COVID-19 Update – Twin Counties See Nursing Home Cases Jump + Coronavirus Strains?

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties co-produced with The River Newsroom. The following is for Thursday, May 7.

NEW YORK STATE
323,978 cases confirmed (2,786 new)
1,055,921 tests performed (27,022 new)
19,877 deaths (232 new)
9,179 hospitalizations (current)
Confirmed cases per 10,000 residents: 167
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

A graphics-heavy editorial in The New York Times on Wednesday makes a compelling visual case that America’s “flattening” curve is a result of New York City’s outbreak being on the downswing. Without New York metro data, the pandemic nationwide is getting worse daily.

This week has seen a flurry of breathless reporting in national news outlets on coronavirus “strains” and fears that the virus might be mutating. Should we be worried? Not yet, says The Atlantic’s Ed Yong, who’s been a necessary source of expertise in a national conversation dominated by reporters without any science training. On Wednesday, Yong took aim at the media narrative that the novel coronavirus might be mutating into more contagious or dangerous forms, writing that most virologists aren’t convinced there’s more than one strain out there. Coronaviruses change much more slowly than the flu, Yong writes, and a mutation in a viral protein found recently by a team in Los Alamos might well have no impact on the virus’s ability to spread or cause disease. Yong warns against the temptation to rely on stories about scary virus mutations to speculate about why some places get hit harder than others: “Powerful antagonists make for easy narratives. Ineptitude, bias, and randomness make for difficult ones,” he writes.

In the past week, Governor Andrew Cuomo has put three billionaires in charge of important state pandemic response projects. Mike Bloomberg is partnering with the state on contact tracing. Bill Gates is heading up an effort to “reimagine” education. And on Wednesday, Cuomo named former Google CEO Eric Schmidt head of a commission on technology and the economy. Schmidt, who appeared on the governor’s daily briefing to talk about how tech can help the state economy recover, has been charged with leading a 15-member task force focused on telehealth, remote work, and expanding broadband access.

Broadband access was an urgent issue for rural New York before the pandemic hit. With the economy, education, and basic aspects of social life now even more dependent on internet access, existing inequalities in the state have been weaponized. State senator Jen Metzger wrote about the issue recently in The River Reporter, a weekly paper based in Sullivan County; the senator, who represents a rural slice of the Hudson Valley and Catskills in New York’s 42nd District, has introduced two bills aimed at increasing access to broadband and holding internet service providers accountable. For a look at what life without broadband looks like up a rural road in Niagara County, see the four-day-a-week Lockport Union-Sun & Journal: The paper spoke to a woman whose daughter is trying to attend community college by sitting in different places in the yard trying to get a hotspot signal, struggling not to give up.

One problem with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation taking a lead role in the state’s efforts to rethink education: Bill Gates has a long track record in education reform, and it’s not good. Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss, who in 2018 wrote a pretty damning story on the foundation’s $575 million failed project to use student test scores to evaluate teachers, talked to educators enraged at the prospect of Gates getting another crack at the public education system. Here’s teacher Kathleen Elliott-Birdsall, a teacher in Cortland: “Andrew Cuomo does not value teachers. He did not include any K-12 educators on his panel for reentry [from coronavirus closures]. I find it incredible that he asks Bill Gates, a man who has disrupted education in so many ways, to develop a plan. Why not ask teachers, those of us in the front lines, for input?”

The results of a new three-day state study on who’s getting hospitalized are in, and they’re surprising. Most of the recent hospitalizations—about 83 percent—were of people who are either unemployed or retired, although it’s important to note that there was no information on employment for 45 percent of the patients in the study. “We were thinking that maybe we were going to find a higher percentage of essential employees who were getting sick because they were going to work, that these may be nurses, doctors, transit workers. That’s not the case,” Cuomo said. A depressing outcome of the state study: the recently hospitalized patients were predominantly Black and Latino, a trend that’s in line with disproportionate COVID-19 mortality rates among those communities.

Antibody tests are becoming more widely available. Wondering if you should get one? First, check out a feature in Quartz, which has a neat interactive tool that allows you to visualize how likely you are to get a result that means something based on the level of infection in your community. One of the biggest problems with antibody tests is false positives, and as Quartz notes, even tests that advertise high specificity rates are much less useful in communities where the infection level has been low. The simulator allows you to see what happens when you conduct antibody tests with different rates of specificity and sensitivity on a population—and the visuals make it clear that when infection rates in the community are low, a person who gets a positive antibody test is as likely to be looking at a false positive as a true one, even if the antibody test has a specificity of 95 percent or greater.

Congressman Antonio Delgado is holding a telephone town hall on Thursday at 4:30pm. Members of the public are invited to dial in at (855) 905-3295 to ask questions.

Announced by New York State on Wednesday:

  • Daily deaths from COVID-19 in New York State were slightly up for the second day in a row on Wednesday, at 232. The count announced Tuesday was 230, and Monday’s was 226.
  • The news this week that there’s a hotspot connected to a large greenhouse complex in Central New York has Cuomo worried. He says outbreaks like this are not about food, they’re about workers in close proximity. “It’s not about poultry, it’s not about meat, it’s not about vegetables. It’s when you run a facility with a large number of workers in a dense environment.” That may be so, but there’s no easy way to make a meat processing plant a less dense environment. A recent story in the Green Bay Press Gazette in Wisconsin, where meat plant outbreaks have been hitting hard, looked at the intense mix of industry logistics and business culture that has made workers in the meat processing industry especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • The National Guard may be called in to help with the Democratic presidential primary, Cuomo’s secretary Melissa DeRosa said at Wednesday’s briefing. She told reporters that the primary election might not be called on Election Night because of the expected number of absentee ballots. “We want to make sure that the counting process is done right, and it’s thorough, and that people continue to have confidence and faith in democracy,” DeRosa said.
  • Cuomo said at Wednesday’s briefing that states loosening restrictions on business and gatherings before the outbreak is on the downward slope are making a mistake. “We do have the virus on retreat all across the state. Different levels of retreat in different parts of the state, but it is on retreat in all parts of this state, which is dramatically different than the numbers for the nation, which is worth noting. You have states that are opening, where you still are in the incline. I think that’s a mistake,” he said.
  • JetBlue is donating 100,000 pairs of round-trip flights for medical personnel and nurses.

ROCKLAND COUNTY
12,204 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page

Pfizer, which has a location in Pearl River, announced today that the first participants have been dosed in the US in the clinical trial for a vaccine program to prevent COVID-19. In anticipation of a successful clinical trial, Pfizer plans to activate its extensive manufacturing network and invest in an effort to be ready to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, if approved, as quickly as possible.

WESTCHESTER COUNTY
30,426 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page
County press release page

County executive George Latimer announced a new memorial Wednesday, “the Ribbons of Remembrance,” dedicated to Westchester County residents who have lost their lives to COVID-19. The memorial is a short walk from the Lenoir Preserve parking lot in front of the Wightman Mansion and overlooks the Hudson River and the Palisades. Visitors are encouraged to write the name of someone they have lost on a provided ribbon and tie it to one of two trees or the rope structure.

New Rochelle mayor Noam Bramson wrote in a blog post that the pandemic had disproportionately impacted low-income immigrant communities in the town’s south end. Though the virus was first detected in the north end’s Wykagyl neighborhood, now 90 percent of active infections are in the town’s southern two zip codes. Bramson wrote there were many reasons for this, such as more densely packed neighborhoods, language barriers, and a higher proportion of essential workers—reasons that are not unique to the town. State statistics show African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to have died from COVID-19.

ORANGE COUNTY
9,215 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page
Orange County Department of Health: (845) 291-2330

The owners of Woodbury Common Premium Outlets retreated on Wednesday from a plan to reopen the shopping mecca in Orange County next week, a move which would have flown in the face of the state’s reopening plans. Simon Property Group announced Tuesday that it has opened 59 shopping centers in 13 states that have lifted coronavirus closure orders, and will open 18 more within the next week. Its schedule originally indicated that seven malls in New York, including Woodbury Common, Shops at Nanuet, and the Westchester in White Plains, would open May 16—just a day after the state’s closure order is set to expire. A spokesman for the property group said the announcement was mistakenly sent to the New York malls.

DUTCHESS COUNTY
3,192 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page
Dutchess County COVID-19 hotline: (845) 486-3555
Dutchess County 24/7 mental health helpline: (845) 485-9700

During Wednesday’s virtual town hall, county executive Marc Molinaro suggested counties in the Hudson Valley north of Westchester and Rockland would be treated differently in the state’s reopening schedule despite being grouped with the two downstate counties. Seven counties in the Hudson Valley are considered part of the mid-Hudson region for purposes of reopening the state. Each region will have to meet a series of goals to reopen, and Westchester and Rockland, which have felt far heavier impacts from the virus, would almost certainly drag down the numbers for the entire region. Molinaro said Governor Cuomo had publicly and privately acknowledged the differences between the two parts of the region. “I will tell you quite confidently that, privately, they’ve acknowledged that Rockland and Westchester are different from the rest of the region, so we are confident we will be given a certain appreciation for that difference,” Molinaro said. “But also be aware that our proximity to New York City poses for us areas of concern.”

Molinaro also cited a falling number of hospitalizations as proof that the county had turned a curve. “We’ve begun a new day,” he said. The number of people hospitalized from COVID-19 peaked at 110 on April 9, while Molinaro said 64 people were hospitalized as of Wednesday. Fifty-eight residents have died from the coronavirus. This is 18 more than was reported by the county Sunday (and the county’s COVID-19 dashboard still shows 40 deaths), but the dashboard notes the county “has received a large amount of new data from various sources that is currently being verified.” It is not known if this new data includes the revised nursing home fatality numbers released by the state Sunday.

PUTNAM COUNTY
1,040 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page

The county’s annual 4-H Fair will not take place this year, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Putnam County’s Board of Directors announced Tuesday. “The Putnam County 4-H Fair showcases the best of our communities,” county executive MaryEllen Odell said. “Every summer the fair brings families together for good food, lively music, and fun times, while youngsters get a chance to display their leadership skills. We will certainly miss it this year, but I know that when the 4-H Fair returns next year, it will be the best one yet.”

SULLIVAN COUNTY
996 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page

Monticello Central School Board president Lori Orestano James will join Legislature vice chair Mike Brooks, county manager Josh Potosek, and Public Health director Nancy McGraw for a virtual town hall Thursday at 1pm. Questions can be submitted to sctownhall@co.sullivan.ny.us or sent to the county’s Facebook page as a private message. The town hall will be broadcast on the county’s Facebook page.

ULSTER COUNTY
1,383 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page
Community resources page
Ulster County COVID-19 hotline: (845) 443-8888

Project Resilience, an Ulster County initiative that has tapped over 150 restaurants to produce meals in bulk for residents that have been impacted by COVID-19, will halt restaurant deliveries on May 16. But the program will continue in an altered capacity in its second phase. “It’s just a shift to groceries as opposed to restaurant meals,” said assistant deputy county executive Dan Torres on May 5. “Additionally, we are helping some residents get services they now qualify for. We have already done 20,000 meals worth of groceries on top of the 100,000 hot meals.”

Kingston police and state police in Ulster County said they have not issued any tickets for failing to comply with the mandates of New York State on PAUSE. Kingston police have issued six verbal warnings: five for failing to socially distance or for holding a gathering, and one for not wearing a facemask.

A community septic project in Shandaken has been temporarily stalled by the pandemic, the Walton Reporter reports, as the contractor has pulled employees off the site due to health concerns.

COLUMBIA COUNTY
291 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page
Columbia Memorial Health COVID-19 hotline: (518) 828-8249

The county’s health department announced 45 new confirmed cases Wednesday, Columbia’s largest one-day gain. Forty-three of those cases come from The Grand at Barnwell, where the state Department of Health is testing all residents and staff. Over half the residents at the nursing home—112 people—have tested positive for the virus.

DELAWARE COUNTY
62 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page
County alerts and announcements page
Bassett Healthcare Network hotline: (607) 547-5555

Public Health director Mandy Walsh and programs manager Heather Warner have been working seven days per week coordinating Delaware County’s COVID-19 response. The two women were profiled Wednesday in The Reporter, where they spoke of the challenges of responding to the pandemic.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped the Catskill Watershed Corporation’s funding for economic development, municipal wastewater, septic system, and other projects in the New York City watershed, although CWC assistant executive director Jason Merwin anticipates “some potential tightening of funds somewhere down the road,” he told the Walton Reporter. The CWC is funded by New York City to support a variety of watershed protection and economic development projects in the city’s large upstate watershed, where a complex layer of regulations governs land use, building, septic requirements for homes and businesses, and more.

The Delaware County Board of Supervisors will hold a virtual meeting on Wednesday, May 13 at 1pm via Zoom. The public is welcome to attend the meeting.

GREENE COUNTY
188 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page
Columbia Memorial Health COVID-19 hotline: (518) 828-8249

The Athens Street Festival, which was scheduled for July, was canceled Monday due to the coronavirus. It joins several large annual events that have been canceled in recent days, including Grey Fox Bluegrass Music Festival, the TrailBlazer Festival (formerly Taste of Country) and the East Durham Irish Festival.

Twenty-seven more cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed at The Pines at Catskill Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, according to a letter sent to families that was acquired by the Register-Star. The infected residents have been grouped in a separate area of the facility and the nursing home is awaiting test results for several more residents.

SCHOHARIE COUNTY
45 cases confirmed
County coronavirus page
Bassett triage line: (607) 547-5555

A labor union representing county workers filed a grievance against the county board of supervisors for temporarily laying off 95 employees, saying they did not receive the 30-day notice required in their contract. County officials said what the union was calling layoffs were actually furloughs—the workers will continue on their health care and accrue vacation days—and said they were surprised at the grievance, pointing out that most of the workers would be receiving more money under expanded unemployment benefits. The move was an attempt by the county to fill an anticipated $4.2 million budget gap.

The Joshua Project, a nonprofit based in Middleburgh, got a logistical assist for its Backpack Project, which aims to provide a week’s worth of food to some four hundred Schoharie County school children and their families: The Mountain Eagle & Schoharie News reports that plumbing and heating parts distributor F.W. Webb Company will provide a truck and driver to transport the food.

Universal Plastics, which has a plant in Howes Cave, has switched much of its production to making face shields. The company is making about 1,000 shields per day at its plant in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and using Howes Cave as a distribution point.

The Schoharie County Department of Health is reporting two new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. In an April 29 post on Facebook, county health director Amy Gildemeister expressed worry that the number of cases each week in the rural county was on the rise.

OF INTEREST?

The River is collaborating with WGXC to announce these updates over the air. To listen, tune in to 90.7 FM at midnight, 5am, 7am, or 9am, or visit the audio archive online.

La Voz, una revista de cultura y noticias del Valle de Hudson en español, está traduciendo estos resúmenes y co-publicandolos en su página web. Leyendo aqui. También puede escuchar actualizaciones diarias por audio en el show “La Voz con Mariel Fiori” en Radio Kingston.

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