Will Albany County leapfrog over yellow into an orange zone?

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“We are currently beyond any numbers we had in our first peak when we were shut down,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen. “The infection rate is much higher. The caseload is much higher. This indicates there’s a lot more COVID in the community. There’s a lot more risk for everyone that’s out and about.”

ALBANY COUNTY — In his press briefing Monday morning, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy leapfrogged over warnings about a looming yellow zone to say a more severe orange zone is bound to be declared in the county.

At the same time, he announced another 105 new cases overnight, and another death from COVID-19 — a man in his nineties succumbed — bringing the county’s death toll to 158.

“We’re probably going to pass yellow, people, and go right to orange at the rate we’re headed,” said McCoy.

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said, “Whether yellow or orange remains to be seen. The question becomes when.”

On Oct. 6, the state started a micro-cluster system in which red, orange, and yellow zones are imposed to control COVID-19 outbreaks without shutting regional economies. Red zones have the most severe restrictions, closing schools and nonessential business and prohibiting gatherings.

Orange warning zones limit restaurants to outdoor or take-out dining; close high-risk businesses like gyms and hair salons; and limit residential and nonresidential gatherings to 10 people, whether inside or out — which is already an executive order statewide.

Yellow precautionary zones allow nonessential businesses to stay open but limit nonresidential gatherings to 25 people and residential gatherings to 10. School can remain open but 20 percent of students and staff must be tested weekly for COVID-19.

On Wednesday evening, the United States Supreme Court struck down New York’s restrictions limiting the size of gatherings in houses of worship. The state directives limited those gatherings to 50 percent of capacity in yellow zones; to 33 percent of maximum capacity or 35 people, whichever is less, in orange zones; and to 25 percent of maximum capacity or 10 people, whichever is less, in red zones.

According to state directives, Albany County, or parts of it, would enter a yellow zone once the county had 10 consecutive days with a seven-day rolling average of an infection rate of 3 percent or greater. For the city of Albany, that threshold is 2.5 percent.

To be designated an orange zone, McCoy said, Albany County would need to have a seven-day rolling average of 4 percent for 10 consecutive days. The county reached that threshold for the first time on Nov. 29.

According to the state’s New York Forward dashboard, Albany County reached the 10th consecutive day of 3 percent on Nov. 29. The seven-day rolling average, the dashboard reports, was 3.1 percent for Nov. 20, 21, and 22, then 3.0 percent for Nov. 23, 24, and 25. Further, the state reports a seven-day rolling average of 3.6 percent on Nov. 26, of 3.5 percent on Nov. 27, of 3.8 percent on Nov. 28, and of 4.1 percent on Nov. 29.

Last Friday, McCoy had questioned the state’s numbers and came up with a calculation of his own that would have broken the streak to be named a yellow zone.

He told reporters on Monday he thought the county was in the ninth of 10 days and said, “I threw that Hail Mary a couple of days ago.”

McCoy said of the state’s health department, “They don’t tell us when they reset.”

The Enterprise had been asking the governor’s office since Friday whether McCoy’s calculations were correct and also when the yellow zone would be designated.

On Monday, Erin Silk, with the state’s Department of Health, responded, “The governor’s office forwarded your request to DOH to handle” followed only with this: “NYS DOH and Albany DOH are in close coordination regarding the increase in viral spread in the county and appropriate restrictions including zone designations will be implemented as necessary as part of State’s aggressive targeted action to contain the virus.”


Hospitalizations soar

Ten more county residents were hospitalized overnight, McCoy said on Monday morning.

“It’s the fourth time in a week we’ve set a record,” said McCoy as he announced that 72 Albany County residents are now hospitalized with the disease. Eleven of them are in intensive-care units.

On Nov. 1, the county’s hospitalization rate was .71 percent, he noted. As of Monday morning, the rate was 1.25 percent.

Altogether in November, 162 county residents have been hospitalized, which is 30 percent of the hospitalizations since the pandemic began in March.

“This is what scares the hell out of me,” said McCoy. “It’s not just the number of positives.” Rather, he said, it’s the infection rate rising, which leads to more hospitalizations and deaths.

He noted, too, that the effects of Thanksgiving gatherings haven’t yet shown up in the numbers.

“Everyone feels we’re at the end and they’re going out and doing bad things,” said McCoy, which increases the hospitalization rates.

McCoy has long pointed to the 20-to-29 age group as spreading the disease since many are asymptomatic; that group had an 80-percent jump in positive cases over the month, he said.

On Monday, McCoy also focused on the increase of cases in the 30-to-39 age group, which is now at 721 cases, an increase of 74 percent since a month ago.

He noted that, contrary to common misperceptions, not all of the people hospitalized with the disease are elderly. Currently, he said, one county resident under the age of 25 is hospitalized; eight residents between the ages of 25 and 49 are hospitalized, and 28 residents between the ages of 50 and 70 are hospitalized with the disease.

“It does happen to younger people,” said McCoy.


“Exponential growth”

At Monday’s press briefing, both McCoy and Whalen referred to the vaccine for COVID-19 as a “light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Both also cautioned that the months until a vaccine is widely available are going to be difficult and they urged residents to double-down on safety measures like wearing masks, washing hands, and not gathering.

“This is going to be the worst we’ve ever seen,” said McCoy, speculating that daily counts of new cases in the county will regularly be over 100 — once a rarity.

He said to “all the haters” who object to his daily press briefings, “I’ve got no choice because you didn’t do the right thing.”

Whalen pointed to a graph that showed current numbers of infections being much higher than the former springtime peak, which she called “exponential growth.”

“We are currently beyond any numbers we had in our first peak when we were shut down,” said Whalen. “The infection rate is much higher. The caseload is much higher. This indicates there’s a lot more COVID in the community. There’s a lot more risk for everyone that’s out and about.”

She noted that the ZIP code 12203 — partly in the Pine Hills section of Albany and partly in the town of Guilderland — continues to have the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

For people who traveled to attend Thanksgiving gatherings, rather than staying home as advised, Whalen said, “You should presume you’ve been exposed and be tested.”

She added that December could be a very, very bad month if people don’t follow this advice. People who attended Thanksgiving gatherings or who shopped in crowds on Black Friday should get tested seven days after to avoid exposure to others, Whalen said.

Testing, quarantine, and isolation are the way to control the spread, she said.

Whalen went on, “It’s a critical time for those of you that have been on the fence about appropriate behavior, start listening to the science.”

To those who have been following the science, she urged, “Please use your voice … to help protect everyone in your circle.”

Whalen also said, “It’s important parents spread this message to their children.” She added, “Young people can lose their lives to COVID. It’s not a joke.”

Whalen concluded, “Protect yourself as if your life depends on it and as if your family’s life depends on it.”


Newest numbers

Statewide, the positive testing rate announced by the governor on Monday was 4.57 percent, which includes all the micro-cluster areas at 6.22 percent.

The Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, had a seven-day average of 3.24 percent. The lowest rate of the state’s 10 regions was again in the Southern Tier, at 2.11 percent. The highest rate remains in Western New York at 6.94 percent.

As of Monday morning, Albany County has 5,743 confirmed cases, McCoy announced.

Of the 105 new cases, one is a health-care worker or resident of a congregate setting, one reported traveling out of state, 23 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, and 80 did not have a clear source of infection identified at this time.

Currently, 2,272 county residents are under quarantine, up from 2,256. The five-day average for new daily positives decreased to 100.4 from 101.2.

There are now 884 active cases in the county, down from 900 on Sunday. So far, 23,266 people have completed quarantine. Of those, 4,859 had tested positive and recovered.

More Regional News

  • Over 25,000 people have signed up on the county’s online pre-registration tool for COVID-19 vaccination appointments; 19,000 are Albany County residents. “It overwhelmed us,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy. “It was a lot more people pre-registering than I imagined … It really shows the need.”

  • At the same time more vaccine doses are being made available, more people are becoming eligible in New York State. Food-pantry workers have been added to the list of essential workers. 

  • New York State is setting up new sites solely to administer the recently-approved single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which is just as effective in preventing hospitalization and death as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, according to clinical trials, although not as effective in preventing mild cases of the virus.

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