Public health advisory from county urges mask wearing in all public spaces

A public health advisory issued by Ulster County Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith strongly recommends that all county residents wear masks in public spaces, regardless of vaccination status. In the December 5 advisory, Dr. Smith called on employers in Ulster County to require employees to wear masks when indoors. County employees are already required to wear masks in county facilities, the result of an August Executive Order issued by County Executive Pat Ryan.

“All individuals, regardless of vaccination status or past COVID-19 infection, should wear a mask at all times when indoors and in a public setting, including at groceries, building lobbies, offices, stores, and other common or shared spaces where individuals may interact,” Dr. Smith wrote in her advisory. “All employers in Ulster County should require their employees to wear a mask while working indoors, and while in close contact with the public or co-workers.”

Ryan supported the advisory. “As the science has consistently shown, masks help stop the spread of COVID-19 and ultimately save lives,” Ryan said. “Given the increased risk to all Ulster County residents, I support our Health Commissioner in strongly recommending that all members of the public wear masks indoors to slow COVID transmission. And I am once again asking all residents who have not yet been vaccinated or received their booster to do so immediately.” 

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Many of the COVID 19 metrics that officials track continued to head in the wrong direction in Ulster County over the last weeks, with deaths, hospitalizations and positivity rates all continuing to climb, Ryan said in his weekly livestream, on December 2. He said then that officials are significantly more concerned than they were even a week ago, before Ryan issued a 30-day COVID state of emergency. 

Ryan said in his address that there were seven additional COVID-related fatalities last week marking one of the deadliest weeks during the course of the pandemic. “And especially during Hannukah and the tail end of Thanksgiving, it’s a particularly tragic time to lose more Ulster County Residents,” he said. 

On top of deaths, Ryan is growing increasingly concerned about a surge in hospitalizations to 29 representing an increase of 11 over the past week. 

As for active cases, that figure stood at 953 on December 6, but Ryan was particularly concerned that there were 144 new positive cases on December 2, one the highest daily positive counts during the pandemic. He said the seven-day positivity rate also rose to 6.4 percent (down to 5.8 percent by December 5). He said positive cases have tripled and hospitalizations have quadrupled in the time period from Halloween to Thanksgiving.

The continuing surge of the virus comes after it was reported December 2 that the Minnesota man who traveled to New York City for an anime convention before the Thanksgiving holiday became the second U.S. resident to test positive for the concerning new Omicron variant. The news network reported that Governor Kathy Hochul expects more cases to develop in New York State soon. The man was fully-vaccinated and has since recovered, CNN reported. 

“Viruses are not static, they are an evolving mutating, adversary,” Ryan said.  

He pointed out that total breakthrough cases have risen to 2,141, a number county officials continue to attribute to waning effectiveness of first and second does that people received earlier this year. This was predictable, he said, adding that the county will continue to accelerate its booster campaign. 

“We need anyone eligible over 18 to get your booster shot,” he said. “Supply is not a limiting factor. “

On a positive note, Ryan said vaccination percentages continue to go up and he said data continues to show they are very effective at keeping people from getting very sick. 

In Ulster County, by December 5, 85.4 percent of adults age 18 plus have at least their first dose with 76.5 percent of all residents having at least their first jabs, while 68.8 percent of residents have received at least their first and second dose. 

But Ryan cautioned that still leaves tens of thousands of people who need to get vaccinated. And he pleaded with everyone who hasn’t done so to get the shots, not just for themselves and their families but for the wellbeing of the whole community. 

Ryan broke down the vaccination percentages by age group. He said young people 5-11 who only recently became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine are at a 20.3 percent vaccination rate. He praised the progress of vaccination among those 12-17 with 70.6 of all county residents amongst that age group having at least one shot. “They’re really crushing it,” he said.

But some age groups remain more troubling like 18-25-year-olds who have only a 65.8 vaccination rate, the lowest of any age group, Ryan said. 

He said the best group for vaccinations are seniors with 91 percent of 55-64-year-olds vaccinated. The highest vaccination rate, 99 percent is amongst 65-74-year-olds, while 96.1 percent of residents 75 and up are vaccinated. 

“We’re seeing our seniors and more vulnerable people really step up,” Ryan said.

As for boosters, Ryan said on December 2, that about 14,000 residents have received their boosters, but that still represents only about 10 percent of those have received the initial vaccination course. 

Avoiding mandates and lockdowns

Ryan said looking ahead officials cannot go back to the shutdowns of the early stages of the pandemic. “We really want to avoid mandating things and locking things down,” he said. Instead, officials will consider a more targeted approach, he added.  

Beyond pushing hard to get everyone who is not vaccinated to get their shots and those vaccinated to get their booster shots, Ryan said the biggest priority is to keep schools and businesses open through improved testing and contact tracing to contain the spread should cases crop up. 

Ulster County will continue to hold regular vaccination PODs for residents who need to receive their 1st dose, 2nd dose, or booster dose. Appointments are recommended for the County’s vaccination PODs; although walk-ins will be accommodated as capacity allows. Sign up for an appointment at VaccinateUlster.com.

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In addition, Ulster County is in need of residents to volunteer to staff and support the county’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts. The Ulster County Department of Health is still accepting volunteers, particularly medical volunteers to be vaccinators, and screeners. Vaccinators need both an active license and current CPR certificate, or can be basic and advanced EMTs with current CPR certificate. Screeners create the record of vaccination for each patient, so should be computer literate, have attention to detail, and good customer service and communication skills.  Both of these medical volunteers will receive a stipend.  Sign up to volunteer at https://covid19.ulstercountyny.gov/vaccine-volunteer/.

These efforts include the addition of a second public health specialist focused exclusively on schools, Ryan said. The County is also continuing direct aid to small businesses, he added. 

For more information about vaccination and booster shots visit https://covid19.ulstercountyny.gov/vaccine-resource-center/