COVID-19 numbers: what to watch, when to worry

BY ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 7/8/20

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — As Sullivan County reopens and the tourists return, COVID-19 is in the back of everyone’s mind.

Case counts are increasing elsewhere in the country. Officials …

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COVID-19 numbers: what to watch, when to worry

Posted

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — As Sullivan County reopens and the tourists return, COVID-19 is in the back of everyone’s mind.

Case counts are increasing elsewhere in the country. Officials here say that, so far, our numbers are good.

But people are anxious. At last Thursday’s Town Hall meeting, a question was asked about a New York Times story that had Sullivan County ranked first in cases of coronavirus. 

Those are old numbers, said Sullivan County Public Health Director Nancy McGraw. And in fact, the county is now 15th in the state in terms of case counts, according to the New York Times on June 26. 

But let’s talk about those numbers.

“The most important statistics are the hospitalizations and the number of new cases,” said McGraw. “We want to see both of those statistics remain low. This is because of the need to not overwhelm the healthcare system too quickly.”  

Hospitalization

As of June 27, zero people in Sullivan County were hospitalized for COVID-19. 

Since the beginning, “primarily the majority of those who were hospitalized or passed away were elderly and/or from congregate nursing home settings,” said McGraw. 

None of that means that the rest of us can relax. While younger people are less likely to die of COVID-19, they can spread it to those who are more vulnerable. If rates start climbing, we need, said McGraw, “to be prepared to do isolation and quarantine quickly to prevent further spread in the community.”

New cases

In Sullivan County, the total number of cases only includes those who tested positive and are considered confirmed for a COVID-19 infection. In the last few weeks, new cases were in the low single digits, McGraw said. 

Of course, she noted, these figures are retrospective. Meaning that hospitalizations and deaths reflect cases that began weeks ago. For cases beginning now, you need to look at testing. 

Testing

People need to get tested, experts say. But one myth is holding some back: that you have to be sick to even get a test. 

Says McGraw: “This is untrue now, although at the beginning of the pandemic the availability of tests were so limited that the criteria for getting tested was restricted to those who had symptoms.”

But now that’s changed. “Widespread testing helps hospitals and health officials get a better idea, from a population perspective, what the disease transmission looks like in a county, region or state,” she said. “Results of COVID-19 testing can help public health officials understand the breadth and severity of the problem in real-time.”

So the more people who are tested, the better understanding we can get of the disease. If we understand the disease, we know what we can and cannot do safely.  

Getting tested can be difficult here. “Rural areas like Sullivan County continue to have fewer options available for testing than more urban areas due to lower health care capacity,” McGraw said. Although pharmacies are able to do testing, there are fewer participating pharmacies here.

Watch the positivity rate too

As of June 27, on the county dashboard, 12,745 individuals were tested. With 1,417 people testing positive, it works out to a positivity rate of just over 11 percent.

Positivity rate matters because, over time, it helps show if the virus is spreading. (That’s obvious if the number of people tested stays the same, but the positivity rate shows that, even if more people are being tested, you’re looking at a percentage rather than raw numbers.) It also shows whether enough people, with and without COVID-19, are being tested. For example, New York State had a 50 percent positivity rate for a while back at the beginning of April. That’s a scary percentage, but tests weren’t widely available, so only the sickest were being tested, and they were more likely to test positive.

To keep an eye on...

Everyone wants to avoid another lockdown or a scaling back of reopening. With the blizzard of bad news and numbers, when should we sit up and pay attention? 

“A dramatic increase in hospitalizations or large clusters of cases that are unable to be contained might trigger a decision regarding the reopening phases,” McGraw said,  “but that would be up to the governor, and those decisions seem to be made by regions, not at the county level.”

The best way to protect yourself as reopening continues, McGraw said at the June 22 Town Hall, is to continue social distancing and to wear masks. Because if we don’t, there’s a chance that we could go back to where we were before, undoing weeks of good work. 

You can stay on top of Sullivan County’s numbers by visiting the coronavirus dashboard at www.bit.ly/sccoviddash.

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