Health officials urge caution in reopening
As the state and national conversation turns toward the gradual reopening of the economy, local health officials urge residents to continue taking safety precautions to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and avoid a second wave of infections.
On Wednesday, the same day Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the North Country region would begin the first phase of reopening its economy starting Friday, signs of normalcy could be seen on one of this area’s busiest strips, Lake Placid’s Main Street.
Though many stores remained closed and restaurants were limited to take-out, the mild weather brought people outside. Around midday, there were cars lining parts of Main Street. There were people running around Mirror Lake, people walking along the street, people were sitting by the waterfront. A similar scene was seen in Saranac Lake: There were people lounging by Lake Flower as a group of Canada geese and their new goslings swam by. There were people riding bikes throughout the village or walking their dogs. There were plenty of people shopping in local grocery stores.
Not everyone was wearing a mask. Local health officials say it’s still important to do so in situations where social distancing is difficult.
Local infection rate
The good news: In this region, the coronavirus infection rate — meaning the calculated risk of infection — appears to be “really, really low” so far, according to Essex County Health Department Public Information Officer Andrea Whitmarsh, who cited a recent state-conducted antibody test and other statistics reported by the state.
“It appears that we have done a great job with the preventative measures — social distancing, masks, handwashing, etc. and we’ve been fairly isolated from the widespread infection that occurred in NYC and other areas downstate,” she wrote in an email.
Between May 1 and Wednesday, while both Essex and Franklin counties saw a surge in testing, the number of test-confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 increased by just one in Franklin County and two in Essex County, according to data from each county health department.
The number of active COVID-19 cases has also been declining in both counties. On May 5, the earliest date that this information was publicly reported, Essex County had six active cases and Franklin 27. On Thursday, those counts had dropped to three active cases in Essex County and seven in Franklin County. Neither county has attributed a death to the disease.
But though the local infection rate has been low, and this region appears to have been isolated from other COVID-19 hot spots, Whitmarsh said those factors could mean this area would be more susceptible if there’s a second wave.
“If immunity is conferred via infection (which it likely is to a certain extent), a great majority of us up here are not going to be immune to a second ‘wave’ of the virus (if one occurs),” she said.
Whitmarsh said it’s hard to say where this region is on its “curve” — the projected trajectory of the number of people who will contract the virus.
“We’ve certainly seen our daily case numbers decrease and continue to hold at no new cases for several days. It’s hard to know where we are though when we’re in the middle of an outbreak. Have we seen our peak?” she said. “It’s possible we’ve seen the peak for this wave. If we reopen too soon or relax restrictions too quickly, we are in danger of seeing additional waves of infection.”
That’s part of why it’s still important, even as the conversation turns toward reopening, to continue wearing masks in places where it’s difficult to stay at least 6 feet away from other people.
Franklin County Manager Donna Kissane said taking these safety precautions will also help the region continue on track to fully reopen the economy. Though the North Country got the green light to start Phase 1 reopening — which includes construction, manufacturing, fishing and hunting — the region has to continue meeting state-imposed benchmarks.
“To stay within the guidelines, we require the assistance of our entire community,” Kissane said. “Together we will be stronger and together we will be successful if we all take the precautionary measures. People without masks should be from same household families or 6 feet apart from their outdoor neighbor.”
Whitmarsh added that there still isn’t a vaccine for COVID-19.
“Our only tools right now are non-pharmaceutical interventions — social distancing, staying home as much as possible, wearing masks, washing hands, etc.,” she said. “As we reopen, it’s important to remember that other than the few businesses/industries included in Phase 1 of the plan, nothing is changing for everyone else and these non-pharmaceutical practices are still in place.
“If we want to continue to progress forward through the phases and return to some semblance of normalcy, we have to keep our infection rate and hospitalizations down.”