‘Colleges are the canary in the coal mine,' says Governor

Jim Malatras

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Jim Malatras, the new chancellor of the state university system, spoke last week at the University at Albany, saying the goal is “make sure our students have a robust educational opportunity in a safe way.” 

ALBANY COUNTY — Statewide and locally, the numbers for COVID-19 cases generally are good while the numbers for finances are dire.

On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo and labor leaders sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation, saying, “Even if state and local governments cut expenses, increase taxes, and reduced services, the revenue shortfall would still be in the billions of dollars.

“Moreover, forcing state and local governments to take such actions would only further the pain and extend the period of time for the nation's economy to recover. Virtually all economists agree that forcing state and local governments to lay off employees and reduce services will negatively impact the national recovery.”

Cuomo for months has been saying that New York State requires $30 billion during the current fiscal year and next to avoid massive disruption.

Just as local schools are about to open, they are being hit with 20 percent of their state aid being withheld.

As Cuomo painted a dire picture on Monday of state finances without federal aid, he presented a glowing picture of how New Yorkers had flattened the curve on COVID-19. He said that hospitalizations and ICU patients have dropped to new lows statewide.

Cuomo said Monday that results on tests remained under 1 percent, at 0.9 percent statewide. The Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, had a rate of 0.6 percent. The North Country, as usual, has the lowest rate of the state’s 10 regions: 0.2 percent.

Central New York, Long Island, and Mid-Hudson all have rates over 1 percent. The highest is Western New York at 2 percent.

“Western New York still has a caution flag flying,” said Cuomo on a conference call with the press on Monday. Extra testing had been set up there and Cuomo called on local governments to respond.

Cuomo also announced on Monday that the day before just one New Yorker had died of coronavirus disease 2019. “That is the lowest number we’ve ever had …,” he said. “There was a time when we were going through this when we literally had hundreds of people dying every day.”

He praised residents for following strict policies and said, “New Yorkers have saved tens of thousands of lives.”


School concerns

Cuomo also said, “I believe colleges are the canary in the coal mine.”

Miners would carry caged birds into the tunnels so that, if a bird died of toxic gases, the miners would be warned to leave before they, too, succumbed.

Cuomo went on, “Either the college administration is rigorous and disciplined in their administration of the precautions, or the viral transmission rate goes up and then the college has to close and go to remote learning.”

Cuomo said that he believes that what is happening with colleges reopening will be replicated when public schools open shortly.

“It is inevitable that, when you bring a concentration of people together, the viral transmission is going to go up,” he said. “The question will become, like on colleges, how well did that administration actually enforce compliance and what was their parameter for number of students infected before the school takes quarantine measures, goes to remote learning, etc.?”

Cuomo said that local and state governments could become involved with an outbreak of COVID-19 at a school. “A local government could close a school district, or the state could close a school district, but school districts would be well-advised to look at what’s happening in colleges,” he said.

Jim Malatras, the new chancellor of the state university system, spoke to the press on a conference call with the governor on Sunday. He reported that there had been over 100 positive tests for COVID-19 at SUNY Oneonta, which is about 3 percent of the total student and faculty population. Hence, he said, the Central New York campus is being closed for two weeks.

“We will assess the situation working with the state and local health departments after two weeks,” said Malatras. He said the two-week closure is needed “to show folks that this can spread quickly and we have to address it quickly.”

Malatras also said, “We understand people want to party. But individual responsibility plays into the collective good, so your individual actions have enormous consequences on everyone else in your college community.”

He noted that five Oneonta students had been suspended for holding parties against the college policy. Three campus organizations were also suspended, he said.

“We had to suspend 43 students at SUNY Plattsburgh for similar things because we have to address this during the new-normal,” said Malatras. Plattsburgh is in Clinton County in the North Country.

Cuomo noted on Sunday, “There are already 25 colleges across the country that are having significant issues, over 250 cases …. If you don’t enforce the precautions, then the virus spreads and then you have to take more dramatic action which is more disruptive and generates a more energy, a more negative energy.”

Besides the benefits of in-person learning, part of the reason colleges have opened is economic pressure. Public school systems are under economic pressure as well since many parents depend on them in order to go to work.

Cuomo said on Monday’s conference call, “I want as much economic activity as quickly as possible. We also want to make sure the transmission rate stays under control. That is the tension.”

He was talking about the pressure to fully open restaurants and casinos, but the same tension applies to opening schools.

On Sunday, Cuomo urged public schools, “Err on the side of caution. If you go to in-person education and you are not prepared or you can’t actually implement the plan and do it on day one, you will see the numbers go up and then you’ll see more disruption …. Everybody is anxious to get back to school. I get it. But everybody should be anxious to get back to a safe school, right?”

Another concern with schools reopening is, as Howard Zucker, the state’s health commissioner, put it during Sunday’s conference call, that flu season is just around the coroner. 

Zucker said the health department is putting out regulations on Monday saying that all deaths involving respiratory illnesses need to be tested for COVID-19 and for the flu.

“This will maintain the integrity of our data,” he said. “It will remove any reporting of presumed cases.”

Zucker also urged everyone to get a flu shot.


Albany County numbers

On Saturday, Aug. 29, the Albany County executive’s office announced that another resident died of COVID-19. She was a woman in her eighties with underlying health conditions.

This brings the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 133.

As of Monday morning, Albany County has 2,521 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of nine since Sunday. Five of the new cases had close contact with people who had contracted COVID-19, two are healthcare workers or residents of private congregate settings, and two did not have a clear source of infection that has been traced at this time.

 Additionally, the number county residents under quarantine has decreased to 441 from 483. The five-day average for new daily positives has dropped to 9.4 from 10.8 yesterday.

Albany County now has 54 active cases, up from 49 a day ago. So far, 9,617 residents have completed quarantine. Of those who completed quarantine, 2,467 of them had tested positive and recovered.

Eleven Albany County residents remain hospitalized, with one in an intensive-care unit. The hospitalization rate for the county remains at 0.43 percent.

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