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Syracuse, NY — The state Department of Health today says it is “closely monitoring” Central New York’s Covid-19 rate, which is by far the highest in the state.

The department issued a news release this afternoon specifically noting that Central New York’s rate is triple the state average, but offered no clear explanation for why and no new strategies for controlling the increase.

“As case rates can increase or fluctuate for a variety of reasons, state health officials are reviewing all potential explanations as to why Central New York is experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases,” the release from the state health Commissioner Mary Bassett said.

That’s nearly identical wording to a statement the department issued to syracuse.com | The Post-Standard two weeks ago when first contacted about the high case rate in Central New York.

Today, the state added that “local vaccination rates, mask wearing, and adherence to other mitigation efforts may play a role in Central New York’s case rates,” but offered no details or evidence.

Masks have come off across the state, and CNY’s vaccination rates are similar to other Upstate regions.

Local experts have struggled to understand why the region’s case rate is so high. They have speculated that it could be the end of mask-wearing, the waning of vaccine immunity or the rise of the new, more contagious omicron variant named BA.2. But those things are happening across the state.

It’s possible that Central New York was the first place where BA.2 arrived in New York, said Syracuse University public health professor David Larsen.

“The introduction of BA.2 into New York state would be a random process,” Larsen told Syracuse.com last week. “Maybe somebody was randomly exposed to someone in London or Italy or China, and then it comes to Upstate New York.”

BA.2 became the dominant strain in Onondaga County this month, said Dr. Frank Middleton, a neuroscience professor at Upstate Medical University whose lab has worked on the genetic sequencing of coronavirus strains since early in the pandemic.

“For the whole month of March, we’re at 50%,” Middleton said, “but for the two weeks, we’re at roughly two-thirds.”

Over the past week, the county’s average daily case rate was 46.5 per 100,000 population, more than three times the state average of 14.7. And that gap has grown: A week ago the county’s rate was 27.5 per 100,000.

The state health department today urged Central New Yorkers to get vaccinated and boosted if eligible, and to stay home when sick.

While the state health department said vaccination rates could be part of the reason for CNY’s high Covid-19 rate, it did not offer evidence for that. In fact, the health department’s own data shows that the region’s vaccination rates are comparable to others Upstate.

In Onondaga County, which makes up the majority of the CNY region’s population, 71.9% of people have completed their initial vaccine series. Monroe County is at 71.7%, according to data posted on the state health department website.

In Oneida County, 62% of people are fully vaccinated, but the Mohawk Valley Covid-19 rate is about one-third of Central New York’s.

While cases in Central New York are rising, they’re still a fraction of what they were in January, when the region hit a peak of 367 cases per 100,000.

In addition, hospitalizations and deaths remain low, with 51 Onondaga County residents in the hospital today, Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon said.

Ten residents have died of Covid-19 this month, compared to 55 in February and 85 in January.

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