Officials report low COVID risk ahead of 2023 Games

SARANAC LAKE — Local health officials are optimistic about the currently low level of COVID-19 cases in Essex County — as well as a downward trend in flu and RSV cases after an early onset of the respiratory illnesses — ahead the Lake Placid 2023 FISU Winter World University Games, which began with hockey matches in Canton and Potsdam on Wednesday, Jan. 11.

Essex County is currently at “low risk” for COVID-19 transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Essex County Health Department’s program coordinator, Andrea Whitmarsh, said that means COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been low across the county. On Tuesday, Jan. 10, Whitmarsh said that the county has had a 3% COVID positivity rate over the last few days.

“Anything below 5% is pretty good,” she said.

She said the rest of the region is trending at around a 7% positivity rate. Franklin County is also classified as having a low COVID-19 risk rate, according to the CDC.

COVID is still out there, Whitmarsh said, but Essex County is at a manageable level — the virus is circulating, but cases are not surging like they were at this time last year, when the omicron variant swept through the North Country and the rest of the nation. And now, bivalent vaccine booster shots are available to protect people against newer variants of the coronavirus. Whitmarsh believes the vaccines and boosters, combined with the immunity people have built up from contracting the virus, puts the region in a “better place” ahead of the FISU games, which are expected to bring thousands of athletes, delegations and spectators to the region from around the world.

“I think the sentiment is that we are moving past, kind of, the overwhelming concern that we couldn’t live our lives,” Whitmarsh said, “and we’re really just trying to manage another seasonal virus.”

Adirondack Health Director of Communications Matt Scollin said Adirondack Health, on average, has had anywhere between two and five COVID-positive patients admitted at any given time, with two or three being the most typical average. That’s about a third of the average of 10 patients at a time during the omicron wave, according to Scollin. Whitmarsh and Scollin said that the flu and the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, are also trending downward after a strong and early start this winter.

Two COVID-19-related deaths were reported to the Essex County Health Department this past December, bringing the total deaths in the county to 72. Whitmarsh said no deaths have been reported to the ECHD in January. Franklin County discontinued its COVID-19 data reporting in December, according to the county’s website.

The organizing committee for the games, Lake Placid 2023, is aligning its COVID-19 policies and practices during the games with the CDC’s current recommendations — people attending the games are encouraged to mask up and be current on their COVID vaccines, but neither masks or proof of vaccines will be required to spectate the games. Athletes and delegations traveling from outside the U.S. to compete in the Games were required to provide proof that they’d received a U.S.-approved vaccine before entering the country in compliance with CDC regulations.

When it comes to staying safe at bigger events like the Games, where large groups are expected to gather indoors to watch events like figure skating, curling and ice hockey, Whitmarsh encouraged people to perform a “personal level of risk assessment” before attending — if someone believes they could be at risk of becoming seriously ill after contracting COVID-19, Whitmarsh encouraged them to avoid large indoor gatherings or to mask up and make sure their vaccines and boosters are up-to-date. However, she said it takes about two weeks to build up the full protection offered by a bivalent booster shot.

Adirondack Health’s emergency room at Lake Placid Health and Medical Fitness Center in Lake Placid will be open during its normal hours — 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily — throughout the Games, despite the ER’s proposed closure. Adirondack Health submitted a closure plan for the ER to the state Department of Health this past October. Scollin said the state DOH is still evaluating the closure plan, which he said Adirondack Health isn’t releasing to the public right now.

“We’ll have more to say once a determination has been made, but right now, we’re going to respect the process and let the state evaluate the closure plan,” he said.

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