this virus, so that’s likely No. 3. No. 4, and probably most important, is vaccination.”
Bello said a vaccine milestone was met Thursday: the 10,000th shot administered at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center vaccination site, and he added that the new mass vaccination site in Rochester will help the ongoing inoculation efforts. According to the local officials, the new mass vaccination site will be a local “game changer.”
The new site is slated to open March 3 at the former Kodak Hawkeye parking lot on St. Paul and Avenue E. Officials say this site will be able to administer approximately 1,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses per day, and is possible because of a state-federal partnership.
“During the 11 weeks that this site is planned to be open, there is availability for 28,000 appointments,” Bello said. “In the first eight hours from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 6,400 eligible residents were able to make an appointment, so there’s till a lot of availability.”
For the new mass vaccination site, only residents of certain zip codes are currently eligible.
“Those zip codes are historically underserved in the vaccination rate, and trails other areas of the county,” Bello said.
Wade Norwood of the Finger Lakes Vaccine Equity Task Force said he’s encouraged about the new site.
“The vaccine site in the heart of the city, at the former Hawkeye parking lot on St. Paul Street, is a game changer,” Norwood said. “It is an opportunity for us to advance our drive to health equity.”
The City of Rochester has made 311, its libraries and R-Centers available to support registration for appointments and RTS is providing free rides from the transit center to the St. Paul Street site.
The health commissioner said the data says the vaccine is working and working well.
“The reality is this vaccine is highly highly effective,” Dr. Mendoza said. “It has been shown to prevent COVID-related deaths, essentially wiping out entirely COVID-related hospitalization. It makes it very, very unlikely for someone who has been vaccinated to transmit the COVID infection to someone else.”
The county executive said it’s important to keep wearing masks in public, even if fully vaccinated, but said it’s OK for individuals who have been vaccinated to take their masks off while in the presence of other vaccinated individuals.
A new coronavirus strain has been identified in New York City, and it’s on the rise. That strain, along with other known variants from the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil are cause for concern.
The health commissioner said a confirmed case of the U.K. strain was found in neighboring Ontario County as well as other strains throughout the state.
“It’s no surprise, I would be surprised if the U.K. strain isn’t already here in Monroe County, so my advice is, it’s here,” Dr. Mendoza said. “It’s no surprise, we just have to take our precautions.”
Dr. Mendoza said the best way to counteract the variant strains is to use the same everyday precautions that have become commonplace over the past 11 months: Wear a mask, maintain social distance, and wash your hands.
Asked if he would change guidelines for in-person instruction in schools, the health commissioner said he could advocate, but the decision ultimately is up to the state.
“Those decisions are made by the New York State Department of Health,” Dr. Mendoza. “I’d like to have as much role as of it as possible. The challenge is we’re one county and we need to work collaboratively across the region.”
Monroe County schools have expressed the difficulty of navigating six feet of distancing in efforts to bring students back to classrooms full time.
“We have to be rooted in science and nowhere in the guidance has anyone recommended three feet of distancing is safe,” Dr. Mendoza said.
Nursing home visitation
The health commissioner said he was cautiously optimistic about nursing homes resuming visitations.
“This has been a long time coming,” Dr. Mendoza said. “The families who have been impacted by this certainly bore the brunt of this awful tragedy more than other families. I think this change is a long time coming. I am supportive of this, but we should be very careful not to lower our guard. I’ve said many times there’s no zero-risk path out of a pandemic, but you have to balance the mental health. As we visit our loved ones for the first time in many, many months, we owe it to them and to the community to be responsible and follow the guidelines.”
Despite a recent COVID-19 outbreak among the Irondequoit girls basketball team, the health commissioner said high-risk youth sports resuming earlier this month has not been an issue.
“Through three weeks of experience we have not found any on-court or while in competition examples of transmission,” Dr. Mendoza said. “The students themselves, the athletes themselves, have not really been a source of major infection. It’s really the adults.”
As vaccination efforts continue, the county executive reiterated the importance of getting tested so positive cases can be isolated.
“While we’re vaccinating residents, and the vaccine increases week to week, testing is still critically important,” Bello said. “Vaccines are on the forefront, but regular testing is still one of the most important tools we have at our disposal to help us understand the prevalence of the virus in our community and help us target cases find cases isolate those cases and mitigate any spread.”
Free rapid COVID-19 tests are regularly available in our community. For more information on testing in Monroe County, visit this website.
This is a developing story. News 8 WROC will provide updates as they become available.