Week XLII: Surge upon surge sickens, hospitalizes, and kills — in record numbers

ALBANY COUNTY — The drum-beat of deaths from COVID-19 sounded every single day this week — the county’s 42nd week of battling the virus.

Records were broken, too, for daily new cases — a high of 269 was announced on Christmas Eve — and for hospitalizations.

All week long, more than 100 residents were hospitalized with the disease, and the record for hospitalizations was broken four days in a row, culminating with a record-breaking 129 hospitalizations announced on Wednesday.

County officials throughout the week warned that the surge from Christmas gatherings had not yet run its course and urged residents not to party for New Year’s celebrations.

For New Year’s Eve, Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen recommended, “Have a Zoom party.”

“It is unlikely that December is the worst month we’ll have,” said Whalen at Monday morning’s press briefing. “It is likely that January will be worse. Given the amount of travel that people have had, given the fact that not everybody adhered to suggested guidance to stay with their immediate families, we do anticipate an additional surge.”

She also said, “There are hospital systems being stressed … You can prevent it.”

Twenty-two Albany County residents died of COVID-19 this past week. On Wednesday, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy announced eight deaths, five of them were from the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Latham, which had not been reported to the county previously.

That brought the month’s COVID-19 death tally to 63. The month of May, in the midst of the initial springtime surge, held the previous high at 55 deaths.

The death toll mounts — the county has now had 218 residents die of the disease — despite the improvement of treatment therapies since the spring, meaning a smaller percentage of hospitalized patients are dying of the disease.

Albany County is not alone. Nationwide, the number of new daily cases has risen five--fold since Labor Day. Twenty-thousand Americans died of COVID-19 this past week.


Strained capacity

As the state’s focus has shifted away from infection rates — Albany County already met the rate that would have declared it a red zone, the most severe, under the old micro-cluster system — so has Albany County’s.

“Our hospital capacity is getting to the point where we’ll be waiting for more guidance from the governor,” said McCoy on Monday.

The biggest worry, he said, is not having enough hospital staff to care for those occupying the beds. He described a “domino effect” with workers falling ill.

Throughout the week, of the 10 regions in the state, the Capital Region has had the worst rate for availability of intensive-care-unit beds and among the worst rates for availability of hospital beds.

On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo called out the Capital Region — along with Mohawk Valley and the Finger Lakes — as needing “to focus on themselves.” On Wednesday, too, he mentioned the “bump up” in positivity rates in the Mohawk Valley and the Capital Region.

“If you live in those areas, then it’s you and your community and the behavior in your community that is affecting the numbers. And again the numbers make it plain,” Cuomo said on Monday.

He noted that Manhattan, which is more densely populated than any place else in the state and where people use public transportation, has a positivity rate of 2.83 percent. 

Albany County on Dec. 27 had a positivity rate of 15.1 percent.

“You have more people on the sidewalk in Manhattan; it is the precautions that people are taking in those areas,” said Cuomo of the lower infection rates.

Whalen recalled how, at Thanksgiving, she had talked about the possibility of “a surge upon surge.”

“We’re there,” she said at the Christmas Eve press conference. “We’re seeing an exponential rise in cases that we were afraid of on Thanksgiving.

Whalen noted that, for the last nine months, her staff has worked seven days a week and are under “tremendous strain” with the added number of cases.

“We have expanded staff,” she said, and the state now does most of the contact tracing while her staff does case investigation, calling residents who have tested positive for COVID-19.

She urged residents who have received positive test results to check the county’s website for information while they wait to be called by the health department.

“It’s an easy virus to catch,” said Whalen.

She noted that people of all ages — including some in their twenties — are hospitalized with COVID-19. Whalen also noted that a few of the county’s recent COVID-19 deaths have been of people in their fifties



Albany Medical Center has been named the vaccination hub for the eight-county Capital Region. The vaccine planning, said Whalen, was always going to be a joint effort with hospitals, private practices, law enforcement, and emergency management pooling resources.

Like McCoy, Whalen stressed, “It will take a long time before we can vaccinate the general public.” About three-quarters of the public must be vaccinated before normal life can resume, which experts are estimating won’t be until fall.

On Wednesday, Albany Medical Center’s website explaining the administration of vaccines went live. The site says volunteers are needed and tells how medical professionals can sign up to help.

Vaccines are being administered in a tiered system with high-risk medical workers and nursing home residents and workers getting the first shots. McCoy said that workers at Shaker Place, the county’s nursing home, started getting vaccinated on Wednesday, Dec. 23, two days after the residents.

He had said earlier that about 100 — less than half the workforce — had agreed to get the shots.

“I wish more would have gotten vaccines,” McCoy said this week. He also said commercials were being developed to encourage residents to get vaccinated.

Cuomo announced on Monday that 140,000 New Yorkers had so far received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine; two doses 21 days apart are needed.

However, Britain this week — with hospitals overwhelmed with a virulent new strain of COVID-19 — started giving just first doses to residents, using what would have been the second doses to make the available vaccine protect more residents, although perhaps not as fully.

Cuomo also said on Monday that he was signing an executive order that a health-care provider could be fined up to $1 million and have state licenses to practice medicine revoked if vaccinations were given outside of the parameters set by the state’s tiered hierarchy.

The state expects to receive another 259,000 doses this week, with 139,400 made by Pfizer and BioNTech and 119,600 made by Moderna, he said.

Vaccinations were given to, and continue to be given to, federally qualified health-center employees, emergency medical-services workers, coroners, medical examiners, funeral workers, and residents and staff of Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and Office of Mental Health facilities.

That has been expanded to urgent-care center workers; people administering COVID-19 vaccines, including local health-department staff; and residents of the Office of Addiction Services and Supports’ congregate facilities, Cuomo said.

The second tier, 1b, according to Albany Med’s website, includes frontline essential workers such as fire fighters, police officers, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, postal workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, and teachers.

It also includes people ages 75 and older.

The third tier, 1c, includes people ages 65 to 74; people ages 16 to 64 with underlying medical conditions that increase the risk of complications from COVID-19; and other essential workers, such as those who work in transportation and logistics, food service, housing construction and finance, information technology, communications, energy, law, media, public safety, and public health.



Cuomo spoke on Monday of “possible fraud by a health-care provider.”

“You’re going to see more and more of this. The vaccine is a valuable commodity and you have many people who want the vaccine,” he said.

On Saturday, the governor’s office had put out a statement from New York’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker, on a criminal investigation into a health network in Orange County, which may not have followed the state’s plan for administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

“The State Department of Health has been made aware of reports that Parcare Community Health Network, an Orange County provider, may have fraudulently obtained COVID-19 vaccine, transferred it to facilities in other parts of the state in violation of state guidelines, and diverted it to members of the public — contrary to the state’s plan to administer it first to frontline health-care workers, as well as nursing-home residents and staffers,” said Zucker.

He went on to say the department takes the allegations “very seriously” and the state’s health department will help the State Police in a criminal investigation into the matter.

“Anyone found to have knowingly participated in this scheme will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” said Zucker.

Parcare doesn’t appear to have been keeping its vaccination program secret. The health network had tweeted on Dec. 16 that it had been authorized to distribute the vaccine to people who met certain criteria and urged patients to reserve a slot to be administered on a first come, first served basis. The tweet said the vaccine was only for people in the following categories: elderly, high risk, underlying conditions.

Then, on Dec. 26, Parcare had tweeted a picture of “our dear friend & member” Rabbi Gary Schlesinger getting a COVID-19 shot.

At his Monday press conference, Cuomo said the State Police were pursuing an investigation and that Attorney General Letitia James would make the case a priority.

“We want to send a clear signal to the providers that if you violate the law on these vaccinations, we will find out and you will be prosecuted,” said Cuomo.

He said he was signing an executive order that a provider could be fined up to $1 million and have state licenses to practice medicine revoked.

“So, if you engage in fraud on this vaccine, we will remove your license to practice in the State of New York so we are very serious about this ….,” said Cuomo. “I was the attorney general for four years. People talk, we will find out, and it’s not worth risking your license as well as a possible civil and criminal penalty.”

Christmas wish

On Friday, Cuomo tweeted that his Christmas wish was answered: “The CDC finally mandates UK flight testing.”

A week ago, Prime Minister Boris Johsnon had shut down London and southeast England after a highly transmissible variant of COVID-19 had been discovered.

Cuomo had called for federal action and then, on his own, had New York State added to the list of 120 countries for which passengers from the United Kingdom must be tested for COVID-19 before flying to New York.

The new rule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took effect on Monday. Passengers arriving from Britain now must test negative within 72 hours of their departure.

Cuomo also directed the Wadsworth Laboratory in Albany to check samples from hospitals across the state to see if the new strain has made its way to New York. No reports on that have been forthcoming.

On Tuesday, the governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, reported the first confirmed case in the United States of the more contagious variant — in a man in his twenties with no travel history, who is currently in isolation in Elbert County, southeast of Denver.

Cases of the COVID-19 variant have been found in Japan, Spain, France, Canada, and India.

On Wednesday, in light of the Colorado case, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living  put out a plea for getting vaccinations.

The organization, which represents more than 14,000 nursing homes and assisted living centers, caring for about 5 million people, said in a statement, “News that the new strain of COVID-19 has been confirmed and connected with a Colorado nursing home indicates that our fight against this virus is far from over. This development comes at a time when long term care facilities are facing the worst outbreak since the spring.

“Soaring community spread has resulted in a record-breaking number of cases and deaths in nursing homes — nearly 25,000 cases and 4,000 deaths per week. This is why long term care residents and staff must be prioritized for critical resources, especially distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines.”


NYS adopts 10-day quarantine

This week, the state’s health department updated its quarantine guidelines to match those issued earlier by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Monday, Whalen explained that patients infected with COVID-19 had always been required to isolate for 10 days.

People who had been exposed to someone with the disease had had to quarantine for 14 days. That period has been shorted to 10 days as long as no symptoms have been reported during the quarantine period.

Those under quarantine must continue monitoring for four more days and, if symptoms develop, they should self-isolate and contact the health department to determine if testing is needed.


Consumer alert

The state’s Division of Consumer Protection put out an alert on Tuesday, warning New Yorkers about vaccination scams.

“Scammers are using techniques that typically arise with a major global event such as: falsely claiming to be online sellers of the vaccination; sending fake emails and texts that contain harmful links designed to steal your personal information; and using robocalls to pitch vaccination information,” the division said in a release.

The state’s Vaccinate New York website provides accurate and timely information on the vaccine, safety, distribution priorities, and other details. New Yorkers may also call the COVID-19 Hotline at 1-888-364-3065.


Newest numbers

Of the eight people whose deaths McCoy announced on Wednesday morning, five were women in their nineties, two were women in their eighties, and one was a man in his seventies.

As of Wednesday morning, Albany county has had 11,204 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Of the 213 new cases Mccoy announced on Wednesday, 179 did not have a clear source of infection identified, 19 are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings, and 15 had close contact with someone infected with the disease.

The five-day average for new daily positives in Albany County increased to 218 from 197.4. 

The number of county residents under quarantine decreased to 3,093 from 3,126. So far, 36,721 county residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 9,657 had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 206 recoveries since Tuesday.

There were 15 new hospitalizations reported overnight, and there are 129 county residents currently hospitalized from the virus — a net increase of two. There are now 21 patients under intensive care, unchanged since Tuesday.

Statewide, the Capital Region continues to have the worst rate for available ICU beds, at 19 percent. Currently, 187 of the region’s 216 ICU beds are occupied. Statewide, the rate is 31 percent.

Currently, 404 Capital Region residents are hospitalized with COVID-19, which is 0.04 percent of the region’s population and leaves 26 percent of the region’s hospital beds available.

One other area — Central New York — has a worse rate, at 22 percent. Two other areas — Long Island and the Mohawk Valley — have the same rate, 26 percent.

Statewide, 0.04 percent of New Yorkers are hospitalized with the virus, leaving 31 percent of the state’s hospital beds available.

Statewide, the infection rate, as a seven-day average, is 6.43 percent. The Capital Region has a rate of 9.09 percent.

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