Week XXVII: County works to contain UAlbany COVID-19 spike, NYSUT sues state over withheld aid

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
“A very busy graph” is how Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen described this day-by-day chart of positive COVID-19 test results for Albany County residents, starting in March. “One day is not a trend,” said Whalen. “We really need to look at data over four or five days.”

ALBANY COUNTY — The big news in Albany County’s 27th week of battling COVID-19 is an ongoing spike of cases among students at the University at Albany.

The big news statewide is that New York’s largest teachers’ union filed a suit against the state, claiming that the withholding of state aid to schools is unconstitutional, denying students the right to a sound basic education.

With no fifth federal stimulus package yet forthcoming, many schools that opened this week are hurting as 20 percent of state aid has been withheld.

On Tuesday, New York State United Teachers filed a lawsuit against the state; the governor; the state’s Division of Budget; and the budget director, Robert F. Mujica.

The suit, filed in Albany County Supreme Court, seeks the release of money withheld in July, August, and September and an injunction against future withholding of or delayed school funding payments.

“The Executive Branch’s withholding of appropriated State aid to the public schools constituted an unconstitutional usurpation of the Legislature’s power, in express violation of constitutional limitations on the Executive Branch’s ability to make amendments to appropriations 30 days after it has been submitted to the Legislature,” the suit says.

The suit alleges that unilateral executive power over the budget is unconstitutional and has led to cuts that deprive students of the right to “a sound basic education,” guaranteed by the state’s constitution.

Further, the suit claims some school districts have no more local resources to tap and are dependent on state funding. The lawsuit also points to the state’s ability to draw upon about $7 billion in reserves and settlement funds to avoid cuts.

The poorest 10 percent of school districts in New York receive some 80 percent of their funding from the state, while the richest 10 percent of districts receive only 10 percent of their funding from the state, according to NYSUT, which calculates that, over the course of the school year, the poorest 10 percent of districts would be in line to lose $847 million in state aid ($3,779 per pupil) with 20-percent cuts made across the board, while the richest 10 percent would lose $42 million ($458 per pupil).

NYSUT is the state’s largest union, representing about 600,000 teachers and school-related professionals.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has said for several months that, unless New York gets $30 billion in federal funds for the next two years, 20-percent cuts will have to be made to government programs, including schools.

In passing the current state budget, in the midst of the pandemic, the legislature granted unusual power to the governor to make mid-year cuts.

In recent weeks, state legislators, including Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy who represents parts of Albany County, have called for further taxes on the wealthy to be able to better fund schools, most notably the high-need districts that have been severely impacted by the cuts.

“If Washington does not step up to the plate here and get us financial aid, we’re going to be in a whole world of hurt for a long time,” Cuomo said on Tuesday, talking to Jay Oliver on Long Island News Radio.

Cuomo said further that raising taxes is not the answer. “It puts the state at a competitive disadvantage because other people can go to other states and taxes are very high in the state to begin with.”

The HEROES Act, passed by the Democratic House of Representatives in May continues to languish. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act would deliver about $1.3 billion in local government funding to Capital Region communities as well as $58 billion for America’s public schools.

The “skinny” plan recently proposed by the Republicans — with no funds for state and local governments — was a non-starter with the Democrats.

On Wednesday, the New York State Association of Counties commended the bipartisan Congressional Problem Solver Caucus for its framework for a COVID-19 stimulus relief package that would help states, counties, and other local governments.

“Without a comprehensive relief package, counties will be hard-pressed to continue providing critical public health protections, mental health and substance abuse services, senior services, veterans programs, and critical infrastructure projects designed to maintain our roads, bridges, and clean water systems,” said John F. Marren, NYSAC president, in a statement. “Counties need this federal funding to prevent state budget cuts, continue to respond to the pandemic, and to prevent job losses and cuts in services for the most vulnerable populations in our communities.”


Spike at UAlbany

UAlbany COVID-19 cases have been reported by Albany County every day since Friday when the county’s executive, Daniel McCoy, sounded the alarm. Eleven new cases were reported on Wednesday morning, seven of them of UAlbany students.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the tracker set up by the state for its 64 colleges and universities to report daily on testing and new cases showed UAlbany with a total of 88 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

According to an executive order, once a college or university reaches 100 cases — among students, staff, and faculty — over a two-week period, classes have to be given entirely remotely for a pause period.

This order is being interpreted differently by various officials. The state tracker itself is set up in discreet two-week periods. 

In this way, SUNY Oswego, for example, has remained open, reporting 96 cases in that first two-week period and 78 so far in the second two-week period.

However, Elizabeth Whalen, Albany County’s health commissioner, said on Tuesday, “From our perspective, we look at this as a rolling two weeks.” She said this makes sense “from an epidemiologic point of view and from a logic point of view.”

She also said that the number her department is carefully watching is of the students who live on campus or attend classes on campus. “We are seeing the majority of cases in students that live off-campus,” Whalen said. The way her health department defines “off-campus” is for students that not only live off-campus but do not go to campus for class or for any other reason.

On Friday, McCoy told the press that, in less than 48 hours, there had been a spike of 31 cases of COVID-19 among UAlbany students, with the majority traced back to athletes and to off-campus housing in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany. The 12203 ZIP code remains the area in the county with the most number of cases.

Asked what would happen if in-person classes were canceled but students remained in off-campus housing where they may gather, McCoy said that Albany’s mayor, Kathy Sheehan, has “made an initiative to break these parties up.” The Albany Police Department, McCoy said, is “making sure there’s no more than 20 people together.”

A July 4 weekend party on Hudson Avenue in Albany attracted about 200 college-age people, who didn’t wear masks and didn’t stay six feet from one another, resulting in close to 50 COVID-19 cases. At that time, officials stressed there were no penalties; rather, the emphasis was on getting the party-goers to come forward and be tested.

The university’s president, Havidán Rodríguez, said on Friday that “student ambassadors” and staff from the university’s Division of Student Affairs are “walking the streets, trying to discourage this sort of behavior.”

“We’re at a critical moment here,” McCoy said on Friday. “We need people’s help and we need to have these students continue to come forward to identify places they have been.”

Rodríguez said “strong measures” were being taken and any student in violation of the university’s code of conduct or of the pledge students signed before coming to the campus would be immediately suspended.

However, the number of students testing positive has continued to grow, making up the majority of new cases in the county each day this week.

On Monday, McCoy said, “We need to reverse this trend before the school is forced to shut down and this outbreak spreads beyond the campus and student housing into the larger Albany County and Capital Region communities.”

Colleges and universities, trying to stay afloat financially, have been criticized by some health-care experts for having students back on campus and then sending them home when they become ill with COVID-19.

“It’s the worst thing you could do,” said Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s leading infectious-disease expert, on NBC. “When you send them home, particularly when you’re dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection.”

After more than 500 SUNY Oneonta students tested positive for COVID-19, the campus stopped in-person teaching and sent the students home.

The SUNY COVID-19 Tracker says Oneonta had 646 cases between Aug. 28 and Sept. 11.

Statewide, the tracker says that 70,827 tests have been administered at colleges and universities and 657 have tested positive. It also says 5,132 rooms for on-campus quarantine are available with 606 rooms currently in use.

At UAlbany, the tracker said on Wednesday afternoon, 60 of the 230 rooms available were in use for quarantine, and another 35 students are isolating off-campus.

On Tuesday, as McCoy has done many times before, he pointed to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard and noted the bar graph showing that the most cases are among the 20-to-29 age group. In less than two weeks, since Aug. 31, that number had gone up by 36 to 576.

Speaking to young adults, McCoy said, “You’re spreading it to people that can end up in the hospital or worst-case scenario, end up passing away.”

He had started the briefing by announcing the county’s 134th death from coronavirus disease 2019: A man in his seventies with underlying health conditions died of COVID-19 over the weekend.



Across New York this past week, numbers were mostly good. On Saturday, Cuomo announced a new record-high number of daily test results — 102,925 — had been reported to New York State on Friday.

On Monday, Cuomo announced the 38th straight day with a statewide infection rate below 1 percent. But on Tuesday, that run was broken with a rate of 1.04 percent. On Wednesday, the infection rate statewide had dropped below 1 percent again, to 0.87 percent.  

 “The rule is you don’t want to go over 1-percent infection rate, okay? That’s the rule,” Cuomo told Oliver Tuesday on Long Island News Radio. “Open as many things as you can to stay at 1 percent and that’s what I’m doing.”

Cuomo went on, “We don’t have a lot of flexibility here. Some parts of the state are over 1. And we have 0.9, 0.92, we’re right there, so I have my foot as far down on the gas pedal as I can push it without going over the speed limit. And if we’re good on the social-distancing and the schools don’t explode and colleges don’t explode and flu season doesn’t complicate it, I have my foot on the pedal as far as I can to keep it just at 1. And you’ll see, we’ll go over 1 a little bit, we’re under 1 a little bit, but we’re at the maximum capacity now.”

Throughout the week, Cuomo continued to announce actions taken by the State Liquor Authority and State Police Task force, most all of them downstate. One was in the Capital Region, the Schenectady Wolff’s Biergarten.

Owner Matt Baumgartner wrote to patrons, “As a business owner who voluntarily chose to close down all 4 Wolff’s Biergartens this summer, I take the health of my customers and my coworkers very seriously … To suspend our liquor license implies we are running a bar that is flagrantly and constantly ignoring the rules. We are not.

On Tuesday, Cuomo announced that six states — California, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada and Ohio — have been removed from New York State’s COVID-19 travel advisory. The Northern Mariana Islands have also been removed. Puerto Rico has been added. 

Also on Tuesday, the state changed its guidance for nursing-home visits to conform with new federal standards. Beginning on Sept. 17, visitors are allowed 14 days from the last positive COVID-19 test for a nursing-home worker or resident rather than having to wait, as now, for 28 days.

Visitors must be over 18 and have had a negative COVID-19 test within seven days. They must also wear masks and pass a temperature and symptoms check before visiting. No more than a 10th of the residents can have visitors at the same time and only two visitors are allowed for each resident.

McCoy had said earlier that not a single nursing home in the county has been able to admit visitors.

 “This change will go a long way in advancing the physical and psychological well‐being of nursing home residents, their families and our staff,” said Stephen Hanse in a statement. He is the president and chief executive officer of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living , a statewide association representing over 425 long‐term care facilities.

“It has been since early March of this year that nursing home residents have been unable to receive visitors in person because of the COVID‐19 pandemic,” Hanse went on. “While nursing homes and their residents have become highly skilled at using various digital communication platforms to connect with loved ones, digital interaction doesn’t compare to the joy of in-person interaction.


Newest numbers

As of Wednesday morning, Albany County has 2,725 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of 11 since Tuesday. All 11 had close contact with someone infected with the disease.

There are 571 county residents under quarantine, up from 507 on Tuesday. The five-day average for new daily positives dropped to 19.6 from 22. There are now 117 active cases in the county, down from 129 yesterday.

So far, 10,751 county residents have completed quarantine. Of those who completed quarantine, 2,608 of them had tested positive and recovered.

Seven Albany County residents are hospitalized with COVID-19, down from 10 on Tuesday. The hospitalization rate is now down to 0.25 percent from 0.36 percent.

The county’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 134.

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