TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Depending who you ask, you can get a variety of opinions about the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, from “ongoing” to “over” to “fake” and everything in-between.
But whatever you think, Wednesday’s Health and Human Services Committee meeting had a reflective tone as Dr. Martin Stallone spent the first portion of the meeting recounting the county’s specific experience during the pandemic.
Tompkins County had the lowest COVID-19 mortality rate — just .095% of its 105,683 population — according to a presentation from Dr. Martin Stallone, executive director of Cayuga Health Systems, at the Feb. 22, 2023, Health and Human Services Committee meeting.
“Our COVID mortality was the lowest statistically in the state, and if you compare us to average, that would be about 181 lives that were saved,” Stallone said. “If our COVID mortality was average, we would have lost 181 more people than we did, based on our population.”
Stallone credited the legislature for some of that success in terms of COVID testing and treatment.
“This is something this body should take credit for,” he said. “It’s fair that the legislators take responsibility for things that don’t go well all the time, this is an example where investments were made and lives were saved because of that investment.”
The extensive testing throughout the county that took place in 2020 is the main public health intervention that Stallone credits to schools being able to reopen locally in the fall of 2020.
“The best example I can think of is the ability to turn a veterinary laboratory into a human laboratory, I would have passed out if you told me that was possible before the pandemic started,” Stallone said.
Stallone also recapped the timeline of events of COVID early days: the first positive case in Tompkins County was identified on March 7, 2020, and approximately three weeks later, the first reference lab was set up and functioning. Additionally, a drive-through testing center opened, offering 120 tests per day which quickly increased to 800, and nursing home testing began.
By Aug. 2020, testing capacity in Tompkins County had increased to appr 8,000 tests per day.
“We were racing to bring schools back,” Stallone said, adding that by September, testing capacity was at approximately 14,000 per day, by which time Tompkins County was performing 10% of all COVID testing in the state.
Vaccines began rolling out in Dec. 2020, and the county saw new Delta and Omicron variants during 2021. By Aug. 2022, Cornell had stopped its surveillance testing, and in Feb. 2023 the county announced it was closing its flagship testing center.
“The cooperation we had together was exemplary,” Stallone said. “I think it represented the very best of our community and it demonstrates what we can achieve together under normal circumstances.”
Legislator Randy Brown asked whether the mortality rate improved after vaccines became available, and Stallone responded that he believed so. “There was a dramatic impact in the early 2021 timeframe,” Stallone said.
“People have used the word ‘hero’ when it comes to the pandemic and the people who have done the work behind the scenes, and I’m so grateful that our community was supportive of that and that we were supportive of it,” Legislator Amanda Champion said.