Health News

As Fears Of Omicron Grow, Westchester Seeks More Tests And Masks

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December 20, 2021

By Barrett Seaman–

It says a lot about the times and the place that County Executive George Latimer and his Deputy Ken Jenkins delivered their weekly COVID press briefing Monday from their respective homes, where they are each quarantining with COVID infections. Sounding a bit nasal and intermittently coughing, Latimer declared his symptoms mild, as did Jenkins who said, “It felt like it was a cold.”

Westchester is facing a new round of news, both good and bad. But the good is harder to tease out and the bad is but a continuum of frightening news that appears to be dragging us into a third year.

The bad news is that the virus, whether old or new variant, is spreading rapidly. The daily rate of new cases is approaching 1,000. In Irvington, eight cases sprung up in the village’s schools, half of them in the middle school.

The good news is that the latest siege of COVID is not as deadly as earlier rounds—certainly nowhere near as lethal as it was pre-vaccine early 2020. Both Latimer and Jenkins, each fully vaccinated and boosted, reflect the efficacy and value of being vaccinated. Hospitalizations, while up in recent weeks, are nowhere near those early levels. The death rate (0.8%) is well under half what it was a year ago, when it was 2.1%.

Most of the difference is the ever-increasing number of fully vaccinated residents. Over 94% of county residents 18 and older have had at least one dose, and 83% are fully vaccinated.

Beyond the slowly diminishing cohort of the unvaccinated, the current problem is twofold: a shortage of testing kits and a population that has grown tired of taking precautions. Omicron, though it represents only a fraction so far of the infections sweeping the country, is four times as transmissible as the Delta variant and is landing just as people are lapsing into old holiday habits. Revived fears are driving people to get tested but at a time when there are not enough test kits to satisfy the demand.

As a result, there are long lines at urgent care facilities, where most testing has been taking place. “People are waiting sometimes two or three hours to get tested,” said Latimer Monday.

The county, says Latimer, has offered to give over at least part of the County Center and the facility at Glen Island to the state to conduct higher volume testing. They are also getting 35,000 more test kits from New York State for use at neighborhood health centers.

The county is also launching another round of “pop-up” clinics offering pediatric vaccinations. One is taking place today, Monday, December 20th until 7:30 p.m. with another on Tuesday, December 21 from 1:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.

Westchester is also heeding the governor’s mask mandate and is in the process of distributing 500,000 masks to businesses, local governments, places of worship and non-profits in an effort to rekindle the public’s recognition of masks as a primary form of protection. In reference to other counties whose leaders are defying the state mandate, Latimer said, “We’re not looking for confrontation; we’re looking for people to wear masks.”

Asked if his own experience with COVID, however mild, has given him any new insights into the pandemic, Latimer likened himself to Tim Robbins’ character in the film The Shawshank Redemption, imprisoned banker Andy Dufresne, trapped behind bars and desperate to get out. “I’m trying my best to cut a hole in the wall underneath the picture of Rita Heyworth so I can crawl down through the sewer pipes and get out of here.”

Yet he acknowledged that his isolation in a single-family home was easier to endure than what a family of five would have to go through quarantined in a small apartment. And even that would be a far sight better than spending three weeks on a ventilator, alone in a hospital room, not knowing if there would be a next morning.


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