Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper had grim news Wednesday when she held her most recent briefing on the COVID-19 virus.
There were 225 new cases and five new deaths to report that day. Just a week earlier, Erie County reported two days with more than 300 new cases a day, some of the highest totals in a year.
As of Wednesday, the county's death toll from COVID-19 stood at 587.
In recent weeks, that pace has accelerated. Dahlkemper said Wednesday there had been 31 COVID deaths since her last briefing two weeks earlier, an average of more than two a day.
"My concern only grows as the numbers rise," Dahlkemper said. "My heart is heavy as I consider all the families with empty chairs around the (holiday table)."
There are bright spots, including a lack of serious outbreaks at the area's long-term care facilities, said Melissa Lyon, director of the Erie County Department of Health.
A high rate of vaccination among both residents and employees has helped, Lyon said.
"The long-term care facilities are doing quite an impressive job," she said. "It looks very different than the original start of the pandemic. They (the facilities) are the experts in contact tracing."
But at the county level, effective contact tracing has become an elusive goal. Neither Dahlkemper nor Lyon could say with any certainty whether any COVID cases could be traced back to large gatherings.
The number of new cases countywide — often more than 200 a day — has made it virtually impossible to identify people who have come into contact with a person who has COVID-19.
'The virus is very pervasive in Erie County right now," Lyon said. "We have been unable to do contact tracing. It's spreading very quickly."
The growing number of cases is reflected in an increase locally in the number of hospitalized patients.
Emily Shears, vice president of quality for UPMC in northwestern Pennsylvania and New York, said UPMC Hamot had 52 COVID-19 admissions the week before last. That number grew to 76 last week.
Numbers are similar at Saint Vincent Hospital, said Saint Vincent President Christopher Clark, D.O.
Set against the backdrop of a national nursing shortage, both Clark and Shears said they carefully monitor their capacity to care for patients.
"Capacity is always a concern," Clark said. "Staffing is more challenging compared to last year. Every hospital is watching that very closely. We are watching the capacity issue very carefully and are doing the best we can to manage through this."
Lyon, Clark and Shears all agreed that vaccines have prevented a bad situation from becoming much worse.
"We have to make sure the message is very clear," Clark said. "The vaccine has helped, I can't imagine what it would be like with this delta strain. Breakthrough cases are not a surprise, but we are dealing mostly with unvaccinated people in the hospital."
In her weekly news conference, Dahlkemper offered evidence of the efficacy of vaccines by examining 25 of the most recent COVID-19 deaths in the county.
Those who died ranged in age from 46 to 97. Of the 12 people under the age of 70 who died, none had been vaccinated, she said.
Speaking Wednesday, Dahlkemper did her best to rewrite the notion that only the elderly are dying from the coronavirus.
"Any death from COVID-19 is a premature death," she said.
In an interview on Tuesday, Lyon explained just how quickly the number of new cases was rising by comparing a week in the middle of November 2020 with the same week this year.
During the third week of November last year, 973 new cases were reported. During that same week this year, 1,705 new cases were reported, she said.
The more transmissible nature of the delta variant explains part of the difference, she said.
But some of that increase can be traced to a change in behavior.
"We know that is also the precautions we took with masking and social distancing have certainly added to that," Lyon said.
"I think it's multi-factorial," Shears said when asked about the growing number of cases. "I think we are experiencing some waning immunity from the vaccination if you are over six months (since your last shot). That is why the focus on betting people the booster shots."
The natural immunity provided by having contracted COVID-19 also decreases over time, she said.
Even before the news Friday of a new variant in southern Africa, the transmissible nature of the delta variant, paired with masking fatigue and the apparent need for booster shots, led Shears, Clark and Lyon to the same conclusion: The battle to contain COVID-19 might be a long one and could lead to recommendations of even more booster shots.
"I do think this is something that we are going to be dealing with for a long time," Clark said.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: COVID-19 cases in Erie County too many for contact tracing