Week XXXVI: County suffers record-breaking COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, calls for help from public

The Capital Region (in blue) passed New York State as a whole (in red) in hospitalizations per 100,000 on Oct. 20 — where the two lines cross — and since then the disparity has grown.

ALBANY COUNTY — Five county residents died of COVID-19 and the county broke its single-day record for new cases as well as its records for quarantine and hospitalization during its 36th week of dealing with the pandemic.

“The direction we’re headed is scaring the hell out of me,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy at a Saturday morning press briefing as he announced 147 new cases of the virus overnight.

New York State has implemented a practice of tamping down on micro-clusters of the virus rather than doing regional or state-wide shutdowns. Red zones have the most severe outbreaks and the most severe restrictions with schools and nonessential businesses closed.

These are followed by orange warning zones, with fewer cases and lesser restrictions, and finally with yellow buffer zones.

If Albany County were to have a seven-day rolling average of more than a 3-percent infection rate for 10 days, it would be declared a yellow zone.

Although it has come close, the county has so far avoided that designation.

On Wednesday, McCoy said the average infection rate over the last seven days was roughly 2.49 percent. “On Nov. 16, we hit 4.5 percent,” he said.

“We’re still not quite there yet but we’re getting there with these numbers going up,” McCoy said on Wednesday.

Throughout the week, he urged residents to get tested and follow protocols that will reduce the rate of infection.

Another looming concern is Albany County’s rate of hospitalization. McCoy on Wednesday displayed a graph that shows the Capital Region, on Oct. 20, passed New York State as a whole in the hospitalization rate per 100,000 people. Since then, the disparity has grown.

“We have more positive cases lead to hospitalization, which sadly can likely lead to more deaths, which I do not want to see,” said McCoy as he called on residents once again to wash hands, wear masks, avoid gathering — and “don’t go out if you don’t have to.”

Currently, 44 county residents are hospitalized, up 10 from Tuesday; 11 of them are in intensive-care units.

“We now have the highest number since the outbreak ….,” said McCoy of hospitalizations. “We can’t allow our hospitals to be overwhelmed.”

McCoy said that nine of the currently hospitalized patients are between the ages of 25 and 49, while 21 are between the ages of 50 and 74, and 14 are 75 or older.

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said it typically takes from 10 to 14 days between the time of infection with COVID-19 and the time of death. She also said new developments in treatment have caused less mortality but it depends on who is getting sick. 

The majority of Albany County residents who have died of COVID-19 have been people with underlying health conditions in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, she said.

This week, the county residents who died of the coronavirus disease 2019 were a woman in her seventies last Wednesday; another woman in her seventies and a man in his eighties last Thursday; and, on Tuesday, two more women — one in her seventies and the other in her eighties.

Albany County’s COVID-19 death toll stands at 149.

“Some people feel they have the right to do what they want to and socially gather and not wear masks and not care,” said McCoy. “Well, you know, I think about the 149 people that passed away in the county and the lives that we can save by working together … We need your help.”


“No magic bullet”

Last Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed new statewide restrictions for the first time since they were lifted, region by region, in the spring and summer. Bars, restaurants, and gyms must close between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. and gatherings in private homes are limited to 10 people.

This week, McCoy stressed enforcement as opposed to his usual conciliatory approach.

“Enforcement falls on municipalities,” he said at a press briefing on Friday.

He went on, “The governor issued an executive order on Oct. 6 allowing localities to issue fines under the Sanitation Code. That falls to the towns, cities, and villages … if they choose to do that.”

Fines of $1,000 per day can be levied if nonessential businesses are open outside of permitted hours. A person not wearing a face mask in public can be fined $1,000. And organizers exceeding gathering limits can be fined up to $15,000.

“I can assure you there’s not a mayor or supervisor that wants to do that,” said McCoy. “I can assure you there’s not a police department that wants to go in and fine people … Help us. That’s all we’re saying: Help us.”

McCoy also said, “It’s not about giving up freedoms and rights. This is a health crisis.”

At the same time, Whalen said her department, with exhausted staff, might not be able to keep up with investigating every new COVID-19 case.

“There is no magic bullet to stop this,” she told the public. “You are the deciding factor.”

Whalen said some health departments across the state have decided they have too many cases to investigate so they are not tracing contacts and requiring quarantines. “We need to be able to do that,” said Whalen. “It has been the cornerstone of our response so far.”

She called for volunteers to serve in the county’s medical corps and, later in the week, said she was gratified with the response.

Throughout the week, both Whalen and McCoy stressed the importance of honesty when people who have tested positive for the disease are questioned by health-department staff.



Both McCoy and Whalen spoke this week of sacrifices that need to be made for the common good. Both also said they are curtailing their own families’ plans for large Thanksgiving gatherings.

In his press conference on Wednesday, Cuomo said, “My advice on Thanksgiving — don’t be a turkey … You know what love is on Thanksgiving? ‘I love you so much and I’m so thankful for you that I’m not going to see you ... That’s how much I love you.”

Albany County’s airport put out a release on Wednesday saying that, during this normally busy holiday travel season, passenger counts are off as much as 70 to 80 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that staying at home is the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The release listed the airport’s “extraordinary steps” to ensure safety, including social distancing, mask-wearing, regular cleaning of touch points, distribution of hand sanitizer, an upgraded air-filtration system, and ultraviolet lighting to sanitize escalator rails.

New York State has jettisoned its travel advisory list and instead now requires travelers who are out of state for more than 24 hours — but not from contiguous states — to be tested for COVID-19 within three days of arriving in New York and then quarantining for three days before being retested on the fourth day.  If both tests are negative, the quarantine is lifted.

Also on Wednesday, a coalition of Northeast governors — from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts — announced they are encouraging residential colleges and universities to provide testing for all students traveling home for Thanksgiving. 

Students who test positive will be encouraged to isolate on campus before they can travel.

The governors are also strongly recommending that colleges and universities finish their fall semesters by expanding remote instruction, enabling more students to learn from home for the few weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break rather than require students to travel back to campus and then back home again in December.

Half of colleges and universities across the Northeast have already indicated they will be fully remote between Thanksgiving and the end of their fall semester, according to a release from Cuomo’s office.

Locally, The College of Saint Rose in Albany moved to online-only classes on Tuesday, Nov. 17. The college currently has eight active COVID-19 cases (six students and two employees) and has had a total of 17 cases for the fall semester, according to a letter posted by Saint Rose Interim President Marcia J. White.

Roughly a third of the record-high147 COVID-19 cases announced on Saturday were associated with the University at Albany, McCoy noted. UAlbany moved to remote classes having topped the threshold of 100 cases in a discreet two-week period.

All SUNY students are to be tested for COVID-19 before returning home for Thanksgiving.

According to the SUNY COVID-19 Tracker, as of Wednesday evening, UAlbany has had 180 estimated cases since Nov. 7, and 180 rooms for quarantine are currently in use. Since testing began on Aug. 29, UAlbany has had an estimated 426 COVID-19 cases.



Throughout the week, both McCoy and Whalen stressed the importance of residents getting tested for COVID-19 whether they have symptoms or not.

“Testing is the cornerstone of our response,” said Whalen on Wednesday.

The county started a new COVID-19 testing initiative on Monday to help school children who have been excluded from classes because of symptoms like coughing or having a fever.

To begin with, the testing will be done at two sites: Albany High School at 700 Washington Ave. in Albany and at the Albany County Cornell Cooperative Extension at 24 Martin Road in Voorheesville.

These tests, unlike at the other sites listed on the county’s website, will go through school nurses, said Whalen. They are being run in partnership with the Whitney M. Young Jr. Health Care Center, which is also responsible for the walk-in testing in Albany’s South End and West Hill neighborhoods.

Earlier, Whalen went over the two broad categories for tests. Rapid tests, which can be either antigen-based or molecular, are useful for screening, she said, but, if someone has symptoms, they can get a false negative.

PCR, or polymerase chain reaction laboratory tests, detect genetic material from the virus and form a reliable basis for diagnosis. If symptoms persist, even after a negative PCR test, Whalen said, the patient should get retested.

At the new testing sites for school children, if a first rapid test turns out negative, a PCR can be done at the same appointment, said Whalen. A symptomatic child will ultimately need a PCR test unless the child tested positive with the rapid test, she said.

“Rapid tests are reliable for positives and not so much for negatives,” said Whalen.

Eight tests will be scheduled per hour at the new sites and rapid-test results will be available in 15 minutes.

Schools in yellow precautionary zones are required to test 20 percent of school children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Whalen stressed that the required testing for a yellow zone would be distinct from the new testing being launched at Albany High School and Voorheesville’s Cooperative Extension.

The yellow-zone testing would be rapid testing, she said, which “is OK to screen an asymptomatic population.”

She said local schools are currently working on individual plans to meet that 20-percent testing requirement should it be required but the plans are not yet finalized.


New tools

Several new tools were introduced this week — by the county and the state —  to help residents cope with the pandemic.

Albany County put an interactive map on its website, showing COVID-19 testing sites. The map lets users get directions to different locations, tells them wait times for results, and whether walk-ins are accepted.

The county continues to urge residents, whether or not they have COVID-19 symptoms, to get tested for the virus.

The state, working with Google.org, launched a web application to help New Yorkers find benefits.

The “Find Services” web application prompts each user with a series of simple questions aimed at narrowing the field of possible services to those that are best designed to serve their needs. After answering the questions, the user is provided with a ranked list of potential services along with a description to help judge if the service is right for them and provide them with more information about how to apply.

The web application was developed at no cost to taxpayers over six months and has a code that has been open sourced to allow other government entities to build on this project to meet the needs of their residents.

The state also set up a new online training platform to enable unemployed and underemployed New Yorkers weathering the COVID-19 pandemic to learn new skills, earn certificates, and advance their careers at no cost.

The new tool, according to a release from the governor’s office, will provide access to nearly 4,000 online programs taught by professors and industry professionals on Coursera, with a focus on high-growth and in-demand sectors like advanced manufacturing, technology, and health care.

The new course offerings are provided through a partnership between the New York State Department of Labor and Coursera, an online learning platform. Some of the course titles include Cybersecurity, Business Writing, Python for Everybody, and Medical Neuroscience.


Newest numbers

As of Wednesday morning, Albany County has 4,669 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Of the 96 new cases, 37 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, four reported out-of-state travel, 46 did not have a clear source of infection identified at this time, and 10 are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings. 

Currently, 1,881 county residents are under quarantine, up from 1,825. The five-day average for new daily positives increased to 87 from 82. There are now 720 active cases in the county, up from 661 on Tuesday.

So far, 19,682 people have completed quarantine. Of those, 3,949 had tested positive and recovered.

The county’s hospitalization rate has gone up to 0.94 percent from 0.87 percent.

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