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COVID-19

Cayuga County's vaccination rate worries health board

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With COVID-19 cases surging and the holiday season about to hit full speed, Cayuga County health officials are concerned about the direction the coronavirus is taking.

That message came through frequently Tuesday at the monthly Cayuga County Board of Health meeting. In addition to worry, the other dominant theme was frustration at the shortfall in residents taking advantage of vaccines that have proven highly effective at limiting disease spread and the severity of infections.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, Cayuga County's full vaccination rate as of Sunday was 54.4%, compared with 68.1% for New York state. The percentage of residents to receive at least one dose in Cayuga County, at 58.2%, is also significantly lagging the statewide rate of 77.1%.

The shortfall is not a result of lacking access to the vaccines in Cayuga County, the physicians and public health officials present at Tuesday's meeting said. It's now all about resistance from the remaining population eligible for vaccines.

Gov. Kathy Hochul encouraged New Yorkers to get COVID-19 booster shots ahead of the holiday season during a press conference in western New York on Tuesday.

"Over the course of time, the conversations have become increasingly more difficult," said Nancy Purdy, the county's director of community health services. "Even those that are ill and that haven't been vaccinated, it's just a very tough conversation because they just don't necessarily trust."

Health board member Ralph Battista said there needs to be a more concerted effort from leaders in the community to promote the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

"It seems like the field is being left open to people who want to either spread misinformation or spread doubt, and it seems like we're just conceding that," he said. "We don't have the effort that I believe we need to counter that."

Dr. Cassandra Archer, one of the board's physician members, cautioned against marketing efforts that are driven by political leaders.

"Who's going to talk them into it is going to be a physician or a friend or a family member," she said.

She suggested starting a vaccine ambassadors program, similar to some successful campaigns used to combat addiction issues, in which regular people who have been vaccinated would be willing to talk about their reasons for doing so.

"That might be more effective than having more politics in it," she said.

Kathleen Cuddy, the county's public health director, said the comments from board members were helpful. She noted that the department has some marketing funds available to help with vaccination efforts.

"Frankly, we haven't coordinated ourselves as yet to do that," she said. "Perhaps this will give us some ideas and strategies to that will help us move that forward more."

The board also got an update on the county health department's vaccination efforts aimed at children ages 5 to 11, who just recently became eligible for pediatric doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The department has partnered with several area school districts to hold in-school vaccine clinics over the past two weeks. They will be returning to those schools in December to administer second doses, but will also be offering first doses for families who may have decided to get their child vaccinated by that point.

"I would say the first round has served well to get the word out," Purdy said of the school clinics, which she said averaged about 35 students at each local elementary school. "But we still have many more children that have to be done."

Deanna Hoey, one of the health department's public health educators, told the board that there have been 839 COVID-19 cases involving children under 18 since August, about 25% of all cases. She said getting more children vaccinated will be crucial to reducing that number, which also is helpful for the county's contact tracing efforts because child cases frequently require extra time since children are more active.

Gov. Kathy Hochul spoke Monday about the importance of COVID-19 booster shots ahead of the winter season during an appearance at a Thanksgiving food distribution event in New York City.

Hoey also noted that 65% of all cases since August have been unvaccinated residents. The total number of cases for November, as of Monday, stood at 662, and with the county averaging more than 33 new cases per day, that could represent a monthly increase in cases of 16% compared with October by the time this month is over.

Aileen McNabb-Coleman, the county Legislature's chairperson, attended the meeting and also spoke about the trends.

"It's unsettling to be at this point, with the vaccine (available), and our county is not utilizing it," she said.

While there wasn't any discussion about Cayuga County taking action to reinstate COVID-19 restrictions, both Cuddy and McNabb-Coleman noted that state officials and county leaders around the state will be watching Erie County, which just instituted a mask mandate for indoor public spaces amid a major spike in cases.

McNabb-Coleman said she's been on county leader conference calls with Gov. Kathy Hochul in recent weeks, and the governor is becoming very concerned about increasing case rates.

"Is the message 'Do something, you locals, or I will'?" asked board member Elane Daly, who is a county legislator and a retired director of health and human services.

"That's the impression I got in the conversations we've had," McNabb-Coleman said.

In other news:

• In its situational update issued Tuesday, the county health department said it placed 53 more residents into isolation with newly confirmed COVID-19 cases on Monday. Of those new cases, 27 are not vaccinated. There are now 272 active cases, up from 212 a week ago.

Residents admitted in an Auburn or Syracuse hospital with COVID-19 is at 13 (seven unvaccinated), which is the same total as a week ago.

• The department has scheduled more community vaccine clinics next week.

From noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 30, a clinic will provide first-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines as well as Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots.

From 4 to 5 p.m on the same day, a clinic will provide first-dose Pfizer shots for the 5-11-year-old age group.

From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1, a clinic will have first or second doses of Pfizer people 12 and older and Pfizer boosters for those 18 and older.

From 1 to 3 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, a clinic will offer Moderna boosters and Pfizer boosters for people 18 and older.

All of the clinics are being held at Fingerlakes Mall, 1579 Clark St. Road, Aurelius. The clinics will be held in the former Jo-Ann Fabric location. To enter the clinic, use the exterior doors to the left of Bass Pro Shops.

Registration is required for these clinics. Appointments can be scheduled at cayugacounty.us/health. The Cayuga Community Health Network is helping to schedule appointments. To receive assistance with the registration process, call (315) 252-4212. Some town and village offices are also assisting residents to schedule appointments.

Jeremy Boyer can be reached at (315) 282-2231 or jeremy.boyer@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenBoyer

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