Week XXXIII: Despite autumn uptick, NYS rates for COVID-19 among lowest in nation

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Albany Medical Center has taken care of 472 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 since March 11, according to Dennis McKenna, president and chief executive officer of Albany Med. There has been a recent uptick in new COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions across the region.

ALBANY COUNTY — The upcoming presidential election has, in part, become a referendum on the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Albany County, in its 33rd week of dealing with the pandemic, has suffered two more deaths, increased cases, and more hospitalizations.

But, like most of New York State, the numbers pale compared to those in other parts of the nation. Hospitalizations across the country have climbed nearly 50 percent from a month ago as some regions, particularly in the midwest, have reached hospital capacity. A record 500,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported nationwide this week.

As President Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, falsely attributes the spike in cases to more testing, New York State continues to ramp up its testing. In both of his press conferences this week on COVID-19, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy continued to urge all residents to get tested, whether they are showing symptoms or not.

This week, McCoy also highlighted troubling side effects of the coronavirus shutdown, including an increase in domestic violence and an increase in deaths from drug overdoses in the county (see related story).

Congress Paul Tonko, a Democratic representing the Capital Region, who is up for re-election, issued a review this week, calling out failures of the Trump administration in failing to follow basic scientific integrity standards in managing the pandemic. 

“While a lack of baseline standards, enforcement of and coordination of scientific integrity standards has long undermined the work and credibility of our federal efforts, the response of our public agencies to the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the price of these violations in terms of avoidable sickness, suffering and lives lost,” Tonko, lead sponsor of the Scientific Integrity Act in the House, wrote in an Oct. 27 letter to Kelvin K. Droegemeier, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In his letter, Tonko lists seven instances “of political interference in the federal scientific enterprise.”

“For the good of the country and the credibility of our federal pandemic response,” Tonko urged Droegemeier’s office to “take steps to ensure scientific integrity is protected and strengthened for the duration of this crisis and beyond.”

Also this week, Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Democratic governor, continued to urge using science rather than politics to combat the coronavirus. 

In a conference call with reporters last Thursday, Cuomo spoke about news reports that the secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, is considering firing the director of the Food and Drug Administration, Steve Hahn.

“You don’t make governmental decisions based on the election calendar …,” said Cuomo. “You especially don’t decide that a vaccine is safe to take based on an election calendar. For Azar to say he’s going to fire Hahn because he hasn’t been compliant with the political gospel of the Trump administration, that is unethical.”

Cuomo urged, “Save your soul, Dr. Hahn.”

On Sunday, in another conference call with reporters, Cuomo took to task President Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, for saying earlier in the day, “We are not going to control the pandemic.”

The rest of Meadows’s comment to CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” was, “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics, and other mitigation areas.”

Cuomo told the reporters on his Sunday conference call, “If you believed you could control it, then you’d try to control it; if you don’t believe you can control it, then you lie about it and deny it and you minimize it.”

He went on, about New York State, “When you go from the highest infection rate in the country to one of the lowest, it means you controlled the virus ….  Flattening the curve is controlling the virus. ‘Controlling’ is a different word than ‘eliminating.’ We controlled the virus ….”

He concluded, “They surrendered without firing a shot. It was the great American surrender. Americans don’t surrender. And they didn’t even put up a fight and what we learned in New York was, if you put up a fight, you would have won because New York won. Other states won also.”

At a press conference on Monday, Cuomo sounded the same theme he had on Sunday — that the federal government has not tried to contain COVID-19.

“If you believe you can’t control it, then you don’t even try,” he said.

He also reiterated a theme from months ago, that the federal government believes there are only two options: to close down the economy or to let the virus spread. Since President Trump is “all about the economy,” he let the virus spread, Cuomo said.

Cuomo also said a third option is the one New York State followed: “You can control the spread of the virus by having a phased economic reopening … it was never binary.”

On Wednesday, Cuomo announced that New York has the second-lowest positivity rate for COVID-19 of any state in the nation, based on research done by Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The center notes that, On May 12, the World Health Organization advised governments that, before reopening, rates of positivity in testing (that is, out of all tests conducted, how many came back positive for COVID-19) should remain at 5 percent or lower for at least 14 days.

Based on a seven-day rolling average, Mississippi had the highest rate at 100 percent, followed by South Dakota at 43.44 percent, Idaho at 34.81 percent, Wyoming at 31.61 percent, and Wisconsin at 27.96 percent.

The lowest of any state is Maine at 0.77 percent. New York is second lowest at 1.39 percent. Two other states — Massachusetts and New Hampshire as well as the District of Columbia, had rates below 2 percent.

Altogether 15 states and the District of Columbia were below the 5-percent threshold set by the World Health Organization.

On Wednesday’s call with reporters, Cuomo continues to credit the state’s micro-cluster strategy for keeping rates down.

In Brooklyn and Queens in New York City; in Orange and Rockland counties in the Mid-Hudson region; and in Broome, Steuben, and Chemung counties near the Pennsylvania border, zones have been set up where large numbers of tests are given and restrictions are imposed.

“We’re playing Whac-A-Mole with the micro-clusters,” Cuomo said again on Wednesday. “You get a micro-cluster that flares up, we attack it, more restrictions, it drops, another micro-cluster pops up and what we're seeing obviously nationwide is a very threatening rate of increase, and so far, knock wood, New York has defied that rate of increase.”

Based on test results from Tuesday, the positivity rate for the micro-cluster areas was 3.8 percent. Statewide, including those areas, the rate was 1.5 percent.

 

Holiday guidance

McCoy worried, during his Monday press conference, that, with cold weather approaching, Albany County could be heading for a second apex of COVID-19 infections.

“I’m scared as hell,” he said. “Thanksgiving is around the corner.”

He advised, with the holiday season approaching, that residents need to remain vigilant. He himself is going to celebrate Thanksgiving just with his nuclear family, McCoy said.

On Wednesday, Cuomo told reporters on his conference call that scientists had predicted the virus would spread more rapidly in the fall. He stressed that, while New York has a travel advisory list, “There’s no travel ban.”

California was added to New York’s travel advisory list this week. The advisory requires people who have traveled to New York from areas with significant community spread to quarantine for 14 days. 

Neighboring Massachusetts now meets the criteria for the travel advisory. But like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, which met the criteria last week, Massachusetts is not added to the list. 

Given the interconnected nature of the region and that travelers typically drive, rather than fly, to New York from these states, the governor has said having them on the list is not viable.

However, New York State highly discourages, to the extent practical, non-essential travel between New York and Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania while those states meet the travel advisory criteria.

On Wednesday, Cuomo said that, while New Yorkers can travel wherever they want for Thanksgiving, “My personal advice is, you don’t have family gatherings. Even for Thanksgiving … The best way to say, I’m thankful for you and love you so much ... I don’t want to endanger you and I don’t want to endanger our family and I don’t want to endanger our friends. So, we will celebrate virtually, but that is my personal opinion. Factually and legally, New Yorkers can travel wherever they want.”

Cuomo also noted that, while New York State has cracked down on large gatherings, “We’re now getting it from small gatherings.” He noted that a wedding in the Genesee-Orleans area with just 18 people resulted in 15 cases of COVID-19, that a church in rural Lewis County had 57 cases from one gathering, and that a birthday party in Suffolk resulted in 22 positives.

At a press conference held Wednesday at Albany Medical Center, featuring leaders from a half-dozen local hospitals, Alan Sanders with St. Peter’s Health Partners said the area would be battling the coronavirus through Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas — and on into the new year. He advised families to make plans to get together virtually rather than in person.

The doctors also stressed the importance of getting a flu vaccine and of not delaying routine medical care.

The state’s Division of Consumer Protection and Department of Health put out guidelines on Wednesday for a safe Halloween. The guidelines, posted on the health department’s website, stress Halloween activities that avoid gatherings, keep people six feet from each other, and include wearing a mask as well as washing hands.

 

Masks

At Monday’s press conference, Cuomo spoke of the worth of mask-wearing, and said New York was the first state to require it, as he announced a campaign launched by his daughter, Mariah Kennedy-Cuomo.

Governor Cuomo said that 98 or 99 percent of New Yorkers wear masks. “Because they’re smart and they heard the facts, and they care about one another, and they care about themselves,” he said.

As a volunteer, Kennedy-Cuomo worked with The RealReal and dozens of New York fashion designers for a “Mask Up” campaign. The campaign will raise funds for communities impacted by COVID-19 by donating mask profits to three charities working in New York and across the country to help people in need: Feeding America, Nurse Heroes, and the New York COVID Relief Fund.

“All are invited to join,” said the governor, urging, “Post a selfie and challenge five friends to do the same.”

“We hope to harness the power of the fashion community to convey this critical, but simple message of the importance of masking up to stop the spread and save lives,” said Mariah Kennedy-Cuomo.

She appeared Wednesday on ABC’s  Good Morning America to promote the campaign.

Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa said on the show that Cuomo’s April 15 mask mandate had made a difference in New York. “We’ve got 99 percent of the economy open, and our deaths daily have dropped to between two and 12 versus where we were back in April ... The science is clear. According to IHME [Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation], 163,000 lives in this country could be saved between now and the beginning of February if everyone were to take that advice from Dr. Fauci and other doctors and scientists, and mask up.”

Also on Wednesday, Cuomo announced that county and state governments could impose restrictions on schools in their jurisdictions that masks must be worn. “It will be up to the county government, it will be up to a city government if they want to impose a mask mandate on students in their schools,” he told reporters during his conference call.

 

Newest numbers

Albany County’s COVID-19 death toll rose to 140 this week. A woman in her nineties who lived in a nursing home died of the disease as did a man in his fifties who did not live in a nursing home.

The Capital Region on Wednesday, based on Tuesday’s test results, had a positivity rate of 1.1 percent. Only two of the state’s 10 regions had a rate below the targeted 1 percent: the Mohawk Valley at 0.9 percent, and the North Country at 0.5 percent.

On Wednesday morning, McCoy’s office announced 22 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the county’s total to 3,508.

Of the new cases, 11 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, two are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings, and nine did not have a clear source of infection identified at this time.

Currently, 1,161 county residents are under quarantine, up from 1,132. The five-day average for new daily positives ticked down to 23.6 from 24.4. There are now 157 active cases in the county, up from 155 on Tuesday.

So far, 15,856 people have completed quarantine. Of those, 3,351 had tested positive and recovered.

Two more county residents were hospitalized overnight fr COVID-19, bringing the humber from 17 to 18; two of them are in an intensive-care unit. The county’s hospitalization rate has now increased to 0.51 percent from 0.48 percent.

 

More Regional News

  • Flexible grants of $5,000 up to $50,000 will be made available to eligible small businesses and small for-profit independent arts and cultural organizations. The grants can be used for operating expenses, including payroll, rent or mortgage payments, taxes, utilities, personal protective equipment, or other business expenses incurred during the pandemic.

  • “A lot of these folks out this way do not want to go down into the city to get services so here we’re bringing services to them and I think this is just going to grow and grow,” said Sheriff Craig Apple of the new program to have social workers and trained EMS crews answer some emergency calls in rural Albany County.

  • 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.

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