County relaxes rules for school quarantines

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“Our cases in schools dropped from 30s and 40s down to a handful of cases every week,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen. “It seemed to make sense to change the policy and look at proximity, look at where the child was seated.”

ALBANY COUNTY — As the county’s COVID-19 infection rate continues to drop, schools on Monday started following new, less restrictive guidance on quarantining.

Until now, an entire classroom was quarantined if a single positive case was identified. Now, just contacts with close proximity to someone who tests positive will be quarantined.

“Our cases in schools dropped from 30s and 40s down to a handful of cases every week,” said Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen at a county press briefing on Monday morning. “It seemed to make sense to change the policy and look at proximity, look at where the child was seated.”

Whalen said the schools in Albany County are willing to work with the health department to see that just those with close contact are quarantined. The new policy may encourage more in-person learning, Whalen said, since kids may not have wanted to take a chance going to school if they may be quarantined.

All along, Whalen said, the schools “have really done a good job to make sure the kids in the classroom are protected.”

This includes wearing masks and staying distant.

“We really are not seeing high levels of disease in the school community,” Whalen said. And, as more teachers, administrators, and school workers are becoming fully vaccinated, she said, a “comfort level” is being reached.

“In terms of parents, we continue to assert the schools are a low-risk scenario,” she said, stating that children socializing outside of school may have a higher risk of catching or spreading the virus.

Locally, as of Monday, Berne-Knox-Westerlo has had 22 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year — 13 at its secondary school and 9 at its elementary school, according to the state’s COVID-19 Report Card. BKW has about 780 students.

Voorheesville has had 41 cases: 21 at its high school, 14 at its elementary school, and 6 at its middle school. Voorheesville has about 1,200 students.

The Guilderland School District has had a total of 168 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year. The district has about 4,800 students.

Ninety-five of those cases were at Guilderland High School, a tally that also includes district-wide employees like bus drivers; 28 were at Farnsworth Middle School, 13 at Westmere Elementary, 9 each at Altamont and Lynnwood elementary schools, 8 at Pine Bush Elementary, and 6 at Guilderland Elementary School.

COVID-19 surveillance testing conducted by the Guilderland schools in January showed an infection rate of 0.4 percent.

A total of 945 people were tested, including students, faculty, and staff at all seven buildings — and just four of those results were positive.

“I think it’s very encouraging, out of close to 1,000 tests, we had just four positives,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told The Enterprise on Feb. 1, the day the test results were announced. “It’s a strong indication school is a safe place to be.”

“President Biden has made it a national priority to open schools,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo at his Monday press briefing.

Consequently, to get “clarity,” Cuomo said, the state will ask local school districts to report on how many teachers have been vaccinated and how many are teaching in-person classes.

“How many teachers are doing in-class teaching?” said Cuomo. “We’re asking the counties, the local governments, the cities, how many teachers have you vaccinated? How many teachers are doing in-class teaching and what percentage is now in-class? ... 

“We will notify the local districts today if they can start reporting on Wednesday and then we’ll ask them that on a weekly basis. I think we need clarity on that matter because opening schools is very important as we know. Opening schools is very important for children and it has economic consequences beyond that.”


Newest numbers

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy opened his Monday morning press briefing by noting, “Sadly the United States hit another milestone. There’s been half-a-million deaths in the United States.”

McCoy noted that the populations of Albany, Schenectady, and Rensselaer counties are less than the nation’s COVID-19 death toll.

Albany County has contributed 345 deaths to that toll.

McCoy also noted that Albany County’s infection rate, as a seven-day rolling average, was 1.6 percent. “We have not been there in a long time,” he said, noting that Oct. 31 was the last time the rate was so low.

Halloween had marked the start of the holiday surge.

As of Monday morning, Albany County has had 20,048 confirmed cases of COVID-19, McCoy said, including 58 new cases.

Of the new cases, 40 did not have clear sources of infection identified, 14 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, and four were health-care workers or residents of congregate settings.

The five-day average for new daily positives has increased slightly to 71 from 70.6. There are now 569 active cases in the county, down from 592 on Sunday.

The number of Albany County residents under quarantine decreased to 1,519 from 1,644. So far, 62,496 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 19,479 had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 58 recoveries since Sunday.

There were eight new hospitalizations overnight, and there are now 62 county residents currently hospitalized from the virus – a net increase of five. There are currently eight patients in intensive-care units, up from seven on Sunday.

Currently, according to a Monday release from the governor’s office, 168 Capital Region residents are hospitalized with COVID-19, which is 0.02 percent of the population and leaves 35 percent of its hospital beds available.

Statewide, 0.03 percent of New Yorkers are hospitalized with the disease, leaving 36 percent of the state’s hospital beds available.

Currently, 177 of the Capital Region’s 234 ICU beds are filled, leaving 27 percent available. Statewide, 28 percent of ICU beds are available.

The Capital Region’s infection rate, as of Sunday, as a seven-day average, was 1.99 percent. Statewide, the positivity rate was 3.52 percent.

New York State is currently in its 10th week of receiving vaccine doses from the federal government. As of Monday morning, according to a release from the governor’s office, New York has administered 2.2 million first doses, and 1.2 million second doses.

The Capital Region has administered 235,880 of the 210,566 doses it has received this week, which is 89 percent.

More Regional News

  • At the same time more vaccine doses are being made available, more people are becoming eligible in New York State. Food-pantry workers have been added to the list of essential workers. 

  • On Thursday, President Joe Biden addressed, remotely, the National Governors Association, which Andrew Cuomo chairs. Biden stressed his theme of uniting Americans and urged support of the American Rescue Plan.

  • The state and federal governments together have opened mass vaccination sites for Black and brown communities, which have disproportionately been hurt by the pandemic. One of those sites is at the Washington Avenue Armory in Albany. Appointments begin on March 3 for residents of these ZIP codes: 12202, 12206, 12207, 12209, and 12210.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.