As COVID-19 surges, county workers work remotely, on staggered shifts

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Referring social media, Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said, “We’ve started to see a really disturbing trend in people vilifying individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID, and this is not helpful.”

ALBANY COUNTY — As the long-anticipated autumn surge of COVID-19 comes to Albany County, county workers will move to staggered shifts and remote work.

Albany County services will continue but face-to-face contact will be limited, said the county’s executive, Daniel McCoy, at a press briefing on Friday morning.

Yesterday, the county had announced that four health-department workers had tested positive for the disease and all of the department’s employees would be working from home for two weeks, suspending clinical services.

On Friday, McCoy also announced 53 new positive test results overnight and 24 residents currently hospitalized with COVID-19, two of them in intensive-care units.

“If you get over 2 percent,” McCoy said of the hospitalization rate, “that’s when things kick in.”

He was referring to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s micro-cluster initiative in which areas with COVID-19 outbreaks are targeted for more testing and severe restrictions are put in place; the restrictions are reduced as the outbreak subsides.

“These numbers are higher than we’ve had before,” said McCoy of the Capital Region’s positivity rate for tests, which has been over the 1-percent target for several days.

“It’s scary now to see France, Germany shut down. Ireland just shut down for six weeks,” said McCoy.

He also said he was rocked to his core by the news of four infections among health-department workers, lauding the protocols that the department had set up long before they were mandated.

“People doing the right thing, setting the example, and I’m like, if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere,” said McCoy.


DOH cluster

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen described how the cluster of infections at the health department unfolded. The department was notified last week that a staff member had tested positive, she said.

His contacts at the department were immediately tested. “When we broadened the net a little, we got additional positives,” said Whalen.

That led to the decision to test the rest of the staff on Thursday. All 63 of those tests came back negative, Whalen said.

“I tested negative,” she said. “I have not been identified as a contact. Had either of those things come back positive, I would not be sitting here before you,” she said at Friday morning’s press briefing.

Whalen went on, “We tackled this as we do every other cluster and work to provide case investigation, to get details of the contacts of the cases, and to insure that those that were in contact will remain on quarantine for two weeks to prevent spread to other individuals.”

The department’s work will continue as usual, she said, with employees working remotely, except that clinical services will be suspended for a few weeks.

Whalen stressed that the health-department cluster does not mean “masks don’t work.” 

“There are no guarantees in medicine ...,” said Whalen. “Evidence suggests that mask-wearing protects you.” While wearing a mask, as health-department workers did, doesn’t guarantee someone won’t get COVID-19, it lessens the chance, said Whalen.

Whalen said she read a comment on Facebook, stating, “If Dr. Whalen can’t protect her own staff, how are we supposed to listen to her on how to protect ourselves?”

Whalen called that “a legitimate question” and answered it.

“I cannot protect every single resident in Albany County from getting COVID ...,” she said, asking, “What can you count on from me and from my department? Well, you can count on 27 years as a physician and 17 of those years in public health, training in public health preventive medicine, and board certification in that and internal medicine — and the ability to look critically at the evolving rapid situation and hone out the appropriate recommendations based on evidence.”

She praised her team of “dedicated professionals who have been working seven days a week for the past 233 days to ensure that we continue our mission to protect the health of Albany County residents using evidence-based strategies.”

Whalen noted there are currently “increased rates in the community and increased severity.” She urged residents not to leave their homes for parties or other social gatherings.

She said the county got its first report of a case of flu on Thursday, which is typical for this time of year. She again urged everyone to get a flu shot so that enough hospital beds will be available in case of a COVID-19 surge.

Referring to posts on social media, Whalen also said, “We’ve started to see a really disturbing trend in people vilifying individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID and this is not helpful.”

Shaking her head from side to side, Whalen went on, “It is not helpful at all. I had a staff member who was positive apologize to me. That should not happen. People get COVID sometimes if they do all the right things and it is not anybody’s place in any circumstance or situation to vilify or call someone out or condemn those individuals that are suffering.”

Whalen added that it is possible to catch the virus from someone who is asymptomatic, meaning the newly infected person wouldn’t be aware of how he or she contracted the disease.

Since COVID-19 is “likely circulating in the community,” Whalen urged residents to download the app from the state’s department of health website that would allow them to track the source of the infection.


Newest numbers

As of Friday morning, Albany County has 3,579 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Of the 53 new cases, 20 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, two reported traveling out of state, 15 did not have a clear source of infection detected at this time, and 16 are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings — though none are from the county’s nursing home, Shaker Place.

The University at Albany has had an estimated four cases since the latest two-week tracking period began on Oct. 24, according to the State University of New York COVID-19 Tracker. Nine of UAlbany’s 230 rooms for quarantine are currently in use. Altogether, since the tracing began on Aug. 28, UAlbany has had an estimated 183 cases of coronavirus disease 2019.

Albany County currently has 1,331 residents under quarantine, up from 1,234. The five-day average for new daily positives increased to 26.8 from 21. There are now 187 active cases in the county, up from 157 on Thursday.

So far, 16,071 county residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 3,392 had tested positive and recovered.

Twenty-seven county residents are now hospitalized, up from 24 on Thursday. The county’s hospitalization rate has increased to 0.75 percent from 0.68 percent.

Albany County’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 140.

More Regional News

  • The latest shift in federal policy allows 7 million New Yorkers to get vaccinated — people 65 and older are now eligible — yet the state gets just 300,000 doses a week.

  • “Many, many seniors are afraid to go out,” said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan. “They will not take public transportation. They will not get in a taxi.” So, once COVID-19 vaccine is available, Mohawk Ambulance, working with the city and county, will vaccinate residents 75 and older in their homes.

  • On Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that, for the second day in a row, New York State has another case of the highly transmissible strain of COVID-19 first identified in the United Kingdom. This latest case is in Westchester County, bringing the state’s total of B.1.1.7 cases to 18.

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