With Omicron surge, testing and tracking every COVID case no longer feasible

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

St. Peter’s Health Partners Chief Medical Director of Acute Care Thea Dalfino at the Friday press conference.

ALBANY COUNTY — The system the county’s health department followed since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 — tracking every case and monitoring the patients in isolation and the exposed residents in quarantine — is no longer feasible.

The health department will not be able to call everyone to quarantine or isolate, said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy at a press conference on Friday morning as he announced 1,003 new COVID-19 cases. “It’s physically impossible to keep up with everything,” he said.

Until this week, the highest daily count of new cases was last Jan. 12, before the vaccine was widely available, with 351 cases. As of Friday, Albany County has reported 41,330 cases of the virus and 470 deaths.

The nearly triple one-day count announced on New Year’s Eve — McCoy called it “truly alarming” — is thought to be the start of a winter surge, fueled by holiday gatherings, that won’t peak for another few weeks.

“We get the cases, then two weeks later, we get the hospitalizations, and then a couple of weeks later, we get the deaths,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen.

“We know what we don’t want to happen,” she said, stressing the importance of protecting hospitals from being overwhelmed. “We’re just starting to see the beginning of the spike right now,” she said.

Another way the nearly two-year-old county system is being battered is because of lack of tests for COVID-19. McCoy speculated that the 1,003 new-case count was really higher because some people who are sick are unable to get tested and other people, who have located scarce at-home antigen tests, have not reported the results.

The county has set up an online system, asking residents to fill out a form if they have tested positive for COVID-19: Go to www.AlbanyCounty.com and follow the red COVID-19 information bar at the top of the page to report positive results.

Whalen said there have been 26 at-home tests reported on the county’s website so the majority of the reported cases are still coming from “a clinical situation or the state database,” she said.

“We understand not everybody’s going to be able to be tested,” said Whalen.

McCoy said that, for several weeks, the county has been advocating with the governor’s office to get a state testing site established, like the one that had been at the uptown campus of the University at Albany. New testing sites have recently opened in other parts of the state.

On Friday evening, McCoy sent out a release announcing a mass testing site would open at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, saying he hopes it “will help address a serious need in Albany County and the Capital Region.” McCoy went on, “As Omicron continues to spread rapidly and holiday celebrations drive up daily COVID infections, it’s critical that we make testing as readily available as possible so we can control the spread of the virus.”

The Crossgates site, at the former Ruby Tuesday restaurant, will open Jan. 4.

“We’re being overrun right now in our emergency departments with patients coming in with very mild symptoms, or some with no symptoms, requesting COVID testing,” said St. Peter’s Health Partners Chief Medical Director of Acute Care Thea Dalfino at the Friday press conference. “So we’re making a plea to the community.”

The plea is to use at-home tests — “if you can find them,” said Dalfino — or go to a primary-care provider or urgent-care center for tests. Those venues are also seeing long lines locally.

“Our emergency departments really are for the sickest patients,” Dalfino said.

She also said, “We’re encouraging those who have mild symptoms, you may not even need to go get tested. We want to be able to have our testing supplies for those who are sickest and that we could potentially treat.”

Whalen said, “We know that tests are right now a scarcity. If you are feeling … unwell, you should obtain a test if you can but for now … given the spread we are seeing, I would assume your symptoms are attributable to COVID-19.”

Omicron is now presumed to be the dominant variant in Albany County as it is in New York State.

“We are starting to see what we had forecasted, which is exponential spread,” said Whalen. “This is likely due to the Omicron variant.”

Data from sequencing at Wadsworth Laboratory, which does about 100 per day from across the state, showed a marked increase of the Omicron variant in December. From Dec. 5 to 18, Whalen said, Omicron accounted for 30.9 percent of the  positive tests; from Dec. 15 to 28, Omicron accounted for 74 percent.

“The forecast, with modeling that’s being done, is this will peak quickly,” said Whalen. If the Omicron variant in New York State performs as it did in South Africa and the United Kingdom, said Whalen, numbers will likely continue to grow until probably the end of January and then, she said, “we will hopefully see a steep drop-off.”

Whalen stressed, “This is a critical time.” She urged scaling back New Year’s celebrations and went over the protocols she has been encouraging for months — mask-wearing, social-distancing, hand-washing. “The work you’re doing now may save a life,” said Whalen.

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