Week XV: Travelers from states with COVID-19 surge must quarantine on arrival

ALBANY COUNTY — In March, Florida required New Yorkers, coming from the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, to quarantine for two weeks on arrival to the Sunshine State. Now, New York — along with New Jersey and Connecticut — is requiring visitors from Florida and other states with a high rate of COVID-19 to quarantine for two weeks on arrival here.

The announcement on Wednesday made jointly by the three governors — going into effect at midnight on June 24 — capped the 15th week of Albany County’s battle with the virus.

The self-quarantine for travelers comes against a backdrop of some southern and western states seeing large increases in coronavirus disease 2019 with two dozen states seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases.

The World Health Organization warned this week that the pandemic was entering a dangerous new phase as countries around the world reopen their economies, increasing risks. The federal government in the United States has left reopening plans up to individual states — the plans and the results vary widely.

On Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the virus in the United States is not under control, noting a surge in COVID-19 as some states reopened without sufficient plans for testing and tracking down contacts. He also said this is not a second wave of the disease but rather part of the first wave.

Both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy had announced on Friday an end to their daily press conferences on COVID-19 since numbers at the state and county had flattened.

Both leaders then commended citizens for stemming the spread of coronavirus and cautioned that the virus hasn’t gone away. Cuomo referenced the new words added to the state seal in April: e pluribus unum — out of many, one. 

“We didn’t just put the words on our state seal; we made the words come true,” he said on Friday. “We made the words come to life. In this crisis we were united, we were there one for another, we did act as one. It was extraordinary. I’ve never seen or felt anything like it. I ask myself and today I ask you: Why did it take a crisis to bring us together?”

He also said, “The only way forward is if I protect you and you protect me. I wear a mask for you and you wear a mask for me.”

On Wednesday, Cuomo announced that five of the state’s 10 regions — Central New York, the Finger Lakes, the Mohawk Valley, the North Country, and the Southern Tier — are on track to enter Phase 4 of reopening on Friday.

Cuomo also announced that, in Phase 4 of reopening, social gatherings of up to 50 people will be allowed and indoor religious gatherings will be allowed at up to 33 percent of an indoor site’s capacity.

Albany County, which is one of the eight counties in the Capital Region, is scheduled to begin Phase 4 on July 1.

But McCoy announced on Tuesday afternoon that the state has cut back on the businesses that can reopen at the start of the fourth and final stage.

The state is allowing, at the beginning of Phase 4, low-risk indoor and outdoor arts and entertainment, film and TV production, higher education, and professional sports without fans.

However, outdoor theme parks, indoor malls, gyms, and movie theaters have not yet been cleared to reopen at the beginning of Phase 4. They are to be authorized on an individual basis dependent on associated risk levels and the current health data.

“We are continuing to study malls, movie theaters, and gyms,” Cuomo said at his press briefing on Wednesday. “There’s new information that comes out on this virus every day and anyone who thinks this is a static situation is wrong ... We’re looking at what happened in other states. There are some reports that malls, bars, certain social clubs with air-conditioning that air-conditioning may not be cleansing the air of the virus and just recirculating the virus.”

Cuomo said that he had taken “the big political burden” off of local governments by having the state decide what closes and what opens and when.

But, he went on, “Local governments have a responsibility. They have to ensure compliance. Social distancing, mask-wearing, businesses following the rules. Bars, restaurants, people on sidewalks — local government has to do that.”

Cuomo also said on Wednesday that following data-based protocols to prevent the spread of the virus was good for the economy, and that the dichotomy between saving lives and saving businesses was false.

“The reopening, done smartly, done intelligently, done on the data, is better for the public health,” he said. “We saved lives, and it’s better for the economy. It was never a choice between saving lives and reopening the economy.

“It was always, you have to do both or you do neither. The concept that you could open recklessly, see the virus transmission go up, and think that was going to be good for the economy, was bizzaro land. And you see that today because you see states with an increase in viral spread; it’s up to about 27 states that now have an increase in the virus spread, and you see the stock market going down every time the virus goes up.”


Visitors quarantined

At Wednesday’s press briefing, Cuomo said that the coronavirus came to New York this winter when millions of European travelers flew here while the federal government was still focused on the virus coming from China.

“We had the highest numbers to deal with in the country and you look at where we are now; we did a full 180 degrees. We went from the highest cases, the highest viral transmission rate to some of the lowest rates in the country,” he said.

Cuomo commended the diligence of citizens and went on, “We also have to make sure the virus doesn’t come in on a plane again. We learned that lesson …  People coming in from states that have a high infection rate must quarantine for 14 days. We have a calibration for the infection rate and any state that goes over that infection rate, that state will be subject to the quarantine.”

He explained, “The infection rate formula will be 10 per 100,000 on the seven-day rolling average or 10 percent of the total population positive on a seven-day rolling average.”

As of Wednesday, Cuomo said, nine states were at that level: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington, Utah, and Texas.

New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut will continually update and publish on their websites a list of states to which the new advisory applies.

“A lot of people come into this region and they could literally bring the infection with them,” said Cuomo. “It wouldn’t be malicious or malevolent, but it would still be real.”


New York State “on track”

On Tuesday, Cuomo had cited a study by Covid Act Now, a multidisciplinary team of technologists, epidemiologists, health experts, and public policy leaders working to provide disease intelligence and data analysis on the coronavirus in the United States.

“New York State is one of only three states that are on track to contain the COVID-19 according to a study by Covid Act Now,” Cuomo said. “We went from one of the highest infection rates to one of the lowest and we did it by making decisions based on the science, the data and the facts — not on politics. 

 “New York is finally coming back and I can’t stress enough how important it is that we don’t blow this incredible progress now. To all New Yorkers — wear a mask, get tested, socially distance, wash your hands and be smart.”

The study is called “America’s warning system,” and is based on four indicators, some of which overlap with the metrics New York State is using for reopening. The four indicators are:

— Are COVID cases decreasing? Is the number of infections and deaths going down?

— Are we testing enough? Is COVID testing widespread enough to identify new cases?

— Are our hospitals ready? Do hospitals have capacity to treat a surge of COVID hospitalizations?

— Are we tracing fast enough? Are we finding and isolating most new cases before COVID spreads?

In a map of the nation, only three states — New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts — are designated as “on track to contain COVID.” All three of those states were hard hit with the disease in March as New York City was the epicenter.


Different from Florida

On Tuesday, Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen went over the latest data displayed on the county’s dashboard and the state’s COVID-19 Tracker.

“We’re flattening out,” Whalen said, noting, “Yesterday and today, we did not have any reported cases in Albany County.”

This trend is holding despite a large number of residents getting tested — 900 on June 22.

Whalen and McCoy had been concerned that the number of cases would spike after several weeks of people congregating to protest for racial justice and police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Whalen compared this to a state like Florida where people are congregating on beaches and the number of COVID-19 cases is increasing. 

“What are we doing here that is preventing us from having spread?” asked Whalen. She answered herself, “I believe masks make a difference.”

In looking at pictures of the protests, Whalen saw that most of the demonstrators had worn masks “and tried to be respectful of social distance — this does make a difference,” she said.

McCoy also stressed the importance of wearing masks. “We have gotten complaints of customers not wearing masks,” he said, as businesses have reopened. Cuomo issued an executive order that businesses can turn away customers not wearing masks.

“Just walk away,” McCoy urged those who are upset to see others without masks. “You’re not going to solve the issue by getting in a fight with somebody.”

He urged those who don’t want to wear masks to shop online. “We need to keep the numbers low,” he said, to get to Phase 4.

“Despite these numbers, COVID has not gone away and there is not a significant portion of Albany County that is immune, that has antibodies,” Whalen said. Aside from the “very low percentage,” which earlier antibody testing put at less than 3 percent in the Capital Region, Whalen said, “We’re not sure what protective significance that represents.”

She also said, “If we do have clusters, every case that gets reported to the county health department is followed up actively. If you get a call that you were a contact with a COVID case, please realize the importance in following the instructions that are provided to you about quarantine so you can prevent further spread in the county. It’s going to be essential.”

Finally, Whalen congratulated the public on following guidelines to wash hands, stay six feet from others, and wear a mask in public.

She also urged those with chronic health problems like diabetes or asthma to keep up with medical appointments and prescriptions, and she urged parents to make sure their children are current with vaccinations.


New numbers

As of Wednesday, Albany County has 1,865 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 149 residents under mandatory quarantine and none under precautionary quarantine.

The five-day average for new daily positive cases is now 3.6. There are currently 24 active cases of COVID-19. So far, 5,637 county residents have completed quarantine, with 1,841 of them having tested positive and recovered.

Six county residents are hospitalized, with one in an intensive-care unit. The county’s hospitalization rate is now 0.32 percent.

A woman in her seventies with underlying health conditions died on Tuesday of COVID-19, bringing Albany County’s death toll to 121.

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