Syracuse, N.Y. – After nine exhausting months of pandemic, Onondaga County residents could be forgiven for hoping that the deaths of 18 coronavirus patients in a single day Wednesday were a one-time thing. A fluke. They were not.
There likely will be more days like Wednesday, judging from the throngs of Covid-19 patients in Syracuse hospitals, a local expert says.
It’s cold hard math, said Dr. Stephen Thomas. He is chief of infectious disease at Upstate Medical University and the principal investigator worldwide for a clinical trial of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
Syracuse hospitals today have more than three times as many coronavirus patients as they did in the spring, the last time deaths peaked. Some fraction of them will die, Thomas said. We may not see 18 deaths in a day again, but we will see painfully high numbers, he said.
The Covid areas at Upstate hospital, where Thomas works, are maxed out with patients. In the intensive care units, one-third of the Covid patients are on ventilators, he said.
When the virus runs rampant through the community, eventually it reaches frail and elderly people who are at high risk of dying.
“Those people end up in the hospital,” Thomas said. “And a certain percentage of them are going to die. That’s what we’re seeing.’’
Yes, the hospitals are better at treating Covid now than they were in the spring. More patients recover quickly. The average patient’s stay is shorter.
But the virus is going to be fatal to some patients, Thomas said. The more cases there are, the more fatalities.
“I just don’t see how we avoid it,’’ he said.
County Executive Ryan McMahon announced Wednesday that 18 county residents had died of Covid-19, the most since the pandemic hit Central New York. The previous one-day record for deaths was 11, set Saturday. There were 91 deaths during the first 16 days of this month, averaging more than five a day.
Unfortunately, there is no end in sight.
Each day, the hospitals in Syracuse set new records for the number of Covid-19 patients. There were 299 county residents in hospitals Wednesday, plus 78 others from outside the county, McMahon said. All told, the Covid patients accounted for nearly every third patient in a hospital bed.
“It’s incredible how different it is now compared to the spring,’’ Thomas said.
The numbers are staggering. A surge of coronavirus that began around Halloween put three times as many Covid-19 patients in the hospital during November and December as there were in the spring. The number of patients in intensive care has averaged 62% higher and continues to climb.
The Upstate units set aside for coronavirus patients are filled, Thomas said — “like, no-room-at-the-inn filled.’’
When the coronavirus hit New York state in the spring, Central New York was among the least affected parts of the state. Downstate areas, on the other hand, were decimated.
This time it’s different. Central New York is a hotspot compared with most of New York. The death rate from Covid-19 over the past seven days in Onondaga County – 12.2 per 100,000 residents – is more than three times the average for the state as a whole. New York state reported 686 deaths for the week beginning Dec. 10, or about 3.5 per 100,000 population.
Like many other areas of the country, Syracuse appears to suffer from a lack of resolve from the public to avoid contact with other people and to protect each other by wearing masks, Thomas said. Too many people don’t appreciate the risk virus transmission poses for the most vulnerable residents, he said.
“Like every other place in the country, it’s individuals making decisions,’’ Thomas said. “That’s really what it comes down to.’’