Capital Region set to reopen once enough COVID tracers have signed on

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen points to a bar showing county residents with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the 20-to-29 age group is almost as long as for the 50-to-59 age group — both groups are much larger than any other age group.

ALBANY COUNTY — Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said at his Monday morning press briefing that the Capital Region will begin its Phase 1 reopening on Tuesday or Wednesday.

His announcement was followed by cautionary words from Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen.

“It does not mean coronavirus is gone,” she said. “We know that it’s still in the community. We know there is still a risk and, as we start to open, it’s very important that people are mindful of that.”

Whalen also noted that the state has expanded its criteria for people who can be tested for COVID-19 to include people who will be returning to work for Phase 1 businesses.

She strongly urged all those who qualify for testing to get tested.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday that, of the 10 regions in the state, six are now reopening, with Western New York added to the first five. The Central New York, North Country, Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, and Mohawk Valley regions had already met the seven required metrics to begin Phase 1 reopening..

The two problematic metrics for the Capital Region — on hospitalization and death rates — have been met. The remaining metric is for the region to supply 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents of the region, which McCoy believes will be easily met.

The eight-county Capital Region needs 387 tracers, McCoy said, and is 126 short. People can apply for the job through the state’s website and it pays $27 per hour, McCoy said. Candidates have to take a four-hour online training course and pass a test afterward with a grade of at least 85.

McCoy said that tracers will come from both the state’s application process and from the ranks of county workers such as emergency medical service technicians, firefighters, and other county jobs.

Whalen said the new ranks may provide some relief for staff in her department who have, since the outbreak began in early March in Albany County, been working nights and weekends to talk every person with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and reach out to that person’s contacts so they could be quarantined.

“It will be nice to have additional reinforcements,” she said.


Overall decreases

Another Albany County resident died on Sunday — a man in his 90s with underlying health issues, bringing the county’s death toll for COVID-19 to 69.

As of Monday morning, 1,478 Albany County residents have tested positive for COVID-19, an increase of 23 over the last 24 hours. The five-day average of daily new positive cases is now at 18.4.

Currently, 827 residents are under mandatory quarantine and six are under precautionary quarantine. So far, 3,885 individuals have completed quarantine, with 995 of them having tested positive and recovered. 

Twenty-nine county residents are hospitalized, with five in intensive-care units. The hospitalization rate for Albany County stands at 1.96 percent.

“Our trend is, we are overall seeing decreases,” said Whalen. She called it “encouraging” that, among the people tested for the disease in Albany County, the percentage who tested positive has gone down to 9.2 percent.

Both Whalen and McCoy stressed that, while the largest number of confirmed cases has occurred in the 50-to-59 age group, right behind is the 20-to-29 age group.

Young people can frequently be asymptomatic and unwittingly infect others with the disease. Most of the deaths have occured in people over the age of 75. Younger people with COVID-19 are rarely hospitalized and rarely die, Whalen said.

“These younger people that are infected with COVID-19 are likely causing infections in older individuals and this is where we see the disproportionate burden of death and disease,” said Whalen, pointing to the county’s data dashboard.

She stressed the importance of younger residents being “very vigilant when they’re out and about,” wearing masks and keeping at least six feet away from others.

“Because, really, it’s not just about yourself,” she said. “It’s about those that you care about, the older age group that will suffer a disproportionate burden of illness … and death if they contract this disease.”

Whalen went over the list of people who can be tested for COVID-19, in addition to the newly added Phase 1 workers — residents who have symptoms; who have been in contact with COVID-19 patients; who have been under quarantine; who work in health care, as a first responder, or who work in a nursing home; and who are considered essential workers interacting with the public.

Going forward, Whalen said, increasing testing is essential “so that we can rapidly identify and contain cases as they come up.” She went on, “I have no doubt that opening up will mean an increase in our cases. And our ability to control that is going to be essential to avoid hospital surge capacity and other issues.”

Further, she said, “In this world of instant gratification and instant need for data, we have said all along that what you do today will influence what happens in two weeks’ time. If we reopen on Wednesday, we will not expect to see changes in our data for two weeks.”

The incubation period for coronavirus disease 2019 is two days to two weeks. And the state’s four-phased reopening system allows for two weeks between each phase.

“We will not expect to see an uptick in deaths for four to five weeks,” said Whalen.

She also went over the measures that businesses need to take when they reopen, many of them outlined in the Capital Region’s reopening plan. (See related story.) These include wearing masks, leaving space between workstations, frequently disinfecting high-touch surfaces, handwashing frequently, and screening customers for fever and other symptoms.

“Everyone is very anxious for us to go back to things as they were before and, unfortunately, that’s not going to be a possibility for a very long time,” said Whalen. “So these measures are going to be essential for us being able to contain the situation we are faced with until such time as there is a widely available and safe vaccine.”

McCoy concluded, “If people do not do the right stuff … we can end up shutting down again.”

More Regional News

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.