ALBANY — Capital Region physicians and immunologists are preparing for concurrent COVID-19 and influenza outbreaks as misinformation about the novel coronavirus continues to spread, health officials said Wednesday.
Clinical leadership from Albany Medical Center, Saratoga Hospital, Glens Falls Hospital, St. Peter’s Health Partners, Ellis Medicine and St. Mary’s Healthcare Amsterdam provided an update at Albany Medical College on Wednesday afternoon about the Capital Region health-care preparedness as COVID-19 numbers are expected to rise through the fall and winter amid the annual influenza season, which traditionally hits hardest starting around each October through March or April.
Columbia Memorial Health is an affiliate of Albany Medical Center.
“Our mission today remains the same as it was at the start of the pandemic,” Albany Medical Center President and CEO Dr. Dennis McKenna said Wednesday. “We will provide the highest quality, most compassionate care to those who need us. We urge all members of our community not to delay medically necessary care.”
Area hospitals submitted applications Wednesday to the state Health Department to administer a COVID-19 vaccine when the immunization becomes available.
Federal officials have disagreed on a timeline, and a vaccine is expected to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration late this year or by spring 2021. A state task force of scientists and medical experts will test the vaccine for safety before recommending and administering the two-dose immunization to New Yorkers.
Clinicians remain concerned about vaccine logistics, including storage, vaccine safety and effective distribution to patients from the same manufacturer, and said they will release updates as necessary.
Viruses drift and then dramatically shift, or mutate, said Albany Medical Center General Director Dr. Fred Venditti, executive vice president for hospital system care delivery.
“Drift is a gradual change in a virus’s genetic profile; shift is an abrupt change,” Venditti said, adding the flu “drifts” and “shifts” each year.
The novel coronavirus, which was first discovered in humans in China in late November or early December 2019, is too new for health experts to know about a mutation, Venditti said.
People continue to believe the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax, or exaggerated, clinicians said.
“We still run into people who don’t really believe there is a pandemic,” said Dr. William Mayer, medical director at St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam. “This is real. People have this disease, and unfortunately, many of them die and we’re doing our very best to make sure that does not happen.”
Patients seeking medical attention for the flu may be indistinguishable from coronavirus patients, as both illnesses have similar symptoms, including achiness, fever, cough and shortness of breath.
“We have to do everything we can to minimize the impacts of seasonal influenza,” said Dr. David Liebers, infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Ellis Medicine. “Influenza can be readily transmitted within the walls of the hospital. We anticipate with the increase of COVID in patients to coincide with flu season.”
Liebers stressed the importance of getting a flu vaccine this year and frequent hand washing in addition to remaining socially distanced and wearing face masks to mitigate the spread of influenza. Most regional hospitals require all employees and staff receive a flu vaccine, making it mandatory for at least 35,000 people living or working in the Capital Region.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates between 24,000 and 62,000 Americans died from the flu during the 2019-20 season. About 227,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 complications to date, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine’s online coronavirus tracker, which started tracking global cases, fatalities and recoveries late last winter.
“We need to protect our community, our staff, our patients [and] visitors to combat what we predict will be an increase in COVID-19 patients,” Liebers said. “It may be a tough winter, but it can be a better winter by sticking to everything we have done so far.”
Early coronavirus hospitalizations in the Capital Region, which includes the Twin Counties, are in line with the apex of the initial outbreak in March or April.
Some physicians Wednesday discussed data from the southern hemisphere in nations such as Argentina or Australia, where summer will soon begin, reported lower influenza cases this season. Clinicians said the flu could have less of an impact on the state and nation this year because of ongoing coronavirus precautions.
“I think there is one reason to be very optimistic,” Liebers said.
Patients receiving routine screenings and tests continue to decline as appointments were canceled and remain difficult to fill on limited schedules as part of state COVID-19 prevention measures.
Mental health crises have surged across the board and child vaccination rates are also down, McKenna said.
“We need to be very vigilant,” McKenna said. “There’s another pandemic of the undiagnosed and the untreated. If we see an increase in COVID cases, we must reassure the public that health care is safe.
“We’re here for you and we’re ready for whatever comes, whether it be COVID-related or not.”
The Capital Region had 40 COVID-19 patients when area hospitals started tracking case numbers March 22, and about 10% of several hundred daily coronavirus tests were positive, Venditti said.
On April 3, 149 Capital Region patients were hospitalized for COVID-19 complications, with 59 in intensive care — most on ventilators. That day, regional hospitals had a 16% positive testing rate.
Tests were 13% positive at the region’s peak April 10, when 209 patients were hospitalized, with 106 in intensive care and 88 on ventilators.
A handful of patients were transferred to area hospitals from downstate counties and the New York City metro area, where virus numbers threatened to overwhelm the city’s health care resources.
Eighteen children in the Capital Region have been hospitalized with coronavirus complications since the pandemic began, but none became severely ill, Venditti said.
The region had 25 virus patients in area hospitals July 10 with five in intensive care, which increased to 15 patients in the hospital Sept. 25.
The region’s positive testing rate has dipped to 1.5% positive, Venditti said of about 5,900 COVID-19 tests conducted Monday, but hospitalizations have ticked up to 81 patients as of Wednesday with 13 in intensive care and four on ventilators.
“It seems as though for us the next wave has started,” Venditti said. “On a positive note, the severity of the illness seems to be less. Why that is, I’m not sure they understand, but it is definitely a good thing.”
New Yorkers and Americans are widely suffering from COVID fatigue, said Dr. Alan Sanders, chief medical officer of acute care for St. Peter’s Health Partners — especially essential health care workers.
Sanders urged families to remain vigilant with remaining socially distanced, or at least 6 feet from others, and to diligently wear face masks in public to reduce the community spread of the coronavirus. A low virus transmission rate is required by state law for elective surgeries and hospital visitation to continue.
“There’s still a large challenge here, and we are asking our heroes to remain heroes,” Sanders said.
COVID fatigue is real, Liebers said.
“All leaders need to fight that fatigue and stay resilient,” he added.