More than a year after the pandemic began, approximately 15% of Westchester County residents have been vaccinated, health officials are reporting. On Tuesday, anyone 16 years and older became eligible to receive a vaccine.
However, the county’s top health officials, including Westchester County Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler, are urging residents to continue to follow safety guidelines whether or not they have been partially or fully vaccinated. That means continuing to wear a mask, social distance and wash hands.
“Even though the vaccines are safe and effective, they’re not 100%,” Dr. Amler cautioned in an interview.
Dr. Amler said the county is experiencing an uptick in the number of cases and, after the recent holidays and spring break vacations, she is concerned that the numbers will continue to rise.
“Every time there’s a holiday, we have concerns because people get together,” Dr. Amler said. Dr. Amler noted that even people who have been vaccinated, they are at risk of contracting the virus and possibly passing it to family members and others.
As restrictions continue to be lifted, Dr. Amler said residents might be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking the virus is fully under control and they can resume all normal activities. “Every person you’re exposed to is a little bit of a risk,” Dr. Amler said. “Every activity you do is a little bit of a risk.”
She is sympathetic to COVID fatigue, nevertheless. She said she herself has suffered from it and at times felt somewhat helpless against winning the fight against COVID-19.
However, Dr. Amler warned that if people continue to ignore precautions, the United States could end up in a similar position to other countries like France, which has had to reinstitute safety measure and shut down following large outbreaks. “We don’t want to end up like France,” Dr. Amler warned.
During a COVID-19 briefing from Westchester County Executive George Latimer on Thursday, April 1, Peter DeLucia, assistant health commissioner in the Bureau of Public Health Protection, echoed many of Dr. Amler’s concerns and urged county residents to continue to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status.
Mr. DeLucia, who is a Lewisboro resident, has been responsible for developing policies focused on the environmental impacts of the virus. These incorporate scientific findings on how long the virus can live on surfaces and linger in the air, and the most effective sanitization protocols.
Dr. Amler said that over the last 15 months, Mr. DeLucia and his team of health inspectors have been crucial to the county’s efforts to keep independent living facilities, fitness centers, schools, sporting events and other group venues as safe as possible.
During the April 1 briefing, Mr. DeLucia urged compliance with protocols set forth for restaurants and business as they begin to reopen. Additionally, as the weather warms and more sporting events are taking place, Mr. DeLucia reminded county residents that spectators on the sidelines must still wear masks and social distance.
“Let’s get into the end zone,” Mr. DeLucia said, suggesting the county was in a position to defeat the virus.
Dr. Amler said another major concern is vaccine hesitancy. She said that because of the millions of vaccine doses already given, they know that the vaccines are safe, and very effective in preventing COVID-19.
She noted, however, that the county currently does not have enough vaccine doses for all residents who want one. With the expansion of age eligibility, people need to remain patient about getting vaccine appointments. As allocations of doses for vaccine distribution sites continues to increase, the situation should improve soon, she said.
“Very shortly, I believe that we will have enough vaccines to vaccinate anyone who wants to be vaccinated,” Dr. Amler said.
Currently, three vaccines have been approved by federal authorities for emergency use. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require a two-dose course to build up full immunity, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires a single shot.
Dr. Amler said the only way out of the health crisis is to get as many people vaccinated as fast as possible. She warned that the longer people wait to get vaccinated, the more likely it will be that a variant will develop that could potentially be more resistant to the current vaccines.
The county does not currently have data on the prevalence of variants among active cases. Dr. Amler said that makes getting the shots particularly urgent.
“The best way to not get infected with COVID-19 right now is to be vaccinated,” Dr. Amler said.
Reflecting on the past year, Dr. Amler said that around the time the county suffered its first outbreak in New Rochelle, officials knew very little about the virus, including its incubation rate, symptoms, time frame, and whether non-symptomatic cases could spread the disease. “It was very difficult to try to contain a disease when you really didn’t know anything about it,” Dr. Amler said.
Over a year later, Dr. Amler said the county now has a tremendous amount of information about the natural course of the disease, which is greatly helping efforts to combat the disease and its spread.