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A Strange Week in COVID-19 Numbers

Herald 9.9.20 pg3.jpg

By Vince Conti

To access the Herald’s local coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage, click here.
COURT HOUSE – COVID-19 reminds the county daily that it remains present. The first full week of September saw the highest average daily number of resident confirmed cases since early July.
The county reported 70 new cases among county residents this week. The good news was that non-resident cases were at their lowest number for a full week since the county began reporting non-resident infections, in mid-June. 
One potential explanation for the drop in non-resident cases is that these individuals may not be getting tested, in the county, at the rate they were earlier in the summer. There is no way to know since the county’s daily report is only on confirmed cases. It offers no information on testing volume.
What is known is that new cases among residents averaged 10 per day this week, and only two of the 70 new cases were associated with long-term care facilities. The cases reported represent community spread.
By way of comparison, throughout August, the county reported 139 new cases, compared to 70 in the first week of September. 
Is this significant? That will not be known until it is seen how the numbers carry forward after Labor Day weekend. One week is not a trend, yet the week’s numbers do not offer comfort.
For the last few weeks, the numbers were trending in the right direction. The total number of confirmed cases, in August, among county residents dropped by 38% over the same number for July. The state’s numbers were also trending well, leading to the removal of more restrictions. 
This week, indoor dining, gyms, movie theaters, indoor amusement centers, and similar facilities were permitted to reopen, with capacity limits and under health department protocols.
Again, the week threw a curveball. Before these activities could begin resuming operations, the statewide rate of transmission inched over the benchmark level of 1.0. As of Sept. 7, it stands at 1.09. 
Any level above 1.0 is said to indicate that from every new infection the virus will be transmitted to more than one additional individual. 
A week does not make a trend, but 1.09 is the result of several days of small increases in the rate of transmission, and that is not a welcome sign.
None of these numbers are necessarily cause for alarm, but they do give pause, as schools reopen this week. COVID Act Now, a non-profit organization that models and tracks COVID-19 data, lists Cape May County, as of Sept. 5, with an infection transmission rate of 0.95, just below the benchmark level. 
In a pandemic, that’s a good spot. The county’s numbers are in the range that experts set for a safe reopening of schools.
The debate is still raging on what school reopening means for the children and the community at large. The anecdotal evidence based on areas where schools started to reopen is that there will be an increase in the number of cases among the children and in the community. 
Severe cases of COVID-19 are significantly less common among children, especially preteens. Debates continue over how effectively children can transmit the virus in the community.
Education Week, a trade journal tracking data from reopened schools, says the best expectation is that there will be an increase in the rate of growth of new cases.
The crowds are still with us. Some metrics that track health statistics per 100,000 of the population are difficult to apply to a seasonal economy’s population size. 
One metric, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the positivity rate, a ratio of the number of positive tests among all test results for a given day.
The CDC suggests schools use a 5% community positivity threshold as one marker for a safe reopening. The county is likely below that threshold.
Neither county nor state databases supply positivity rates at the county level. Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Sept. 4 the spot positivity rate for the state stood at 1.81%. She indicated that the highest positivity rates were in the southern counties, which are averaging 3.31%. 
The statistic is helpful as a guide, but it offers no way to distinguish Salem, Atlantic, or even Camden counties from Cape May County.
Persichilli also noted that despite the efforts to increase contact tracing staffing levels, the important task of contact tracing as a containment tool is running up against continued, and even growing, resistance. Over 20% of those who should supply contact information will not even take the initial calls from the health department. Of those who do, the percentage that refuses to cooperate has increased to 53%.
Cooperation with contact tracers is entirely voluntary. Ultimately, containing the viruswithout a vaccine depends on individuals exercising personal responsibility, which many do not see as including providing necessary contact information.
Some feel the virus is receding. They have begun talking prematurely about a post-COVID-19 world, yet the numbers this week were not ones the county should feel good about.
It is true that they also represent one week when the county is swelled with non-residents at the traditional end of the summer tourism season.
From July 1 to Sept. 1, a two-month period at the peak of this year’s summer tourism season, the county had 355 new resident cases, roughly a 5.7 per day average. 
In the first week of September, the county saw 70 new resident cases, an average of 10 per day, and almost 20% of the number of cases from the previous two months.
It was a strange week, and also a reminder that the epidemic is still real and not yet behind us.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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