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Reporter debrief: In New York's North Country, vaccination lags and COVID's been surging for months

A photo showing people standing outside a van with masks on, with pigeons in the background
Jerome Delay
Associated Press
People are tested for COVID-19 at a mobile testing site near the NYU campus in New York, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. The state broke a daily case count on Sunday reporting more than 23,000 cases.

COVID cases are surging in the Northeast. New York State broke a daily case count on Sunday reporting more than 22,000 cases. And that came at the end of a three-day record-breaking stretch that brought more than 60,000 new infections in the state.

New York Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, who tested positive for COVID Monday, is warning infection rates and hospitalizations will likely keep rising.

VPR’s Liam Elder-Connors spoke with North Country Public Radio News Director David Sommerstein about the state of COVID in northern New York.  Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Liam Elder-Connors: So COVID cases are trending up all over the Northeast, what's the growth been like in northern New York?

David Sommerstein: Well, the North Country, northern New York state has seen a pretty dramatic surge, even starting in, you know, late September and all the way through the fall. And a lot of that comes back to vaccine hesitation among many people in the North Country.

If you look, for example, at New York state's vaccination, 82% of New Yorkers have had at least one dose of the vaccine. But up here in the North Country, there are counties like Lewis County that has 52%, St. Lawrence County that has 63%, and Jefferson County with 63%. And so, what you ended up with was a big surge of cases. And a lot of deaths here in the North Country, especially in November and December.

Read all of North Country Public Radio's COVID coverage here.

Out of all of the deaths in this region since the pandemic began, almost 20% of them have taken place in the last two months.

So, it sounds like vaccine hesitancy and low rates might be a factor. But have health officials identified any other things that might be contributing to the surge in your region?

There hasn't been a lot of mask wearing. There wasn't a requirement. Now there's a statewide mask mandate. And in northern New York, there's still lots of places you go into, and you still don't really see people wearing masks, and there's a lot of debate about whether counties are enforcing the mask mandate or not, or whether they're refusing to.

So there's a lot of people who are still, you know, pushing back on a lot of the COVID-19 rules and protocols that we know are important to keep the virus from spreading and protect individuals and protect each other.

How are the hospitals in your region faring right now?

Yeah, this Liam has really been the most dramatic part of this surge here in Northern New York.

And it’s that hospitals have been saying pretty bald-facedly that they're overwhelmed. And I spoke with David Acker, who is the CEO of St. Lawrence Health, which runs three hospitals here in the North Country in St. Lawrence County.

“Any level of emergency that anyone can imagine who's worked in a hospital, this is hundreds of percent, percentage points higher," Acker said.

So, hospitals are having to move patients around. The ICUs are full. They're putting COVID patients in places that had been non-COVID wings or wards. So, you're really seeing health care facilities stretched to the limit. There's a shortage of health care workers. So, there's a real concern.

And then we have, you know, omicron coming down the pike, and people are really concerned about how the hospital system is going to respond to that.

More from VPR: St. Johnsbury hospital staffers on continuing care during COVID: 'We're hanging on with our fingernails'

Are health officials considering any more mitigation measures to try to help deal with this situation?

Not right now. You don't see any politicians talking about capacity restrictions or shutting down certain segments of the economy or an overall shutdown.

You know, so you really see people taking measures of encouraging people to get vaccines, encouraging people to get boosters, the statewide mask mandate, but not a lot of appetite for the kind of economic sector shutdowns that we saw in the first year of the pandemic, and that we're seeing right now happening to the north of us in Quebec and Ontario.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Corrected: December 21, 2021 at 5:47 PM EST
A previous version of this story misstated how many cases were recorded in New York on Sunday.
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