Although cases climb, tests will no longer record most of them

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“The lack of test kits is problematic,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen, noting that “data points dry up” without the testing.

ALBANY COUNTY — The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has grown steadily in Albany County since the first two cases were announced on March 12. On Friday morning, March 20, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy announced there are now 70 confirmed cases.

But, even though the disease will continue to spread in the county, the number of confirmed cases is unlikely to accurately reflect the increase because supplies to run the test are limited.

Both Albany Medical Center — which as of last Wednesday had tested 1,042 patients — and St. Peter’s Health Partners announced they will reserve the testing kits they still have for use on inpatients and symptomatic staff at their hospitals.

Currently in Albany County, 283 patients are under mandatory quarantine and 490 are under precautionary quarantine, McCoy said.

McCoy also made a plea for protective gear for hospital staff.

“We’re running out of supplies,” he said. “If you’ve stocked up on masks and gowns, give them to us for the hospitals.”

He went on, “Mr. President, please give these to us quicker. We need it … to keep our medical professionals in the game.”

A list of needed supplies compiled by the county includes: thermometers and thermometer sheaths, N95-3M 1860 small and regular-sized masks, gowns, face shield and goggles, Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, medium-sized gloves, surgical masks, and swabs with media.

Elizabeth Whalen, the county’s health commissioner,  said, “The lack of test kits is problematic.” She noted that “data points dry up” without the testing.

Whalen stressed that the lack of numbers on positive cases “does not mean there are not more cases.” The majority of cases diagnosed so far, she said, have been “community acquired,” which means the disease will continue to spread here.

Whalen said she believes the hold-up is federal because the shortage is occurring across the state.

Governor Andrew Cuomo had pushed to get federal approval for private New York State labs to process the tests. Laboratory capacity is no longer an issue, Whalen said; rather, the problem is not having the test kits in the first place.

As of Tuesday, Albany Med did some testing internally, Ferdinand Venditti, the hospital’s general director, said earlier. “Our virology department has been working hard to become validated by the FDA,” he said, referring to the Federal Drug Administration. But, he said, Albany Med is constrained by outside resources. “We have only 300 reagents,” Venditti said.

The county’s health department has identified “hundreds and hundreds” of contacts in the community, Whalen said, but stressed, “The vast majority don’t need hospitalizing.”

Consequently, the disease will be spread further and faster if those who have symptoms but aren’t tested do not stay home. Both Whalen and McCoy made stern statements about the necessity to stay home and, when out, to stay at least six feet from other people.

“Please take this serious … Stop gathering,” said McCoy. “We don’t want kids in the playground or playing basketball.”

He also advised people to talk to each other through their phones, not in person. “Stay away from each other,” he said.

McCoy said of the tests, “When you come back negative, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to get it.

Whalen agreed, saying that it can take time for COVID-19 to show up in a test.

Going forward, she said, when Albany County residents show symptoms of fever, coughing, and shortness of breath, they should still call their health-care providers. They should stay at home, drink liquids, and take an acetaminophen to bring down the fever.

“You should stay home and the person caring for you should follow the guidelines on the CDC website,” she said, referencing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Previously, we relied on a test,” Whalen said. “You may not have that reassurance anymore.”

She also said, “If you get worse, emergency rooms are still available. If you get admitted to hospital, you will be tested.”

The combination of not enough tests, people still being out, and the disease being community acquired is “very concerning,” said Whalen.

“What you do today influences what will happen in a few days or weeks,” Whalen said. “The effects can be catastrophic in overwhelming a health-care system … You need to do it now,” she said, emphasizing the last word.

Whalen explained the difference between precautionary and mandatory quarantine. Mandatory is for “a close contact,” like someone living in the same household as a COVID-19 patient. Precautionary is for a more distant contact, like sharing the same classroom or church.

In both types of quarantine, the person has to stay home for 14 days, which is the length of incubation for CVOVID-19. Currently, the health department is still making daily visits to people under mandatory quarantine.

“We had a couple of people not adhering,” Whalen said of mandatory quarantine. “We did send out law enforcement yesterday.”

She added, “We will take action if people don’t abide.”

Whalen also said an earlier message that young people weren’t badly affected by disease has turned out to be false. She said there can be serious complications for young and healthy people. 

In related news, McCoy announced that Albany County had gotten a $200,000 grant from the state to help deal with the outbreak; the money will be used for supplies and resources, he said.

McCoy commended the governor for shutting down gathering places.

Friday morning, Cuomo joined with governors of New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania in directing all shops that provide personal-care services, like barbers and hair salons, to close by 8 p.m. on Saturday.

This followed Monday’s directive to limit gatherings to 50 people and the closure of theaters, gyms, casinos, and restaurants and bars — except for take-out service. All indoor parts of malls, amusement parks, and bowling alleys had to close by Thursday night.

McCoy also spoke of mental-health concerns. “People aren’t used to it,” he said of social isolation, noting the county may be in “this mode” for a month or more.

“Be prepared and be kind to your neighbors,” McCoy said.

He also gave a phone number for the county’s new Mental Health Support Line — 518-269-6634 — “for people who have an issue.” The line is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

United Way also has a line — at 2-1-1 — for residents who want to report price-gouging, scams, or other concerns.

And the New York State hotline for coronavirus is 888-364-3065.

McCoy also again asked for volunteers to sign up for the county’s Medical Reserve Corps through the county’s website.

He also challenged kids home from school to send electronic greeting cards to nursing home residents who may be lonely as they no longer are allowed visitors. E-Cards can be sent to .

McCoy concluded, “This is a marathon; it’s not a sprint.”

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