SYRACUSE, NY — Central New York went from having the highest Covid-19 rate in the state to its lowest in just six weeks.
The number of cases skyrocketed in April, as the region became the first US hotspot for new, highly contagious strains of the Omicron variant. The strains broke through central New York and only began to fade when they ran out of people to infect.
After the CNY skyrocketed earlier this spring, the new strains spread across the state, driving up the number of cases in New York’s other nine boroughs, even as cases began to fall here.
Now cases are declining in the rest of the state.
“We were basically what it looks like when a new variant emerges in a population,” said Chris Morley, a professor of public health at Upstate Medical University. “What’s happening in the rest of the state is exactly what happened here — it’s just happening to them in waves and it’s going to happen across the country.”
It is already. In mid-April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 14 counties in the United States — 10 of them in upstate New York — had high rates of community transmission of Covid-19. Last week it was 297 counties nationwide.
The spike in central New York, health officials later determined, was due to the nation’s first outbreak of two new strains of the Omicron variant. These strains, designated BA.2.12.1 and BA.2.12, were more contagious than the original Omicron variant, which was itself far more contagious than the previously dominant Delta variant.
At its highest point, on April 15, the rate of daily new cases in central New York was about 54 per 100,000 people. That was almost double the national average.
Today, the CNY is down more than half to about 22 per 100,000. That’s about half the national average.
“What we’ve seen in every wave of the virus is it rises and falls,” Morley said. “The virus basically finds everyone who is susceptible at that point, and then we usually see it wear off once people have recovered and have some protection from immunity.”
The peak of this wave in central New York was much lower than Omicron’s winter peak, in part because the thousands of people infected with Omicron during the winter had immunity to the new Omicron offshoots. The current rate is about a tenth what it was during January’s Omicron surge.
Central New York is still reporting 100 or more cases of Covid every day. That’s important when talking about the fluctuations in the Covid rate, he said.
“When we went under, we shut down a large number of cases,” Morley said. “If that happens, we have the opportunity for new variants to take hold and for the virus to find populations whose immunity is declining more quickly and people with weaker immune systems.”
The number of Covid patients who have died or been hospitalized during the current wave was lower than in the winter wave. In January, 85 residents of Onondaga County, the largest in the region, died from Covid-19. So far this month, 21 residents in the county have died from the disease.
In mid-January, the number of CNY Covid patients in hospitals peaked at 354. At the end of April there were 146; now it’s only 81.
Experts attribute the lower number of deaths and hospitalizations to high vaccination coverage, immunity to previous bouts of Covid and mutations in the virus itself.
The emergence of variants that are more contagious but less deadly is a cautiously hopeful sign for the pandemic, said Brian Leydet, an epidemiologist who teaches at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
“As the population becomes more affected, hopefully it will be a less deadly disease in the future,” Leydet said. “If you catch a cold, don’t expect to die from it. Hopefully Covid will be something like that.”