Tompkins County has ramped up their testing capacity for COVID-19 — with drive-through testing sites — but the number of new positive cases appears to be slowing.

Juan Arredondo / The New York Times

Tompkins County has ramped up their testing capacity for COVID-19 — with drive-through testing sites — but the number of new positive cases appears to be slowing.

April 20, 2020

What Tompkins County’s COVID-19 Numbers Mean

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Tompkins County seems to be “flattening the curve.”

For the past two weeks, the growth of positive COVID-19 in Tompkins County cases has leveled off after an initial period of exponential growth, according to data from the Tompkins County Health Department. As of Monday evening, Tompkins County had 123 positive cases of COVID-19, just 4.25 percent out of the 2,897 tests administered.

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“You have to be careful how you think about the numbers,” said Prof. Daniel Buckley, soil and crop sciences. “The numbers that you’re seeing are the numbers that have tested positive, but that’s a function of both how many people are infected, as well as the rate at which we’re testing them.”

Most recently, Tompkins County increased its testing capacity, and is now able to test up to 1,000 patients a day at the Ithaca Mall sampling site.

But the number of cases is likely an underestimate of the actual infection rate: Only people who suspect they may have the virus are choosing to get tested, but people can be infected without showing symptoms, according to Prof. Colin Parrish, virology, who researches the spread of emerging viruses in dogs at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

As many as 25 percent of infected people may be asymptomatic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The people being tested are people with suspicious conditions,” Parrish said. “They’re not just testing people at random.”

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Regardless, the high level of testing indicates that people are taking the virus seriously, both professors said.

The professors were ultimately still optimistic; they asserted that the initial rise in cases was not just due to the testing increase.

“If the number of new cases per day was just leveling off, you might conclude that this was just testing,” Buckley said. “But if the number of new cases per day is going down, there’s no way I could imagine that a testing artifact could produce that … unless you stopped testing.”

“Any one day could be a statistical blip,” he continued, “but if you see a continued trend, that’s probably real.”

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Instead, the professors attributed the statistical trend to state and local policies as well as corresponding community action.

Because the virus spreads primarily among people who are in close contact for prolonged periods of time, lockdowns — which Tompkins County has implemented — is “going to stop most of the transmission,” Parrish said.

“[Positive cases] were increasing exponentially without constraint for the first week or two, and then things flattened off. And now, the rate of new positive tests have been going down,” Buckley said. “That strongly suggests that what we’re doing has been having an effect.”

There have been zero Tompkins County resident deaths from COVID-19, as of Monday afternoon. Two patients transferred to Cayuga Medical Center from New York City have died.

Prof. Tom Pepinsky, government, was interested in the county’s numbers, wondering how Tompkins County compared to neighboring counties to measure how well it is doing in keeping people alive and if the lack of deaths was merely luck. Pepinsky is currently conducting research by polling Americans about their opinions and responses to COVID-19 for the National Institute of Science.

“Tompkins County is doing better than you would predict from the numbers,” Pepinsky said, based on its rural location and relatively low number of cases.

One difference was that hand washing and social distancing measures started earlier in Tompkins County and that people took it more seriously without government instruction, he posited.

“[The numbers] would suggest that our most vulnerable citizens got protected by our actions,” Pepinsky said.

In Tompkins County, the numbers indicate that the recommended actions have successfully mitigated the spread of COVID-19 and kept the rate of transmission low.

These precautions are not only vital in keeping people alive, but are also helping the local health care system function, according to Buckley.

“If the rate at which people are getting sick exceeds the capacity of hospitals to treat those people, the hospitals get overwhelmed and the public health system collapses,” he said.

Buckley also warned that the precautions are not a one-time thing — they have to continue until more of the population is resistant either through herd immunity or a vaccination.

“Even though we feel like we flattened the curve in Tompkins County, if you sort of take your foot off the gas pedal, it could come back very quickly,” Buckley said. “The only thing that’s going to prevent it from growing exponentially again is these sorts of strategies.”