Governor says counties with COVID positivity rates over 9% — like Albany — will test schools

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said he empathized with parents who are stressed teaching their kids at home. “I know I made some parents mad but I stand by what I said,” McCoy said of urging schools to pause, adding, “The superintendents know better than me. They’re in the trenches.”

ALBANY COUNTY — On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that counties with positivity rates over 9 percent, based on state numbers, would do COVID-19 testing in their schools.

On Jan. 1, according to the state’s dashboard, Albany County had a daily positive rate of 10.4 and a seven-day rolling average of 10.2. On Jan. 2, the county’s daily percentage was 10.6 and the seven-day rate was 10.5.

And on Jan. 3, the last day for which data is available, Albany County’s daily rate was 13.8 and the seven-day rolling average was 10.3. Statewide, the positivity rate, as a seven-day average, is 7.79 percent.

“For counties that are over 9 percent, they’re doing school testing,” Cuomo said at his press conference on Monday. “If their schools are below the level of positivity in the community, then they can keep the schools open. It is up to the local school district to make that decision.”

Cuomo also said, noting it was an opinion, not a fact, “My position has always been, if the children are safer in the school than they are on the streets of the community, then children should be in school.”

Earlier on Monday, the bulk of Albany County’s press conference was spent on schools’ decisions to move to remote learning or to stay open for in-person classes.

All three school districts in the Enterprise coverage area — Berne-Knox-Westerlo, Guilderland, and Voorheesville — reopened on Monday after Christmas break for in-person classes.

At his Saturday morning press conference, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy had called for schools to go to remote-only learning to deal with the soaring rates of COVID-19. Later on Saturday, Albany County Health Commissioner had a lengthy remote conversation with school-district leaders throughout the county.

“The county does not have the authority,” said McCoy on Monday of closing schools. “The governor took that away from us … All we can do is advise on how we see things going on.”

For the third day in a row, McCoy announced a record number of hospitalizations — currently, 161 county residents are hospitalized with COVID-19.

“December was our deadliest month ever,” said McCoy.

He went on, “I did not say to schools: Shut down. I said: Pause for a week or two … Learn at home … Let the infection run its course.”

McCoy said he empathized with parents who are stressed teaching their kids at home. “I know I made some parents mad but I stand by what I said,” McCoy stated on Monday, adding, “The superintendents know better than me. They’re in the trenches.”

He likened the advice for children to stay home from school to the advice he has been giving businesses for a month to have employees, where possible, work from home.

“Help us beat this curve …,” said McCoy. “I need your buy-in.”

Whalen then reiterated what she described as a complex and lengthy conversation with school superintendents on Saturday.

Whalen usually speaks smoothly without notes. Once before, in June, after the race riots in Albany, she read from notes about racism being a public-health crisis.

On Monday, she also read her account of Saturday’s conversation, which she said started with her summary of more cases and more hospitalizations in Albany County than ever before.

She discussed concerns about an uptick in cases from holiday gatherings and travel. Whalen noted that her department is currently seeing 20 to 30 cases per day, spread across districts, which reflects widespread spread in the community.

“I was asked, given the numbers, whether a directive would be forthcoming on cluster recommendations from the governor,” Whalen said. “I explained the county executive is also interested to learn.”

Speaking before Cuomo made his Monday announcement, Whalen said, “At this time, we are not aware.”

School district leaders asked for data on cases contracted in schools and Whalen said her department does not have that data. “But anecdotally and nationally, it has been suggested that most COVID spread within this age group is spread outside the school environments,” she said. “This is certainly dependent on infection control within the schools.”

Whalen stressed, “I did not at any time state that this data meant that returning to in-person [learning]was safe.”

Whalen said many superintendents relayed concerns with implications of school closures and she termed this “the crux of the matter.” This could include mental-health problems; children being abused at home; and special-needs children who, without seeing teachers, would “lose essential progress,” said Whalen.

She went on, “It included concerns for family welfare in situations in which parents would lose employment if they needed to stay home with children.”

Whalen concluded “I reinforced the idea that schools know their communities and their needs best, know their parents best, and know how they need to serve their children best.”

All the districts, she said, have plans in place for remote-only learning.

Whalen advised that parents could work their way through a toolkit provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will also be posted on the county’s website, to evaluate the pros and cons of sending their children to school.


Newest numbers

As of Monday morning, Albany County has had 12,432 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 163 new cases, McCoy announced.

He surmised the number of new positives was down because some testing centers had been closed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Of the 163 new cases, 128 did not have a clear source of infection identified, 22 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, and 13 are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings.

The five-day average for new daily positives decreased to 257.4 from 267.4. There are now 1,884 active cases in the county, up from 1,844 yesterday.

McCoy noted that, although the 20-to-29 age group continues to have the most cases in Albany County, since Dec. 15 that percentage had increased 37 percent while, for the 10-to-19-year-olds the increase was 45 percent, and for the 30-to-39-year-olds, the increase was 64 percent.

The number of county residents under quarantine increased to 3,068 from 3,018. So far, 39,428 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 10,548 had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 111 recoveries since yesterday.

There were 24 new hospitalizations overnight, and there are 161 county residents currently hospitalized from the virus — a net increase of 19. There are still 24 patients in intensive-care units.

“It’s getting to a concerning level,” said Whalen of hospitalizations. “There’s no doubt about it.”

The county’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 229.

Of the state’s 10 regions, the Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, continues to have the worst rate for available ICU beds. That number dipped to its lowest — 16 percent — in the governor’s Monday release. Currently, 194 of the region’s 228 ICU beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Statewide, 29 percent of ICU beds are available.

The Capital Region also continues to have one of the worst rates for available hospital beds. Currently, 468 regional residents, 0.04 percent of the population, are hospitalized with COVID-19, leaving 22 percent of the region’s hospital beds available.

However, the governor’s report on Monday added a new column — “Percent of Hospital Beds Available within 7 Days Under Surge Plan” — meaning added beds could be pressed into service if needed, so 32 percent would then be available.

Statewide, 29 percent of hospital beds are available and 38 percent are available under the surge plan.

The Capital Region’s infection rate, as a seven-day average, is 9.91 percent — one of six regions over 9 percent. Statewide, the positivity rate is 7.79 percent.

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