Week XXXI: Fall surge becoming a reality in Albany County as gov cracks down on downstate clusters

Albany County residents

— From the Albany County COVID-19 Dashboard
Daily counts of Albany County residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 since March show that current rates are less than half of the peak in May. The July spike followed a Fourth of July weekend party where about 200 college-age people gathered without masks, resulting in nearly 50 related cases.

ALBANY COUNTY — The governor is cracking down on schools and communities downstate that are not following regulations for containing clusters of COVID-19 while Albany County officials, in their 31st week of coping with the virus, are watching those downstate clusters and urging vigilance here.

On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that $20,000 in fines are being sought against organizers of a Southampton concert in July, featuring the Chainsmokers band. The concert was attended by over 2,000 people and mask-wearing was not enforced, according to the governor’s office.

Cuomo also announced that state aid would be withheld from schools that remain open in so-called “red zones,” where the virus is prevalent, and, further, that municipalities in those red zones that are not enforcing closures will also have state aid withheld.

Republican Robert Ortt, the minority leader in the State Senate, from western New York, responded with a statement criticizing Cuomo’s “unchecked powers” — both houses are, like the governor, Democratic — and said, “State aid to localities helps businesses, schools and residents across the state — all struggling to survive. Withholding local funding will only further raise taxes and is further evidence that it’s time to rescind the governor’s broad emergency powers.”

Last week, Cuomo had enacted a Cluster Action Initiative that designated red zones — largely in Brooklyn and Queens in New York City and in Orange and Rockland counties — where schools were to close, gatherings are restricted, and only essential businesses can stay open.

The red zones, for dramatic action within the cluster, are surrounded by orange zones with fewer cases and lesser restrictions to stop the spread, and finally by yellow zones in the outlying communities where less strict, precautionary actions are taken. The state has mapped the zones on its website, where one can type in addresses to find out if they are in or near one of the zones.

The restrictions are for two weeks. If cases drop, regulations will be relaxed; if they go up, regulations will increase, Cuomo said. “We can distinguish block by block and we will,” he said in a conference call with the press on Wednesday.

“Enforcement from the local governments is very uneven especially when it’s politically sensitive,” said Cuomo. “And that’s what we’re running into with a lot of these ultra-Orthodox communities, who are also very politically powerful, don’t kid yourself.”

He also told the press, “We know there were violations where yeshivas were operating; we know there were religious gatherings happening that exceeded guidelines.”

Cuomo announced Wednesday that the rate of infection, from test results returned on Tuesday, was 6.29 percent in the red zones. He stressed, as he has every day this week, that the red-zone areas are home to 2.8 percent of the state’s population. Yet, based on Tuesday’s test results, those zones had 15.6 percent of all positive cases in New York State.

Without the red zones included, the statewide positivity rate would be 0.95 percent, Cuomo said. He noted that the oversampling in the red zones skews the statewide results, which, including the red zones, is at 1.1 percent.

Across New York, seven of the state’s 10 regions have a positivity rate, based on Tuesday’s test results, of 1 percent or greater; this includes the Capital Region at 1.2 percent.

Cuomo last Thursday had announced fines for mass gatherings were increased, and someone not wearing a mask in public could be fined $1,000. He continued to urge local police to enforce the regulations and, citing the success of the state task force — with the State Liquor Authority and State Police — in making over 100,000 compliance checks on bars and restaurants, said the state’s health department would be involved in enforcement, too.

Cuomo announced last Friday that COVID-19 rapid-result testing will be made available to every county in the state. The state’s health department will deploy an initial 400,000 rapid-result test kits free of charge to local health departments, hospitals, pharmacies, and other health-care providers. Results are available within 15 minutes and without having to send a specimen to a lab.

The state’s health department will prioritize the distribution of testing kits to counties and local health-care providers in areas seeing recent upticks in cases. The rapid tests can be used to control new outbreaks, conduct surveillance testing, and will also be made available as needed to help schools in yellow zones test students and staff as part of new requirements in the Cluster Action Initiative.

Twenty percent of students, teachers, and staff who are in-person in schools located within yellow zones are to be tested once a week, starting on Friday, Oct. 16. All results must be reported promptly to the state’s health department and will be made available on the COVID Report Card dashboard.

Orthodox Jewish communities are at the center of several of the clusters, and protesters — many without masks —have taken to the streets in Brooklyn this week to object to the new restrictions.

Cuomo, in his conference call with the press last Thursday, noted that the initial statewide shutdown in March of businesses, schools, and houses of worship was absolute.

“Closing down is more dramatic than the current rule,” Cuomo said on his conference call. “Why are they so upset about the current rule when there was a previous rule that was more dramatic? Because the previous rules were never enforced, that’s why. That’s why this rule seems harsh because they never followed the first rules and because they were never enforced ….

“We didn’t have enough testing and enough data to actually zero in on 6 percent of the population before. The longer you don’t follow the rule, the higher the infection rate spreads and the more obvious it becomes.”

On Sunday, in another conference call with the press, Cuomo praised New York’s approach of frequent testing; the state has conducted 12 million COVID-19 tests so far. He said the large number of tests allows the state to attack specific clusters.

“A rifle is more targeted than a shotgun, right?” said Cuomo. “Other states see the statewide number increase, and then they have to do statewide closings because they can’t target the clusters.”

He went on, “You don’t enforce a law, the law is useless. It accomplishes nothing. It actually accomplishes a negative. The negative is: People see that law isn’t enforced, they dismiss the law.”

Cuomo also said, “The hotspot clusters, as you know, are primarily in the Hassidic community …. I understand the desire to hold large religious ceremonies. I understand that. I understand how important it is to their culture and to their religion. I also understand that it, as a matter of fact, jeopardizes human life.”

He concluded, “I say to my friends in the Hassidic community, the Hebrew faith teaches us pikuach nefesh which means, save a life. Under the Hebrew teachings, participation in a religious ceremony can be excused for matters of health and life and safety. Leviticus: Love your neighbors, yourself, and the point here is to save a life and not to endanger others, not to endanger others in the same congregation, not to endanger others in the same community, and that’s what is happening with these large congregations.”

“There are some states that have followed the politics of denial and have turned it into science fiction,” he said. “The theory was: If you test less, you will find fewer cases, and if you find fewer cases, you have less of a problem. That’s almost a laughable concept.”

New York State, Cuomo said, is doing the exact opposite, continuing to ramp up its testing. So, in general, as the statewide infection rate in New York hovers around 1 percent, he said, the so-called “hotspots” in New York would be considered cool spots or safe numbers in states like Texas, which is at 7.6, or Pennsylvania, which is at 7.

On Sunday, New York State’s overall percentage of positive test results for COVID-19 had dropped below 1 percent for the first time since Sept. 24, after a streak below that target.

On Tuesday, Cuomo announced that three states — Ohio, Michigan, and Virginia — have been added to New York State’s COVID-19 travel advisory. No areas have been removed. The advisory requires individuals who have traveled to New York from areas with significant community spread to quarantine for 14 days.

Cuomo also said on Monday that the autumn, as projected, has brought on increases in COVID-19 cases across the nation. He stressed that this is not a “second wave,” which is when a virus mutates and comes back.

“We’re still in the first wave, and this is just an inability to deal with the first wave nationwide ...,” said Cuomo. “So, I think it’s realistic to say, at least for a year, you will be dealing with COVID. That’s without the mutated virus, et cetera, and that may be an optimistic scenario.”

Even once an effective vaccine is developed, he said, it will take time to get enough people to take it to make it safe for resuming normal life.

 

Albany County

Albany County’s health commissioner said last Friday that the expected fall surge is becoming a reality.

Another county resident — a woman in her seventies — died of COVID-19 last Friday, the county’s executive, Daniel McCoy, announced on Saturday morning.

Her death brings the county’s death toll from the coronavirus 2019 disease to 136.

“We all need to realize our individual behavior will play into what happens in the coming days and weeks,” said the county’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, at last Friday morning’s press briefing.

McCoy noted that, since his last briefing the week before, on Oct. 2, the number of county residents hospitalized with COVID-19 had doubled — from four patients with one of them in intensive care, to eight patients with two of them in intensive care.

“That’s the number we look at,” he said of control-room conversations where state and local leaders discuss progress in and problems with containing the disease.

“If the hospitalization continues to go up, they’re going to start shutting things down again,” said McCoy. “We need to keep things open.”

On Wednesday morning, Mccoy reported that seven county residents are now hospitalized with the coronavirus disease 2019; three of them are in an intensive-care unit. The county’s hospitalization rate stands at 0.21 percent.

Since Oct. 2, the county has had 144 new cases, McCoy said on Oct. 9.

While he believes students at the University of Albany have been educated about the need to wear masks and avoid gathering — “They’re starting to do the right thing,” he said — so far there have been 197 cases of COVID-19 associated with UAlbany, McCoy said last Friday.

As of this Wednesday evening, the State University of New York COVID-19 Tracker showed an estimated 170 cases at the UAlbany campus since the tally began on Aug. 28.

The university system is tracking cases in discrete two-week periods; if there are 100 cases within those two weeks, the campus must move to online classes for two weeks.

The tracker now shows six COVID-19 cases at UAlbany since the most recent two-week period began on Oct. 10. It also shows that 23 of the 230 rooms set aside at UAlbany for quarantine are now in use.

McCoy said last Friday that the economy needs to get up and running and that he’s “really worried” about the economy in 2022. He noted that, when residents run out of unemployment benefits, they turn to food stamps and other county programs, which have doubled or tripled since last year, McCoy said.

Whalen noted how Cuomo has been focusing on hotspots for the disease. She said of Albany County, “If the numbers do go up, we are facing more shutdowns.”

As of Wednesday morning, the county reported it now has 3,229  confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 22 new cases since Tuesday. Among the new cases, 12 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, one reported out-of-state travel, one is a healthcare worker or a resident of a congregate setting, and eight did not have a clear source of transmission detected at this time. Separately, three of the new cases are associated with UAlbany.

Additionally, the number of county residents under mandatory quarantine has dropped to 870 from 885. It had been as high as 1,000 earlier in the week.

The five-day average for new daily positives decreased slightly to 16 from 16.8. There are now 101 active cases in the county, up from 99 on Tuesday.

So far, 14,015 county residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 3,128 had tested positive and recovered.

Whalen urged businesses and schools not just to have policies in place — for example for mask-wearing or temperature-taking before entry — but to enforce those policies.

Whalen termed it a “culture change.”

“Finally,” Whalen said, “The governor has been stressing enforcement … We need to double down when we hear about large gatherings or we hear about risks going on in the community.”

She urged, “Please take this very seriously.”

More Regional News

  • Once the state hits the 70-percent mark, the governor said, “We can lift the capacity restriction, social distancing, the hygiene protocols, the health screenings, the potential tracing. Masks will only be required as recommended by the CDC.” 

  • The state’s new rules, for indoors, “strongly encourage” but do not require masks for students or campers and staff who are not fully vaccinated. Outdoors, masks are not required although students, campers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated are “encouraged” to wear a mask in certain higher-risk circumstances. Both indoors and outdoors, students, campers, and staff who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks. Finally, schools and camps may choose to implement stricter standards.

  • “We’ll start small and we’ll work our way up,” said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple. “I firmly believe, if we can knock off a lot of the low-level stuff, a lot of the big stuff will take care of itself. And we want the criminals to know you are not welcome in the city of Albany.”

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