Western New York will likely experience yet another surge of new Covid-19 cases this fall, two local experts warned in a Friday press conference, unless Western New Yorkers rapidly double-down on vaccinations, masking, social distancing and other pandemic precautions.
Recent models from the University at Buffalo suggest new cases may continue to rise though the fall and early winter, sparked by the continued spread of the more transmissible Delta variant and the return of cold weather.
Unlike those with no protection, fully vaccinated patients who are hospitalized with breakthrough Covid-19 cases, or who die from the virus, are far more likely to have serious, underlying health issues.
But how much they rise depends in large part on how many Western New Yorkers get vaccinated in coming weeks and how people behave in crowded environments, such as schools, stadiums and theaters, said Dr. Gale Burstein, the Erie County health commissioner, and Dr. Peter Winkelstein, who heads the Institute for Healthcare Informatics at the University at Buffalo.
Already, average daily hospitalizations and new case numbers are roughly five times higher than they were a year ago, seven weeks before a winter surge that infected more than 70,000 people. On September 10, 302 new cases were recorded in Erie County alone – the highest single-day count since April.
“I’m quite concerned that we’re going to see another wave this fall again at roughly the same time, when the weather gets cold and when we enter the so-called ‘respiratory season,’ ” Winkelstein said. “Added to that concern is that we’re starting out right now at a much higher level of transmission of the virus in the community than we were at the same time last year.”
One model Winkelstein shared Friday demonstrates the narrow edge on which Western New York currently sits. Even before the return of winter weather, regional hospitalizations have risen sharply with the continued spread of the more infectious Delta variant, to 158 on Sept. 9.
Under some projections, hospitalizations may continue to rise through at least the end of October to nearly 300 in Erie County alone. But even a partial return to masking and social-distancing could cut the number of future hospitalizations by nearly two-thirds, the model shows.
“I will not be micromanaging,” Hochul said. “But I’ll be giving guidance based on your input. I’ll be giving you the cover you need. I’ll be an ally, but I will not be imposing state people and locations on you without consultation.
Such an outcome would require even vaccinated people to readopt behavioral precautions, such as wearing masks in public places, which both local officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly recommend. Since late July, the CDC has urged vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in all but a handful of U.S. counties, and to wear masks outdoors in crowded areas.
“Whenever you’re indoors in a public space – or even outdoors in a crowded area where you’re not really sure what everybody’s vaccine status is, like the Billy Joel concert or a Bills game – you should mask and protect yourself and protect the people around you,” Burstein said.
Public health experts are also still urging Western New Yorkers to get vaccinated, if they haven’t already, and to get tested for Covid-19 if they experience symptoms. The Health Department has found that patients infected with the Delta variant often do not experience Covid-19’s more signature symptoms, such as a loss of smell or taste, until several days after they’ve been ill and contagious.
As the NFL’s opening weekend approaches, in Orchard Park and across most of the league, tens of thousands of fans in soaring stadiums will cheer on the home team without knowing the vaccination status of many of the people sitting around them.
Across Western New York, the average number of new daily cases has doubled in the past month, reaching 324 on Sept. 9. The region recorded only 64 new cases on the same date a year ago. Meanwhile, the average hospital census for Covid-19 patients – 156, as of Sept. 9 – was only 33 at this time in September 2020.
“The take-home message for this is we all need to get vaccinated,” Burstein said. “… And then we all need to adhere to these non-pharmaceutical interventions, which we know are very powerful, to prevent infection.”