COVID-19-related hospitalizations have been on an upward trend in New York state since last month, but there appears to be a drastic divide between the Big Apple and some of the state’s more rural areas, health data shows.
In New York City, the seven-day average of new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 people rose from 0.5 on Nov. 10 to 1.1 on Dec. 7, the New York State Department of Health said.
The story is different in several counties hundreds of miles north, where new COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising at a higher rate. In the Finger Lakes region, officials in several counties declared a state of emergency after the seven-day average of new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 people went from 2.9 on Nov. 10 to 4.9 on Dec. 7.
David Larsen, an associate professor of public health at Syracuse University, told ABC News that there are several factors behind this divide, but the most important one is the lower vaccination rates in certain counties upstate.
“At the end of the day, you’re more likely to get severe COVID-19 symptoms and go to the hospital if you’re not vaccinated,” Larsen said.
Health experts and state officials predict the situation upstate is only going to get worse during the holidays and colder months, but the tide can be turned if more people get their shots and heed health warnings.
As of Dec. 8, 74.9% of all New York state residents have at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, but those numbers vary by region, according to state health data.
New York City and Long Island had over 78% of their populations with at least one shot, the state data showed. Further north, the rates for at least one dose in the Mohawk Valley, the Finger Lakes and North Country sections were 60.6%, 68.5%, and 63% respectively.
There is even more division within the regions when it comes to vaccination, the data shows; for example, counties that are along the Interstate 87 corridor, such as Hamilton, Schenectady and Saratoga, all have rate of at least one dose above 75% of their populations.
Counties directly west of those locations, Schoharie, Fulton and Montgomery, have one-dose vaccination rates under 65%, the state data showed.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has repeatedly highlighted that the unvaccinated are the ones suffering and being hospitalized.
“It is a conscious decision not to be vaccinated. And the direct result is a higher rate of individuals in those regions upstate as well as it has a direct correlation to the number of hospitalizations,” she said during a Dec. 2 news conference.
Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, an adjunct professor of public health at Cornell University, told ABC News that there are fewer options for upstate residents to turn to for medical help and fewer hospitals in the area are handling patients from more locations.
Weisfuse, a former deputy health commissioner for New York City’s Health Department, noted that New York City residents have much closer access to amenities like free testing sites and medical clinics than their upstate counterparts.
“If you live in a rural county in New York state and it takes a while to get to a doctor, you may put it off. So when you do eventually go get care, you may be sicker versus someone who lives closer and gets a quicker diagnosis,” he said.
Larsen added that there has been pandemic fatigue across the country, and many Americans have scaled back on mitigation measures, especially mask-wearing indoors.
While New York City requires proof of vaccination for indoor activities, such as movie theaters and restaurants, there are no such rules in many upstate counties. As a result, some upstate residents have less of an incentive to get their shots, and are less cautious in indoor group settings, according to Larsen.
“We’re doing less mask wearing. What that does is it increases transmission, which is fine for the vaccinated people but it does go to the unvaccinated people and they are higher risk,” he said.
Weisfuse said the hospitalizations are likely to grow upstate and have ripple effects for those regions. The governor has ordered elective surgeries to be postponed at 32 hospitals upstate that have seen their available beds decrease.
State officials said they are beefing up their marketing efforts to encourage eligible New Yorkers to get their shots.
Weisfuse said this outreach needs to be done meticulously if upstate officials want to avoid more overcrowded emergency rooms this winter.
“The state needs to take a good look at the pockets of non-vaccination,” he said. “They need to make some targeted intervention in those neighborhoods.”
Anyone who needs help scheduling a free vaccine appointment can log onto vaccines.gov.