Week XLI: Eschewing shutdown, gov looks ahead to reopening with Buffalo Bills fans as a demonstration

Daniel McCoy

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Daniel McCoy

ALBANY COUNTY — Thirteen Albany County residents died of COVID-19 in the county’s 41st week of battling COVID-19, bringing the county’s death toll to 196.

This week, the county broke, and broke again, records for new infections, hospitalizations, and patients under intensive care.

“We would have been in the red zone three weeks agao,” Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said at his press briefing on Wednesday morning.  

He was referring to the state’s micro-cluster zones — red being the most severe, resulting in a shutdown, followed by orange and yellow zones — which were originally defined by infection rates. Albany County has had an infection rate over 6 percent during this past week.

However, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s winter plan for battling the virus shifted to focus on hospital capacity.

McCoy on Wednesday said the shutdown the state went through in the spring had serious ripple effects for Albany County.

“Our suicides went through the roof; drug overdose went through the roof …,” said McCoy, noting, “People love social interaction.”

“I want to do everything I can to avoid a shutdown,” Cuomo said to reporters at his teleconference on Wednesday. “The shutdown does tremendous economic damage and collateral damage to families. We can’t survive with these economic shutdowns.”

Referring to the winter plan’s threshold for a shutdown, Cuomo said, “No hospital in the state, no hospital, has advised us that they are within 21 days, three weeks of 85 percent capacity, on the fear of overwhelming the hospital system.”

Instead, Cuomo talked about opening up. With vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna currently being administered in New York — 89,000 New Yorkers have received their first of two doses, Cuomo said Wednesday —  the governor spoke about a smart way to reopen.

This is a global challenge, he said. “And there will be winners and losers through this period. And that’s the really smart long-term vision that we have to have in this state.”

“Can you reopen venues using rapid testing? Ancillary question: Can you reopen venues using vaccinated people? ...” asked Cuomo. “That’s the question the Department of Health has been analyzing because I want to speak to it in the State of the State,” he said of the speech he’ll give at the start of the new year. “But we’re looking to test a hypothesis.”

The Buffalo Bills will host its first home playoff game since 1977 under strict COVID-19 protocols. 

The state’s health department is working with the Bills on “a demonstration project,” said Health Commissioner Howard Zucker at Wednesday’s press conference.

Spectators will be admitted to the stadium — 6,700 of them, kept at a distance — only if they have tested negative for COVID-19. The stadium normally holds over 71,000 people.

Any fans not wearing masks will be ejected. Partying before, during, or after the game is banned. Contact racing will be conducted after the game.

“It’s a public-health model that's never been done anywhere in the country before,” said Zucker.


“Home alone for the holidays”

“There is no place like home alone for the holidays,” said Steven Hanks, chief clinical officer at St. Peter’s Health Partners, making a plea for the public not to travel and not to gather to keep the coronavirus in check.

McCoy said he had talked to Philip Calderone, the chief executive officer of Albany County’s airport, which has been discouraging travel, and learned “the numbers are really low”: 1,000 travelers on Wednesday compared to an average day of 6,500.

Hanks joined leaders from a half-dozen local hospitals at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon to talk about the latest in the regional fight against COVID-19.

The hospitals, which are in daily contact, had agreed on Monday to reduce non-urgent surgeries that require a hospital stay, said Ferdinand Venditti, Albany Medical Center’s hospital general director.

The region on Tuesday had 417 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, with 70 of them under intensive care, he said; both numbers have been steadily increasing in recent weeks.

“If COVID continues to grow at the pace it’s growing … we will begin to cancel elective surgery,” Venditti said, which he said was identical to what hospitals did in the spring.

Hanks said that, while local hospitals are currently set with supplies and most can double their bed capacity, “What we’re worried about is our ability to staff those beds.”

David Liebers, infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Ellis Medicine in Schenectady, noted that, while the infection rate in the Capital Region had hovered around 1 percent all summer, since Nov. 1, it went from 2 percent to 7 or 8 percent, and even higher in Schenectady County.

“Our health-care workers, using appropriate PPE,” he said of personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, and gowns, “have been very well-protected” — calling it “extraordinary.” The problem, though, he said, is hospital health-care workers are getting sick at home.

Liebers cited state data that shows over 70 percent of COVID-19 transmission occurs at small in-home gatherings and urged people, over the holidays, “Use electronic media to gather with your loved ones.”



Albany Medical Center has been named one of 10 regional hubs for vaccine distribution and will serve the eight-county Capital Region.

Working with area hospitals since the start of the outbreak — Tuesday’s was the sixth press conference held by the hospital since April — Dennis McKenna stressed that the region’s hospitals are using “Preparation over panic, cooperation and collaboration over competition.”

McKenna is the president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center.

As a hub, McKenna said, Albany Med will come up with a vaccine-administration plan and is working with a 60-member task force that includes such varied constituencies as county health departments, chambers of commerce, first responders, elected officials, and faith-based communities.

“We will ensure the vaccine is distributed safely, equitably, and efficiently across the region,” McKenna said. “Our distribution plans will be broad and they will be inclusive with particular focus on our vulnerable, our underserved, and our at-risk populations.”

So far, Albany Med has vaccinated about 1,000 of its frontline staff, using a tiered approach.

“The vaccine is safe and the vaccine is effective,” said McKenna noting side effects are minimal and non-threatening. Fever, fatigue, and muscle aches, he said, are signs the vaccine is working.

He noted that the two vaccines currently being used in the state and regionally — one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and the other developed by Moderna — were given emergency use authorization by the federal Food and Drug Administration and were also reviewed favorably by a New York State task force.

Clinical trials for each involved tens of thousands of people from various populations, McKenna said. Even people who have had COVID-19 and have antibodies should get vaccinated, he said. Everyone will eventually be given a shot and no one will pay, McKenna said.

The vaccination will not give you COVID-19, he stressed. “This is the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” he said. “When enough of us receive our vaccine in the region, we can resume life as we knew it.”

For more than 70 percent of the population to be vaccinated could take up to nine months and, in the meantime, people are to keep wearing masks, washing hands, and staying six feet from others.

“Our big fear …,” said Hanks, “is if people do not heed the counsel … we’re going to see test positive rates tick up again.”

Elizabeth Whalen, Albany County’s health commissioner who is serving on the regional task force, went over the tiered system by which vaccinations are being administered.

At the county’s press conference on Tuesday morning, Whalen explained that, currently, those classified as 1A are being vaccinated.

This includes hospital workers, nursing-home workers, first responders in medical roles such as emergency medical providers, medical examiners and coroners, funeral workers, and people living or working in long-term care facilities and long-term congregate settings overseen by various state agencies.

Peter Barber, Guilderland’s supervisor, wrote Tuesday in his daily email to update town residents on all things COVID, “The vaccine has arrived in our community with Town residents in nursing homes getting the first doses followed soon by EMS personnel. Town residents who work in healthcare and hospital settings are also receiving their initial doses.”

The next tier, 1B, Whalen said, includes other essential workers. Tier 1C includes adults with high-risk medical conditions and people over age 65, she said.

“We are currently in 1A,” said Whalen. “We are looking to national authorities to look to other vaccinations waiting in the wings. We hope the supply is going to continue.”

The state has received 630,000 doses and expects to receive another 300,000 doses next week. New York State has more than 19 million residents.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations require two shots, 21 days apart. The vials for both of the vaccines also include more than the specified number of doses so the state is making use of those to stretch its supply.

Like the hospital doctors who spoke later on Tuesday, Whalen said that the single most important factor right now for controlling the disease is personal behavior. She stressed the importance of wearing masks and avoiding gatherings and travel. 

“Really, just celebrate with those in your immediate family,” said Whalen, noting her family was sacrificing its usual Christmas Eve gathering of extended family.


Newest numbers

McCoy began his Wednesday morning press briefing by announcing two more deaths from COVID-19: a man in his sixties and a man in his seventies.

He noted several deaths earlier in the week of people in their fifties with no underlying health conditions.

McCoy also noted the largest number of overnight hospitalizations yet, at 18. There are currently 110 county residents hospitalized with the virus; 23 of them are under intensive care, tying Tuesday’s record.

McCoy noted that two of the hospitalized patients are under the age of 25.

As of Wednesday morning, Albany County has had 9,702 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 218 new cases overnight, McCoy said.

Of the new cases, 180 did not have a clear source of infection that could be identified, 27 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, and 11 are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings. 

The five-day average for new daily positives decreased to 200.8 from 201.2. There are now 1,414 active cases in the county, down from 1,571 on Tuesday.

The number of county residents under mandatory quarantine increased to 3,052 from 2,990. So far, 32,851 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 8,288 had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 359 recoveries since Tuesday.

McCoy urged residents, with or without COVID-19 symptomes, to get tested. He said a new testing partnership will be announced next week.

“Now we’re going to come to your door,” he said, adding that the tests would be free. “Money can’t be the issue for someone’s health,” he said.

Statewide, based on Tuesday’s test results, the infection rate was 5.43 percent. The Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, had a rate of 6.98. The Mohawk Valley continues to have the highest rate at 8.55 percent while the Southern Tier continues to have the lowest rate, at 2.59 percent.

Currently, according to a Wednesday release from the governor’s office, the Capital Region has 380 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, which makes up 0.04 percent of the region’s population and leaves 25 percent of hospital beds available. Statewide, 0.04 percent of New Yorkers are hospitalized with the virus and 30 percent of the state’s hospital beds are available.

The Capital Region has 209 ICU beds of which 176 are currently occupied, leaving 22 percent available. Statewide, 31 percent of ICU beds are available.

On Wednesday, Cuomo announced new guidance from the state’s Department of Financial Services, which has issued a letter, directing insurers to suspend some requirements in order to implement the state’s surge-and-flex protocol that requires hospitals to expand their bed capacity to prepare for a COVID-19 surge.

This is to help with quick transfer of hospital patients when needed and to allow patients to be discharged to skilled nursing facilities or to their homes to increase bed capacity and balance patient load.

Similar regulatory relief was granted in March during the first COVID-19 surge in the state.

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