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With more COVID-19 data, testing, reason for optimism — and caution

With expanded testing capabilities, more data on the novel coronavirus is now available for this region. A clearer picture of the scope of the pandemic in this area is slowly emerging, and public health officials see reason for optimism — and caution.

The number of tests processed from Essex County since the pandemic began more than quintupled between May 1 and Thursday, data from the county Health Department shows. The number of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose by six in the same time period.

“It’s definitely a good sign that increased testing in Essex County hasn’t revealed a bunch of previously undetected COVID-19 cases,” said Essex County Health Department Public Information Officer Andrea Whitmarsh. “This is especially true, given that the state is starting to re-open, employees are returning to work, and people are beginning to venture out more frequently.”

Of the 2,647 total tests processed as of Thursday — which includes people tested more than once — 37 people have tested positive, according to the health department. Since the department established an avenue for doctors to report suspected cases at the beginning of April, at least 15 more people were diagnosed by doctors with COVID-19. The number of active cases, as of Thursday, was five. The county reported zero residents hospitalized with COVID-19.

“The low percentage of positive cases even with a greater total number tested means that we can be relatively confident that we have the ability to continue to limit the spread of this virus if we remain vigilant,” Whitmarsh said. “This is certainly reason for optimism. We continue to caution, though, that that the low number of cases in this county may be a double-edged sword. If a second wave of the virus hits, most here are susceptible to infection because they will not have any immunity from a previous illness.”

Of the 2,647 total tests processed, 857 were antibody tests. Antibody tests don’t show whether or not a person has an active case of COVID-19, but do indicate whether a person has been exposed to the coronavirus.

“These results do provide the health department with additional data that we didn’t previously have. Interpreting the antibody test results and how useful they are is a different story,” Whitmarsh said. “Currently, we don’t have enough information to say with certainty that a positive antibody test guarantees that someone will have future immunity.”

That being said, the results do show that “a great majority of people haven’t been exposed to the virus,” Whitmarsh said.

“Most of the antibody tests performed to date have come back negative. This, more than viral testing, confirms that we might be impacted more by a second wave,” she said.

The infection rate for Essex County — the number of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases, divided by the number of people at risk of infection and multiplied by 100 — is roughly 0.14%, assuming everyone is susceptible. Using the same formula, Clinton and Franklin counties would have roughly the same infection rate at 0.21%. Based on information released from the county health departments — though neither department specified the number of suspected versus confirmed cases — Warren County’s infection rate was roughly 0.35% as of Wednesday, and St. Lawrence County’s infection rate was 0.18%.

“This does not capture the number of people that were sick but never tested,” Whitmarsh said. “We’ve already said though that so far, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of people that were sick, but didn’t know it.”

Public health officials continue to urge residents to wash their hands frequently, remain six feet apart from others and wear a mask when that isn’t possible.

Local hospitals are currently conducting COVID-19 testing. There are no out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 testing for those with health insurance. For those without health insurance, the cost varies depending on the hospital. Adirondack Health is testing uninsured people for free. At Alice Hyde, the cost would be between $125 and $130, plus the cost of a visit with a primary-care physician to obtain a testing order.

Those without health insurance can apply for it during a special enrollment period through nystateofhealth.ny.gov through June 15.

Anyone who wants to be tested in this area is encouraged to call their primary care physician to get a health order for testing.

Call Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake at 518-897-2462 to schedule an appointment at the main clinic or one of its upcoming mobile testing sites. Elizabethtown Community Hospital can be reached at 518-873-3069; its Ticonderoga campus can be reached at 518-585-3927. Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone can be reached at 518-481-2700. Mountain Medical Urgent Care, with offices in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, also has tests available; its main phone number is 518-897-1000.

The statewide COVID-19 hotline is 1-888-364-3065.