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Epidemic peak not coming for a month, health commissioner says

Max Schulte
WXXI reporter Brett Dahlberg interviews Monroe County public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza through a video call on Friday.

Even as the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths from COVID-19 tick upward in Monroe County, the county’s public health commissioner said Friday that he does not expect the peak of the epidemic to hit locally until next month.

The best estimates, Dr. Michael Mendoza said in an interview with WXXI News, put the peak in mid-May.

That means “we have four weeks of time to prevent the surge,” he said.

“The people who will be sick during the surge haven’t been exposed to the virus yet, so we do have a fair bit of this still within our control,” said Mendoza.

The data behind the estimates is still developing, though.

“Unfortunately, more people will die,” Mendoza said. Hospitalizations and ICU admissions will grow, too. “When we have those data points, we’ll be able to make better projections.”

Still, every model the county and local hospital systems are using shows some similarities.

“We will run out of ventilators. There’s no question,” Mendoza said. “There’s no model that we have that has us being able to treat everybody.”

Ventilators are already running short in New York City. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Friday that he said gave the state government the authority to move unused ventilators to places where they were most needed.

Monroe County has hundreds of ventilators. In the county on Friday, 28 people were being treated for COVID-19 in the intensive care units that usually house those machines. An exact count of ventilators currently in use is unknown, but hospital officials have said the number of ventilators being used to treat other conditions is lower than normal as people stay home and postpone elective surgeries.

People familiar with the models of COVID-19’s trajectory in Monroe County said earlier this week that they uniformly show hospitals over capacity in the coming weeks.

As the number of cases rises in Monroe County, the supply of protective gear for health care workers has been dwindling. Volunteer groups have stepped in to fill some of the gaps, but on Friday, Mendoza said the local stockpile of personal protective equipment was “depleted.”

“That resource is not available like it used to be,” he said.

Both Rochester Regional Health and the University of Rochester Medical Center have said they have enough masks to meet the needs of their workers, though they have also begun to sanitize and reuse the N95 masks that offer some of the best protection against transmission of the virus.

Physicians from the two hospital systems recently started sewing groups to produce homemade masks that can act as a backstop in case supplies of the standard masks run out.

Monroe County is “continually requesting” protective equipment from New York state, Mendoza said. That equipment has been coming through, but it buys the county “a couple of days, at most” until it needs to request more gear.

On the day that the federal Centers for Disease Control recommended Americans wear “cloth face coverings” (the CDC did not call them “masks,” as those are “critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders”) in public spaces, Mendoza said that’s a measure that makes sense locally, but only if social distancing isn’t possible.

“The masks should be viewed as really the last line of defense,” Mendoza said. “Social distancing, handwashing, not touching your face -- all of the things we’ve been talking about still hold true today and still are as important as they always have been.”

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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