Sheriff says wing of jails ready to shelter the homeless

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“Brought a smile to my face,” says Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy as he displays a picture of a girl who drew a rainbow and wrote this message: “After every storm comes a rainbow.” 

ALBANY COUNTY — As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus 2019 disease in the county climbed to 122, the county executive, Daniel McCoy, announced at Monday morning’s press conference, “We had someone in the City Mission that came down with COVID-19.”

“We are seeing cases in sensitive settings,” agreed Elizabeth Whalen, Albany County’s health commissioner. She said her department is working with support from the county’s Department of Social Services to see that people who are homeless or in shelters can be quarantined and not put others at risk.

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said that the wing at the county jail that he had, before the outbreak, planned to make into a homeless shelter is “ready to go.” The wing is sealed off from the jail, which had open cells as the prison population declined.

Staff at the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society, based on Central Avenue in Albany, was willing to “help out” and staff the new wing, Apple said.

Whalen said that it is not yet clear what the timeline for the course of the disease will be but based on information from the last two weeks — Albany County’s first two cases were announced on March 12 — “It seems likely we are entering a period of more community spread,” she said.

“We don’t know how long this is going to last; plan on July or August,” said McCoy. “We’re not even the tip of the iceberg.”

Currently 490 people in Albany County are in mandatory quarantine, and 634 are in precautionary quarantine. Seven people with COVID-19 have been hospitalized, putting Albany County’s average at 5.7 percent.

Whalen noted that there were just seven more confirmed cases on Monday morning than on Sunday morning and she anticipates that this week “our numbers will seem to drop off.”

She stressed that this is not a cause for reassurance but, rather, is because the hospitals have stopped community testing since test kits are in limited supply. The remaining kits from the federal government will be used to test hospitalized patients and exposed health-care workers.

“We need more test kits,” said McCoy, repeating his plea from the day before. “We need the federal government to step up.”


“Act like you have it”

Whalen again stressed the importance of staying home. Initially, it was thought that asymptomatic patients or those with mild symptoms were not drivers of infection, she said, but this turned out to be wrong.

People with mild or no symptoms — fever, cough, shortness of breath — are spreading the disease.

“All of us need to protect ourselves. All of us need to protect each other,” Whalen said. She urged residents, “In order to contain this, you have to act like you have it; treat your family and others as if you do.”

The county’s health department, she said, is tracking all cases that have tested positive. “We call everyone who has a diagnosis,” siad Whalen.

The first question the ill person is asked is: What were you doing the last couple of weeks … Tell us who you were in contact with.

“My hope,” said Whalen, “is you would say, ‘I heeded the message.’” Whalen’s hope is she would hear that the only people the patient had been in contact with were family members, and distance was kept even there.

“Please think of this and let it guide your actions,” said Whalen.

She stressed again the importance of social distancing — staying at least six feet from anyone else — of staying home, and of washing hands.

“People almost need to develop a whole new relationship with their hands,” she said. People have to stop their usual habits of touching their faces. “It’s difficult,” said Whalen.


Jail nurse has COVID-19 

Sheriff Apple reported, “We continue to ramp up supplies,” distributing them to emergency medical service workers, health-care workers, and funeral parlors.

He also said a nurse at the county jail has tested positive for COVID-19. Thirty-five inmates have been identified as having come in contact with the nurse and they have been isolated, he said.

The jail has 89 cells set up for isolating inmates with COVID-19 and it is being constantly disinfected, Apple said.

He said of jail workers, “What you do after hours sets up the framework for the next day.” He is urging jail staff to stay home after work, and will even have their groceries delivered.


Federal census

McCoy also urged Albany County residents to fill out their 2020 federal census forms. He noted that the census will decide how over $1.5 trillion in federal funding is allocated to state and local governments.

“It matters for the next 10 years,” he said.

McCoy said that the population of the town of Colonie, measured by the 2020 census, will probably top the city of Albany. He said that college students who would have been counted in Albany “won’t be here to count; they went home” because of the coronavirus.

“They’ll be counted back home,” McCoy said.

“Do your job,” he urged county residents. “Get online and do your census.”


Supplies and services

McCoy praised the Guilderland Central School District for responding to his earlier plea for supplies to protect health-care workers.

The school gave the county 2,000 gloves, 250 masks, bleach, disinfectant spray, suits, and a box of gowns, McCoy said.

“We need this to keep our health-care workers safe,” he said.

The county on Monday posted mental-health and exercise videos on its website, McCoy said.

“Kids can learn karate moves; seniors can do exercises,” he said.

The mental-health helpline that the county launched last week has been busy, McCoy said, as people struggle with anxiety over the disease and with isolation. The helpline, staffed by county workers, received 11 calls in the first hour, he said.

The mental-health support line — 518-269-6634 — runs seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Anyone experiencing a psychiatric emergency should still call the Albany County Mobile Crisis Team at 518-549–6500.

McCoy also praised the children, home from school, who have created electronic greeting cards for nursing home residents who can no longer receive visitors. Electronic cards may be sent to

He highlighted one that he said made him smile. A little girl displayed her artwork on which she had written, “After every storm comes a rainbow.”

Another card said, “When in doubt, smile” with a picture of a happy face.

McCoy also reported that he had sent a letter to all the school superintendents in the county to urge school nurses, no longer working in the closed schools, to volunteer at the county nursing home or at the county’s health department.

Anyone who wants to volunteer for the Albany County Medical Reserve Corps to help the response to COVID-19, or to help the county’s health department, answering phones and making calls to residents under quarantine, may call the Department of Health’s Medical Reserve Corps Coordinator at 518-447-4610.

For all COVID-19 questions and concerns, Albany County residents are encouraged to use United Way’s 2-1-1 hotline as well as the State Department of Health’s hotline at 888-364-3065.

More Regional News

  • “It’s not going to get better in any likelihood between now and Christmas,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen of surging COVID cases. “It’s likely that we will continue to see cases increase and that they will result in increased hospitalizations and unfortunately increased deaths in the county. The only way we can prevent this from happening is from individual behavior.”

  • “It’s true that New York’s pandemic benchmarks are currently low compared to the rest of the country. At the current rate of increase, however, the state is on track to catch up,” wrote Bill Hammond in an Empire Center report.

  • After consulting with global experts and local governments, the state’s COVID Task Force developed five strategies to combat COVID-19 this winter as cases across the nation increase due to holiday travel, shopping, and gathering as well as cold weather, keeping people indoors.

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