COVID-19 cluster at DOH triggers two-week pause, employees work remotely

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

After four health department workers tested positive for COVID-19, Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen today said, “We have made the decision to cancel our clinics during this time, but remain contactable by phone for emergencies.” She is shown here at a press conference earlier this month.

ALBANY COUNTY — A cluster of COVID-19 cases at the county’s health department has put workers in that department on a two-week pause. Four workers tested positive for the disease.

While other workers in the department are being tested for COVID-19, they started working from home on Thursday afternoon, according to a release from the county executive’s office.

 “Our work with COVID-19 has been intense and the staff has been adhering to all public health guidelines daily,” said Elizabeth Whalen, the county’s health commissioner, in the release. “We have made the decision to cancel our clinics during this time, but remain contactable by phone for emergencies.”

Since early March, the county’s health department has tracked and traced each of the county’s 3,526 cases of COVID-19, seeing that people who had contact with infected residents quarantined for 14 days.

“We continue with our daily work of contact tracing and case investigation for every single positive case in Albany County,” Whalen said at a press conference on Oct. 2. “We are working on containing cases, particularly when we see clusters of illness so we do not see further transmission.”

At an Oct. 13 briefing, 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.

Using her health department as an example, she termed it a “culture change.”

“This is an example of our employees doing the right thing — wearing a mask, social distancing, frequently sanitizing their hands and still contracting the virus,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy in the release. “I have said it hasn’t gone away and it can impact anyone. I’d like to thank Albany Medical Center for assisting with our testing.”

He also reported, in a Thursday morning release, 19 new cases of COVID-19 and eight new hospitalizations overnight.

“That brings our current total to 24, doubling in less than a week and the highest we’ve had since June 1. If this isn’t a warning sign, then I don’t know what is,” said McCoy in the morning release. “For a long time, we saw spikes in positive cases without it having a serious effect on our hospital data, but that is clearly not the case.

“What’s more, is that our hospitals serve a massive region, not just Albany County, and that needs to be taken into consideration. And the sad truth is that, as you start to see hospitalizations rise, you are likely to see more people losing their lives to the virus.”

The county’s hospitalization rate has now increased from 0.68 percent from 0.51 percent.

Of the 19 new cases, seven had close contact with someone infected with the disease, three reported traveling out of state, three are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings, and six did not have a clear source of infection identified at this time.

Currently, 1,234 county residents are under quarantine, up from 1,161. The five-day average for new daily positives ticked down to 21 from 23.6. There are still 157 active cases in the county, unchanged from Wednesday.

So far, 15,954 people have completed quarantine. Of those, 3,369 had tested positive and recovered.

Albany County’s death toll from the virus remains at 140.

 

Statewide

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced a record high for COVID-19 tests — 168,353.

The positive test rate in the state’s zones with micro-clusters of the disease, where over-sampling is done and restrictions are in place, was 3.24 percent, based on Wednesday’s test results. The statewide positivity rate was 1.48 percent.

The Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, had a positivity of 1.3 percent. Altogether, seven of the state’s 10 regions had a rate over the targeted 1 percent; Western New York was the highest at 2.5 percent. The two lowest, each at 0.7 percent, were the North Country and the Mohawk Valley.

Cuomo also announced that, on Nov. 1, NY State of Health, the state’s official health plan Marketplace, will launch open enrollment for 2021 qualified health plans.

“As we continue to fight COVID-19, making sure every New Yorker is insured and has access to quality health care has only become more critical,” said Cuomo in a statement, making the announcement. “If you are not insured, make 2021 the year you change that; go online or call NY State of Health for assistance.”

Open enrollment will continue through Jan. 31, 2021. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 public-health emergency, consumers already enrolled in Medicaid, Child Health Plus, or the Essential Plan will have their coverage continued automatically and do not need to renew at this time.

Howard Zucker, the state’s health commissioner, said that, during the pandemic, enrollment levels increased to over 5.5 million New Yorkers. 

As part of its 2020 budget, the state codified consumer protections from the Affordable Care Act into state law, including the ban on pre-existing condition exclusions, the prohibition on annual and lifetime dollar limits, the guarantee of quality essential health benefits, and the ability to keep children on their parents' plans through age 26. 

 NY State of Health expects to renew Qualified Health Plan coverage for nearly 200,000 households and enroll new consumers into coverage during the open enrollment period.

Consumers may plan ahead for open enrollment, the release noted, by browsing through their health plan options. Free enrollment assistance can be found in local communities across the state. Consumers may also use the NYS Provider & Health Plan Look-Up Tool to research provider networks and health plans. With this tool, consumers shopping for health insurance can search for their preferred health care providers, including doctors and hospitals, all in one place, to see which health plans have those providers in their network.

Also on Thursday, the Civil Service Employees Association, at its 110th annual delegates meeting, held virtually, voted overwhelmingly to call on Congress to deliver unrestricted federal aid for state and local governments and school districts to stop public services from being cut. The delegates also called on the federal government to recognize the contributions and sacrifice of essential workers during the pandemic with hazard pay.

“We need to hold our federal government accountable for delivering aid to our state, municipalities, and school districts to preserve the public services New Yorkers depend on,” said CSEA President Mary E. Sullivan in a release from the union. “They must also recognize the dedication, bravery and sacrifice of our essential workers with compensation for what they had to endure and continue to experience during this crisis.”

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