Jefferson County public health officials advise caution as colder months loom, disease spread likely to rise

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Jul. 22—WATERTOWN — Jefferson County Public Health Service officials are urging people to continue taking all necessary measures to prevent the spread of diseases, even as COVID-19 infection rates remain low.

Public health planners and officials at the health service are advising people to keep an eye out for more than just COVID-19 as they return to school, work or other social environments. They said that while the focus has been on COVID-19 for more than a year and a half, other diseases remain just as much of a concern as they were before the pandemic.

The good news is, the tools and habits people have employed to stop the spread of COVID-19 work for other diseases as well.

"Obviously vaccination is a big step, but it's also important for people to stick with washing their hands, covering their cough, staying home when they're sick," said Faith E. Lustik, a public health planner with the health service.

She said it is important to keep an eye out for any symptoms of a possible illness and get a doctor's opinion as soon as possible, before potentially exposing others to the illness. COVID-19 vaccination status does not matter, she said.

"If you have COVID-like symptoms, you should be evaluated," she said. "Even if it's not COVID, you could be contagious and it needs to be taken care of."

Ginger B. Hall, director of the health service, said the service has seen a number of cases in which someone vaccinated against COVID-19 assumed their symptoms were allergies and have spread a cold, flu or other contagious disease to their coworkers.

Mrs. Hall said masks are proven to work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases, and people, both vaccinated and not, should keep those in mind as a tool to prevent the spread of any disease going forward.

For more than 17 months now, staff at the public health service have been working full-time to track outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus in the county and combat it. Last year, as the weather cooled and outdoor activities became less popular, infection rates for COVID-19 spiked. Health officials said they anticipate that same trend will appear this year.

"Whenever the environment becomes such a way where people are closer together and indoors, there's a greater potential for communicable diseases, especially respiratory diseases, to spread," said Stephen A. Jennings, a public health planner for the health service.

The Jefferson County vaccination rate has slowed since the vaccine was first introduced and widely available, with about 51% of the adult population fully vaccinated, according to county data as of July 12.

Mrs. Lustik said vaccine hesitancy, where people are concerned about the safety, efficacy or need for a vaccine and decide not to get one, is still an issue preventing the region from achieving full vaccination. As long as COVID-19 remains a risk, the other preventative measures like hand washing and staying home when sick are necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Many of the capacity restrictions and regulations that limited the amount of interaction between people and cut down on the spread of COVID-19 have been lifted as more people in New York state have gotten vaccinated. The state of emergency, and the capacity restrictions, social distancing requirements and other pandemic-era rules were ended on June 24. Schools have also reopened and announced most students will be welcomed back into the classroom next school year.

Mr. Jennings and Mrs. Hall both said schools will be providing more information to families on specific things to keep in mind before the school year comes back in September, but the health service is advising that students get vaccinated before they return, for whichever vaccines they are eligible to receive.

"With COVID, there have been decreased primary care provider visits," Mrs. Hall said. "Children still need their regular vaccinations, and we really want to promote getting immunizations caught up to protect them."

As the fall and winter seasons approach, officials said they anticipate they will continue to focus on combating COVID-19 well into the future. The Jefferson County Board of Legislators recently adopted a resolution authorizing $142,268 in federal aid money to the public health service to cover additional staffing costs for the remainder of the year.

"Investigation, contact tracing, all of those things are still going," Mrs. Hall said. "Every week we have clinics. We were at the Jefferson County Fair doing vaccinations, and we're encouraging people to come into our office to be vaccinated."

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