Week XXXVII: Yellow zone looms for Albany County as officials urge household-only gatherings for Thanksgiving

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

You cannot test your way out of this,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen. Whalen warned that people are mistaken to think they can safely gather with relatives after testing negative for COVID-19.

ALBANY COUNTY — The county’s 37th week of coping with the coronavirus was a week of worry as the infection rate mounted.

County officials gave repeated warnings — “We’re currently on a steady march in the wrong direction,” said Deputy Albany County Executive Daniel Lynch on Saturday — as county numbers approached the threshold that would trigger a yellow zone.

The state’s system of establishing micro-cluster zones, which started on Oct. 6, identifies severe outbreaks in red zones and has strict requirements like closing schools and non-essential businesses and limiting gatherings to 10 people.

Orange warning zones have fewer restrictions and yellow precautionary zones have still fewer restrictions. Schools can stay open in yellow zones but 20 percent of students and staff must be tested each week for COVID-19. Houses of worship are limited to 50 percent capacity, mass gatherings are limited, and no more than four people can dine at a restaurant table whether inside or out.

Lynch explained that Albany County, which the state has classified as Tier 2, has the 3-percent threshold while the city of Albany, which the state considers Tier 1, has a lower threshold — of 2.5 percent.

Once Albany County meets the 3-percent threshold (or the city of Albany meets the 2.5 percent threshold) it’s considered a qualifying day, said Lynch.

“You need 10 of those qualifying days to get into the first, precautionary zone, that being the yellow zone ...,” he said. “If, in that 10-day window, you have a day in which you fall under the threshold … it would reset the clock of those 10 days.”

Lynch noted that infection rates, based on the percentage of tested people who get positive results, are relative.

He also explained that the state’s health department mines data to define the micro-cluster zones, which could be as small as, say, the University at Albany, or could be the county as a whole.

Zones where the numbers come down have restrictions lessened. Originally, six zones in five counties were designated. Now, there are 23 zones in 14 counties.

The next day, on Sunday, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy announced, “We’re there.” The county’s seven-day average of positive test results had crossed the 3-percent threshold.

By Tuesday, the county was on its third day in a row over the threshold: 3.2 percent on Nov. 20, then 3.3 percent on Nov. 21, and 3.1 percent on Nov. 22.

At the same time, during Tuesday morning’s press briefing, McCoy announced 101 new cases of COVID-19 in Albany County and noted that roughly a third of all the county’s cases had been since Nov. 1.

“There are a lot of unknowns in terms of the size of what the cluster will look like,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen on Tuesday.

Throughout the week, Governor Andrew Cuomo touted the micro-cluster approach as successful, keeping New York the state with the fourth lowest rate of infection, following Vermont, Hawaii, and Maine, according to Johns Hopkins’ calculations.

At the same time, the Empire Center cast doubt on the strategy, with a report released on Friday.

“Although positivity rates have declined within the zones, statewide numbers are still spiking,” writes Bill Hammond in his report. The Empire Center, based in Albany, is a fiscally conservative think tank that plays a watchdog role.

“In the six weeks since the cluster strategy was launched, New York’s rate of new infections has increased by 244 percent, to almost 5,000 per day,” Hammond writes. “The number of people hospitalized has nearly doubled, to more than 2,000. And the seven-day average death rate has increased by 125 percent, to 30 per day.”

He also concedes, “It’s true that New York’s pandemic benchmarks are currently low compared to the rest of the country. At the current rate of increase, however, the state is on track to catch up.”

Hammond notes that, in parts of upstate, the current numbers actually look worse than in March or April, when the pandemic was concentrated in New York City and its nearby suburbs. Cuomo has noted the same trend, too.

“It’s possible, of course, that all of these trends would be significantly worse in the absence of the micro-cluster strategy,” Hammond concludes. “So far, however, the curve has not significantly bent.”

Throughout the week, McCoy urged residents to follow the protocols of mask-wearing, hand-washing and not gathering so that restrictions wouldn’t have to be imposed by the state.

On Tuesday, he said that county executives “cry on the phone to one another at night” and pointed to the example of Erie County’s executive, Mark Poloncarz.

Parts of Erie County had been moved from a yellow to an orange zone last Wednesday with the possibility of a red zone being declared if numbers don’t improve.

Protesters targeted Poloncarz’s home. “They’re protesting at his house,” said McCoy. “They had militia there. They’ve had cops there … I know people don’t want to be locked down,” said McCoy.

The goal of the micro-cluster approach is to target just the areas with clusters of infection so that entire regions or the state is not shut down.



On Tuesday, as Cuomo distributed Thanksgiving turkeys at an ambulance station on Long Island and at a food pantry in New York City, he made similar comments about the need to stay home and celebrate the holiday with just your household.

He spoke about his daughter in Chicago crying because she couldn’t come home and his 89-year-old mother not understanding why the governor wouldn’t gather to see his relatives.

“I won’t have my family at the table, but I have my broader family at the table and I am honoring them this Thanksgiving,” he said of the many New Yorkers who came together to  bring down the infection rate.

He also said that, over the past three weeks, the statewide hospitalization rate increased 128 percent. Cuomo said, too, the holiday season is expected, at the least, to increase the spread of the virus by 20 percent, and he predicted a major spike.

The New York State Sheriffs’ Association on Monday put out a message “to all New Yorkers” blasting the governor’s executive order limiting non-essential private residential gatherings to no more than 10 people and his call for enforcement by local officers.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises, “As cases continue to increase rapidly across the United States, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with. Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu.”

The sheriffs wrote: “We do not know if the Governor’s limit on home gatherings to ten individuals is the right number or not. That is a decision for science, not us, to make.”

The association then posed a series of questions, including: “How are officers to know, without violating citizens’ right to privacy and other Constitutional rights, how many people are in the home? How are they to determine if the family gathering is to be deemed ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’? If twelve people normally reside in the home, are the officers to order two of them to move out?”

In issuing the order, Cuomo had said those who live in a household can gather there.

The sheriffs concluded their lengthy statement: “We urge you to listen to our public health officials. We urge you to limit your exposure to those outside your household as much as you reasonably can …

“We in law enforcement do not have the resources nor the legal authority to force you to do those things. It is a matter of individual responsibility and we are confident that you will all voluntarily rise to the occasion.”

Whalen and McCoy this week have urged residents to stay home with their immediate families for Thanksgiving. Both McCoy and Whalen have said that they themselves are not gathering with extended family as usual but rather dining just with immediate family members at home.

On Tuesday, Whalen warned that people are mistaken to think they can safely gather with relatives after testing negative for COVID-19; the test has to be paired with a quarantine, she said.

She gave an example: If someone were exposed to the disease on Friday, tested negative on Monday, and attended a Thanksgiving gathering on Thursday, by the time that person developed symptoms and tested positive on Saturday, he or she would have already shed virus at the gathering.

“You cannot test your way out of this,” said Whalen.

She described difficult interviews her staff has had with people who hosted gatherings where the disease was spread. “No one wants to have a family celebration and feel that guilt afterward,” said Whalen.

Picking up on the Thanksgiving theme, the state’s Office of Mental Health launched its first-ever “Gratitude Campaign” to help New Yorkers give thanks for the sacrifices and efforts made to manage the pandemic throughout 2020. 

New Yorkers can share their thoughts either on the office’s website or through social media on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.



“We’re weeks away from getting our first shipments of vaccines,” said Whalen on Tuesday.

With the state’s phased approach that will vaccinate essential workers and vulnerable populations first, the general population will not be vaccinated until late spring or possibly early summer, said Whalen.

“This requires patience. It requires compliance. It requires a sacrifice,” said Whalen.

Both Pfizer and Moderna in the last two weeks have announced vaccines that are entering the third and final stage of testing but polls have shown that about half of Americans are wary of being vaccinated.

“In New York State, the governor is convening a task force to look at vaccine safety,” said Whalen last Thursday.

She added, “I can give you my personal guarantee that I would not recommend a vaccine that I would not take myself.”

Whalen said she has been communicating with groups including the New York State Association of Counties, which on Thursday hosted a webinar that included federal, state, and local public-health experts who discussed how the vaccine will be distributed across the state.

McCoy mentioned on Tuesday that originally less than 40 percent of New Yorkers were willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine but now 69 percent say they will. A Siena poll released on Tuesday reported that 74 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans surveyed in New York said they would get a vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Cuomo has been critical of the Trump administration’s plan for distribution, which he says isn’t robust enough to handle the volume of vaccinations and would jeopardize testing, which uses the same system; lacks adequate funding; is unfair to poor Black and brown communities; and could be used to deport people.

The White House has denied the latter claim.

The situation has been complicated by President Donald Trump refusing to let his team work with or inform the Biden transition team.

Also this week, Whalen and McCoy warned against reports on social media that herd immunity is a solution.

McCoy, during his press briefing last Thursday, held up a report in which Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, called a herd-immunity strategy “total nonsense.”

Resuming normal life would result in a huge death toll, experts say. So far, over a quarter of a million of Americans have died of COVID-19. To achieve the low end of the percentage of people infected — 60 to 90 percent — to achieve herd immunity, another half-million people would die.

“It would have a deadly effect,” said McCoy.

Last month, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said that vaccination is the only acceptable form of herd immunity. He noted, for example, that herd immunity to prevent the spread of measles requires about 95 percent of the population be vaccinated while, for polio, the threshold is about 80 percent.

“In other words, herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it,” he said. “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic.”

Ghebreyesus went on, “Seroprevalence surveys suggest that, in most countries, less than 10 percent of the population have been infected with the COVID-19 virus. Letting the virus circulate unchecked therefore means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death.”

He concluded, “Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to run free is simply unethical. It’s not an option.”

Whalen said that herd immunity is not the answer and that countries that have adopted the strategy have seen “catastrophic mortality rates” as well as surge issues in hospitals. 

“They have had to backtrack on this idea,” she said.


Newest numbers

Statewide, the positivity rate, based on Monday’s test results, was 2.96 percent, Cuomo announced on Tuesday; this includes the 4.13 percent rate from the micro-cluster zones.

The Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, had a seven-day average of 2.32 percent. The lowest average was in the Southern Tier, at 1.24 percent, followed by the North Country, at 1.83 percent.

Of the state’s 10 regions, Western New York had the highest rate, at 5.04 percent.

As of Tuesday morning, Albany County has 5,183 confirmed cases of COVID-19, McCoy announced.

Of the 101 new cases, 19 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, one reported traveling out of state, 79 did not have a clear source of infection identified at this time, and two are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings.

Currently, 2,247 Albany County residents are quarantined, up from 2,107. The five-day average for new daily positives increased to 88.6 from 87.2. There are now 863 active cases in the county, up from 824 Monday. So far, 21,204 people have completed quarantine.

The number of county residents hospitalized with COVID-19 increased from 41 to 43 with 12 patients currently in intensive-care units. The county’s hospitalization rate is now 0.82 percent.

Albany County’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 148.

More Regional News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.