Commissioner urges: ‘Stay home, save lives’ as Albany County cases continue to climb

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen

ALBANY COUNTY — The drumbeat of announcements on coronavirus cases in Albany County has been steady all week, starting with the first two cases announced on Thursday, March 12, the day after the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic.

Wednesday morning, the county’s press conference featured the usual officials — executive Daniel McCoy, Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen, and Sheriff Craig Apple — but this time they were seated a safe distance from each other at the diais and the conference was streamed live on Facebook, all in keeping with the guidelines for social distancing.

The news was not unexpected: The count of confirmed cases had risen from 25 the day before to 41 Wednesday morning with 126 county residents mandatory quarantine and 441 in precautionary quarantine.

On Tuesday, it was announced a 7-year-old, the youngest confirmed case in the county, had tested positive. McCoy said on Wednesday that the 7-year-old was in the Albany City schools, a Pine Hills first-grader, and the school had notified parents.

The disease is not clustered but rather spread widely throughout the county, with the health department, for example, trying to locate all the parishioners who had attended Sunday Masses at two different churches on March 8.

Two cases were highlighted at the March 18 press conference: an elderly person in respite care at Teresian House, and a sheriff’s deputy.

Whalen said the first is from a “highly vulnerable” population, and the second is essential to community service.

“Stay home, save lives,” Whalen repeated. “You may not be concerned because you think you are young and healthy. That may not be the case … Even if this does affect you, you get a mild case of COVID-19, being out in the community, you put others at risk.”

The Teresian House resident was not part of the general population there but in a separate section for respite patients and is now hospitalized at Albany Medical Center, Whalen said. All residents and staff who were in contact with the now-hospitalized patient are being tested, Whalen said.

Whalen had said early on that the county’s efforts were to focus on travellers from abroad but now she reports the vast majority of cases are community generated.

“It is very important you empower yourself with knowledge,” Whalen said. She again urged residents to follow guidelines from the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s Department of Health.

She urged residents to wash their hands and to stay home if they are sick or if they are no longer going into school or work.

Sheriff Apple said that, after his deputy tested positive — he’s seven days in and “feels good,” Apple said — nine other deputies were quarantined.

“We’ve already shifted,” Apple said. “We’re back up and running and there wasn’t even a hiccup.”

McCoy reiterated the directive he’s had all week to “stay calm” and continued to ask for volunteers. Two sorts of volunteers are needed:

— People to staff phone lines, so the health department staffers aren’t “bogged down,” who can be trained in 10 or 15 minutes, McCoy said; and

— Trained medical professionals: nurses, doctors, paramedics, emergency medical technicians. Those who want to volunteer for the Albany County Medical Reserve Corps can go online to register or call 518-447-4610.

On Saturday, McCoy had declared a state of emergency to allow the county to quickly move funds and resources where needed.

McCoy again on Wednesday urged people who do not need county health department services but rather have other concerns, like price-gouging, not to call the health department but rather to call United Way at 2-1-1 or to call the state hotline at 1-888-364-3065.

McCoy continued with his daily reassurances that the county was prepared and following the state’s lead.

Throughout the week, Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued a series of executive orders to stem the spread of the disease. Schools are closed until at least April 1; theaters, gyms, and other gathering places are closed; bars and restaurants can provide take-out service only. (Each of these developments as they unfolded were posted previously.)

Cuomo also directed nonessential state workers to work from home and told municipal governments to cut their workforce by half.

Albany County has cut staffing by over 54 percent, McCoy reported on Wednesday, excluding its 24-hour facilities: the department of health, the sheriff’s office, the jail, the nursing home, and the water purification district.

On Wednesday, Cuomo announced an executive order directing non-essential businesses to implement work-from-home policies effective Friday, March 20. Businesses that rely on in-office personnel must decrease their in-office workforce by 50 percent.

The executive order exempts essential service industries, including shipping, media, warehousing, grocery and food production, pharmacies, healthcare providers, utilities, banks, and related financial institutions, and other industries critical to the supply chain. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Cuomo joined with the governors of neighboring Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut in ordering the closure of all indoor portions of retail shopping malls, amusement parks, and bowling alleys, effective at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 19. This followed Monday’s directive of limiting gatherings to under 50 people.

Cuomo had pushed to get testing done at the state’s Wadworth lab when the CDC testing was caught in a bottleneck. He later pushed to have laboratories across the state be allowed to perform tests and the first drive-through testing service was set up in New Rochelle, then the epicenter of the disease in New York, with others to follow.

Elsewhere in The Enterprise is a list of local testing sites; Albany County residents are to see a primary-care provider first and be sent to a testing station.

Cuomo’s current push is to have the Army Corps of Engineers transform places like college dorms and unused nursing homes into hospital facilities.

In the New York Times “The Daily” podcast Wednesday morning, the governor said that some projections show the peak of the pandemic in New York occurring in 45 days, which will require 110,000 hospital beds and 37,000 intensive-care-unit beds.

“In this state you have 50,000 hospital beds ... and 3,000 ICU beds,” the governor said.

As of Wednesday, 2,382 New Yorkers had been infected with the disease.

“We are looking at the Army Corps of Engineers to try to build additional hospital beds, convert hospital beds, etc., because you are overwhelming the capacity of the healthcare system by two or three times,” Cuomo said. “You need backup staff, backup nurses, backup doctors, and more space, more equipment, more gloves, more food, more everything.”

Albany Medical Center announced at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon that so far 1,402 people have been tested for COVID-19 at the hospital. A large white tent has been set up outside the hospital’s emergency department for that purpose.

Currently, six people with COVID-19 are hospitalized at Albany Med; one of those six is in the intensive care unit.

Cuomo also spoke on the Times podcast about the need for ventilators. Although the federal government has a stockpile, it’s not clear how they will be distributed in a shortage.

“We try every which way to buy ventilators, we’re trying to go to China, which is now over it, trying to buy their ventilators,” said Cuomo. “I mean it is a global competition to buy ventilators.”

Host Michael Barbaro asked, “Is there a version where hospitals can handle this influx or is it just a matter of how short they fall?”

“There is no way they can handle this … It will be a question of triage,” the governor responded.

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