Before the election, many Republicans claimed the media would forget all about the COVID-19 pandemic when the topic was no longer politically damaging to President Trump. Turns out, that’s anything but true. As we enter what might be the worst phase of the coronavirus yet—even as vaccines are rolling out—pandemic stories dominate the headlines. So many, that it’s hard to keep track.
Here are a few of them.
It wasn’t long ago that Erie County was bracing to enter the economy-busting “red zone” designation, which would completely shut down all nonessential businesses. But as is often the case with such prognostications, Western New York’s hospital rates—the critical factor now in determining color zones—declined, echoing a drop in the region's coronavirus positivity rate. In fact, Wednesday saw the largest daily hospitalization drop of Covid-19 pandemic, from 527 to 501. Now it looks like we could be heading back to “yellow zone” status in a couple weeks. To help stay ahead of infections, Erie County now has 98 contact tracers, eliminating the Health Department's backlog.
Don’t get cocky
On the downside, the county crossed the 1,000 mark for Covid-19 related deaths last week, after another 25 individuals died since the county's last briefing Monday. Projection models from the University at Buffalo indicate that if little else changes, hospitalizations will slowly rise going into January.
When Western New York rates go down, Governor Cuomo attributes it to good behavior. "People got the word out. They took it seriously,” he said recently. “We're now seeing a flattening of that increase, and that's good news."
By that logic, when the numbers go the other way, the same people are not taking it seriously enough. There is no evidence that the public’s social distancing habits are vacillating. Previously, in LSS, we addressed the topic of common cause variation, which would predict such statistical swings in any controlled system.
Some go down, some go up
While the Western New York’s hospitalization rate appears to be flattening and reducing, Governor Cuomo now says the Finger Lakes region is “more of a problem than Buffalo.” Due partly to small population concentrations, rural communities have lagged behind urban areas in infections. Now they’re catching up. Rural counties of Western New York are seeing drastic increases, percentage wise.
How drastic? Chautauqua County increased 447 percent, to 8.7 percent. Cattaraugus County experienced a 167 percent increase, to 7.2 percent. Niagara County increased by 98 percent to 8.2 percent and Genesee's saw a 90 percent jump to 9.7 percent. Erie County rose only 2 percent, to 6 percent.
It’s all about beds
Hospital space is finite. You can create emergency hospitals, but you still have to staff them, and doctors and nurses are also finite. The state has made hospitalizations the primary metric for shutdowns. When they approach full, businesses must shut down.
Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties average 802 new COVID-19 cases per day. More than 500 people are hospitalized with the virus across Western New York, double the region’s peak in April. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz says county hospitals now stand at 76.7 percent capacity, better than the previous week's 84 percent, and well short of the 90 percent needed to trigger a red zone shutdown.
The surge that wasn’t
There was a lot of advance handwringing over an anticipated post-Thanksgiving spike that medical experts and political leaders were predicting. While we did experience a bit of an increase, the bump was nowhere near as serious as forecasted, and we now seem to be coming out of it.
Death is just part of the problem
We tend to focus on death and infection rates, but that doesn’t reflect the full toll of the pandemic. Western New York’s 1000+ fatalities impact many more lives of relatives, friends, and co-workers. Children lose parents and educators. Hospitals lose health care workers. We’ve lost an inventor of an early Caller ID system, an engineer, a musician and author, and a Nazi concentration camp survivor.
We are in the second surge now, after a relatively slow summer. November saw 146 deaths and December will be higher. About 3 percent of all confirmed county cases are resulting in fatalities. Because older people are more likely to succumb to the novel coronavirus, nursing homes have been hard hit.
Most people recover and return to normal health after having the virus, but some experience symptoms that last for weeks or months (maybe years). Even those with mild illness can experience persistent fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, achy joints, and chest pain. Some find it difficult to concentrate (brain fog). Some experience muscle pain, headache, or depression.
There are also less common but more severe long-term cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, neurological, and psychiatric problems.
Even as vaccines are arriving, the pandemic rages on. Poloncarz says it’s basic math that many more people will die before this is over. "There's someone who's probably watching this right now, who is not Covid-19 positive, who will catch the illness and probably die before they can get a vaccine," he noted during a recent briefing. "The statistics just say that is the case."
The economic impact
The region is experiencing what is being called a second wave of job cuts. For the three weeks leading up to last week, nearly 15,400 local workers lost their jobs. Returning to the yellow zone is unlikely before January.
The vaccine arrives
By last Monday, the first shipments of COVID-19 vaccine had slipped into town, but their whereabouts is a secret. Hospitals had to sign nondisclosure agreements, so no one knew where it is being stored. Frontline workers directly engaging with COVID patients at the major hospitals are being vaccinated first. Shawn Covell, a critical care nurse at Buffalo General, was the first known Western New Yorker to get the vaccine, which must be administered in two doses, 21 days apart.
Individual counties must come up with a priority list for distribution of the vaccine to the general public. Governor Cuomo has indicated that social justice issues—getting the vaccine to communities which have been impacted most—will play a role in prioritization. The Erie County Vaccine Task Force is partnering with Catholic Health to distribute the vaccine. When the general public begins to get vaccinated—which is weeks or months away—a drive-thru model will likely be used.
As explained last week in LSS, the chance of serious side effects from the vaccine are remote, but with many millions of people taking it, there will be rare instances of more serious side effects. So far, US health officials have seen six cases of severe allergic reaction—including one person with a history of history of vaccination reactions—out of more than 500,000 administered shots (CDC figure as of 12/20). All were treated on site.
We live in a litigious society. To prompt the pharmaceutical industry to develop a vaccine in record time, the federal government granted companies like Pfizer and Moderna a very rare blanket immunity in the event that something unintentionally goes wrong with their vaccines, unless there’s “willful misconduct.”The same protection goes to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and employers that mandate inoculation as a condition of employment.
It’s hard to believe that there is any world leader out there with crazier ideas than President Trump, but Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro actually managed to top him during a recent vaccine rant. It appears Bolsonaro doesn’t like that pharmaceutical companies can’t be sued. "In the Pfizer contract, it's very clear,” he said. “'We're not responsible for any side effects.' If you turn into a crocodile, that's your problem. If you become superhuman, if a woman starts to grow a beard or if a man starts to speak with an effeminate voice, they [Pfizer] won't have anything to do with it," he said.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro continues to claim that Brazil is at the tail end of the pandemic, despite having the second-highest coronavirus death toll in the world. The country is currently experiencing a huge surge in new COVID-19 cases. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has compared the virus to the flu, and has resisted wearing masks and social distancing. Also, like Trump, Bolsonaro caught the virus and recovered, and now he believes he is immune, despite uncertainty on this in the medical community.
“No one will pay a penny to get a vaccination,” says Governor Cuomo. Congress passed legislation this spring that bars insurers from applying any cost sharing, such as a copayment or deductible. And the Affordable Care Act offers further protection. But insurance companies and hospitals are experts at finding loopholes to billing. Some did with testing earlier in the year. People who are uninsured are the wild card. It’s unlikely you would get a bill, but, if you do, challenge it.
Each vial of vaccine is supposed to hold five doses. Last Wednesday, the FDA announced that it was aware that the vials actually contain six and sometimes seven doses, due to overfilling. The extra doses can be used, so current shipments may be able to vaccinate more than originally thought.
We predicted this back in April. Doctors say they're seeing a lot more pregnant women during the pandemic, and they expect a baby boom starting in January and running through June. It stands to reason; what else did people have to do during lockdowns but overeat and procreate? TV was all reruns.
According to the Buffalo News, Dr. Maria Corigliano, MD, of Audubon Women's Medical Associates in Buffalo, says “In a typical month, her practice delivers about 50 babies monthly. In 2021, they're expecting to welcome 80 babies each month.” Of course, baby deliveries take up hospital beds, so that’s another strain on hospitals trying to avoid the 90% occupancy point. "They closed our whole maternity wing on the first floor. We have a very big increase in [obstetrics] with one less floor to put our patients in," said Dr. Corigliano.
Luckily, COVID-19 doesn’t affect fetuses. "But it can cause pre-term labor. That’s the only thing we have to worry about,” said Dr. Corigliano. So far, the effects of the vaccine on the fetus have not been studied, so if you plan to get pregnant, you might want to hold off on being vaccinated.
We’d like to think Buffalo Spree readers are smarter than this, but we’ll mention it anyway; there are scammers out there taking advantage of the public’s eagerness for the vaccine. "The FBI has received complaints of scammers using the public's interest in COVID-19 vaccines to obtain personally identifiable information and monies through various schemes," the FBI wrote in a statement to CNN.
The BBB has a list of recommendations for people to identify scams. They include checking with your personal doctor, ignoring any call requesting "immediate action," and double-checking any information you receive with information from credible news sources. Since the start of the pandemic, the FTC has received more than 20,000 complaints of text messages and robocalls offering testing kits, bogus treatment, and pandemic-related items.
The coffee test
It’s not as reliable as a laboratory analysis, but there’s a home test for COVID-19 that turns out to be useful. Coffee is being put to use as the barometer for a kind of COVID-19 sniff-test, in part for its distinct smell and also its availability in homes throughout the world. The CDC lists the loss of smell as one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19. About 50 to 80 percent of people testing positive have the symptom. Sufferers usually get back their full senses in about 14 days.
“One of the things that can be done pretty easily, pretty objectively by someone at home would be to take some ground coffee and see how far away you can hold it and still smell it,” Tufts University School of Medicine Professor James Schwob recently told the University’s news service. Researchers are applying these methods on a more rigorous scale, using coffee in olfactory test strips, while a recent article in the British medical journal BMJ encourages medical practitioners to employ coffee as a diagnostic tool.
Obviously, this method should only be used as a preliminary to a proper test, but could be a good indicator if you’re on the fence about being tested.
Well, that’s different
The code of ethics for the Erie County’s Sheriff’s office states in part: “I will enforce the laws courteously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will…” But gun rights advocate Steve Felano recently declared his candidacy for Erie County Sheriff with the promise that he will not enforce any laws he views as an unconstitutional infringement of personal liberties. It’s up to him; he will be the decider.
Current sheriff Timothy Howard is not expected to seek reelection in 2021. Howard has long been at the center of controversy, involving violations of inmates’ rights at the Erie County Holding Center with multiple lawsuits against the county under his watch. “My approach is going to be very different,” says Felano in a WBFO interview. “It's going to not be about what I'm going to force people to do, but what I'm not going to enforce.”
You have to admit, that’s novel.
The Felano platform
So, what won’t he enforce? The founder of a local gun rights advocacy group called 2AWNY, Felano will not enforce the SAFE Act, the pistol permit regime, a Red Flag Law to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illness, the ban on the sale or display of Confederate flags, swastikas, and other “symbols of hate” on state property, and all COVID-19 executive orders. If you enjoy speeding to work, you’ll be pleased to know he plans to stop enforcing “victimless traffic violations.”
His plans also include empaneling a grand jury with the power to investigate official misconduct, including all members of the Cuomo administration, and “all government agents involved in the ongoing, unconstitutional COVID-1984 lockdown forced on Erie County residents.”
His primary focus seems to be bringing Governor Cuomo to justice. Along with Sheldon Silver, Joe Percoco, Alain Kaloyeros, and Elliot Spitzer, he calls Cuomo a crime boss, “leaders of the biggest and most dangerous criminal enterprise threatening you at this very moment.”
He’s also against “failed public education,” and big pharma.
Another candidate emerges
Shortly after Felano’s campaign launch, Detective. Lieutenant Ted DiNoto announced his candidacy for Erie County sheriff in a Facebook video Wednesday. “I believe that as sheriff of Erie County, it's my responsibility to enforce laws fairly and firmly,” he says. Sounds almost quaint.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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