COVID-19 Update – Are Protests Fueling the Pandemic?

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, June 11.

COMING INTO FOCUS

By Lissa Harris

Are protests fueling the pandemic? It’s an urgent question, and after two solid weeks of nationwide demonstrations in places both large and small, we still don’t know.

If protests are a major risk factor for spreading COVID-19, New York City is likely to feel the impact. Large protests in the city were underway by Thursday, May 28, drawing thousands of people into the streets over the past two weeks. Although the daily number of new cases in the city has plummeted to a tiny fraction of its early-April peak, New York City still has community transmission: On Tuesday, the city Department of Health reported 110 new cases, down from 6,374 on April 6.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has made testing available to anyone who participated in recent protests, and health experts are encouraging participants to get tested and do two weeks of voluntary quarantine. So far, there’s no sign of an uptick in protest-related cases in New York City, although it may be too soon to know for sure. It can take up to 14 days after exposure for symptoms to appear, although the median is closer to four or five days. Even after symptoms appear, people may wait until they’re desperately ill to seek testing or treatment. Then there’s the wait for test results, which might be a day, a week, or even longer. The “horror of the coronavirus data lag,” as The Atlantic puts it, means that it takes weeks, perhaps even a month or more, to know the impact of an event or a policy change. By then, it has already taken its toll.

Some experts say the early data on case counts in places with large protests is encouraging. Epidemiologist George Rutherford told the San Francisco Chronicle that if protests had caused outbreaks, he would have expected to see upticks in Minnesota by now: “Minnesota [is] falling steadily; there’s one slight uptick on June 1 but that may be because of weekend reporting lags,” he said. “But it’s all trending down. If you look back seven to 10 days, you would expect to be seeing a significant jump by now.” Other experts are braced for a spike they feel is inevitable.

For epidemiologists, who deal regularly in the science of suffering, the protests present an opportunity to learn more about the virus. Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow with the Center for Global Development and a member of the team that helped chart the Obama administration’s Ebola response, noted in a Twitter thread that the protests represent a mix of factors already known to boost coronavirus spread (large crowds, people yelling loudly) and those known to help lessen risk (outdoors, widespread mask-wearing, people moving around and not prolonging contact with any one person).

Tear gas and pepper spray, which police have deployed broadly, increase the risk of transmission by causing people to cough and take off contaminated masks. Large-scale arrests may have created opportunities for superspreading: more than 2,000 protesters have been arrested in New York City, and many were detained overnight in close quarters, without masks or hand sanitizer. Back in April, a month before George Floyd’s death, Georgetown law professor and former reserve police officer Rosa Brooks wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that considering the pandemic, police should consider getting less physical. “Except in cases involving serious violent crimes, police officers nationwide need to go hands-off,” she wrote; police response to protests in large cities has mostly been anything but.

Scientific knowledge about which behaviors are most risky in the pandemic is evolving, but a few recent data points from Missouri point to a reason for optimism about the risk of protests: So far, public health officials say there have been no additional cases traced to large pool parties at Lake of the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend, despite the fact that an infected person attended. In another highly publicized situation, two COVID-19-positive hairdressers in Springfield who wore masks, and worked with 140 people while they were unknowingly infected, did not pass the virus to any of their clients.

These are just a few incidents, but they suggest a potential positive impact of taking measures to reduce risk, like holding gatherings outdoors and wearing masks. A recent British study also gave a boost to the value of mask-wearing: researchers from Cambridge and Greenwich modeled different population-wide scenarios using data from known person-to-person transmission chains, and concluded that if more than half of the population wore masks habitually, the R0 for COVID-19 would drop below 1, causing the pandemic to shrink rather than grow.

With outdoor events looking less risky and mask-wearing more protective than scientists thought in the early days of the pandemic, there’s reason to hope that recent massive protests haven’t already sparked massive outbreaks. But even if that’s true, there may be another sobering bit of collateral damage in the collision between pandemic and policing: Public trust.

Police work and the contact tracing done by public health departments are separate efforts, but in the age of surveillance, people may fear they are working hand-in-glove—and public officials aren’t necessarily helping. Minneapolis public safety commissioner John Harrington used the phrase “contact tracing” in a press conference to describe police intelligence-gathering, a move that may have hurt local health efforts, Business Insider writes.

There’s also a worry that by telling people to stay home and then not denouncing the protests, epidemiologists and public health experts have eroded their credibility with the public. It’s a nuanced topic, and debates among high-level experts are raging on Twitter about how they should be communicating with the public about it. For Black people in public health, the dilemma of how to respond is especially personal. Charlottesville doctor Taison Bell, who specializes in infectious disease and critical care, told the New Yorker that he’s felt torn about whether to participate in protests: “I’m a black man and a physician. I can’t choose one identity over the other, nor do I want to. Two competing factors, racism and COVID, are killing my community. It feels really unfair that I can’t fight both at the same time.”

At least one epidemiologist has weighed in with some very preliminary back-of-the-envelope math, estimating the number of COVID-19 deaths that the protests will cause in the US: 50 to 500, a disproportionate number of them Black, Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center predicted. (By comparison: Police fatally shoot about 1,000 people a year in the US.)

There’s no sure way to know if those numbers will be borne out, but if anyplace in the nation is likely to yield data in the coming weeks on how protests have affected transmission, it might be New York.

NEW YORK STATE
380,156 cases confirmed (674 new)
2,668,166 tests performed (62,297 new)
24,404 deaths (56 new)
89,995 hospitalizations (overall)
2,190 hospitalizations (current)
630 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

Wednesday’s daily COVID-19 briefing by Governor Cuomo was one of the briefest so far—just under eight minutes—and did not include the daily death toll: 56, a hair up from daily deaths in New York State over the past week, which have been below 50 since Thursday, June 4. New positives are still trending downward, with 674 new cases in the state.

Fourteen states and Puerto Rico are now seeing higher numbers of new COVID-19 cases than at any point in the pandemic so far, the Washington Post reports: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Carolina, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. Cuomo made the spiking states a cautionary tale in Wednesday’s briefing: “If you look at the states and the countries that have been reopening, more of them have gotten into trouble than not. As we sit here today, states are getting into trouble. Newspapers will tell you more than a dozen states are now seeing increases,” he said. “Reopen, reopen, reopen. Be careful, be careful, be careful.”

Cuomo and the New York State Department of Health have once again reversed course on a nursing home policy. On May 18, Cuomo announced that all nursing home staff must be tested for COVID-19 twice a week; on Wednesday, the state eased up on the requirements, saying that staff must be tested once a week. The New York Post, which has been doing some vigorous and pointy reporting on Cuomo’s handling of nursing home outbreaks, took credit for the policy change; on Monday, Post reporter Bernadette Hogan got the scoop on a story about weeks-long delays for nursing homes getting their test results back.

Announced by New York State on Tuesday and Wednesday:

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

During an appearance on Westchester County executive George Latimer’s COVID-19 briefing, Metro-North Railroad president Catherine Rinaldi reported that ridership jumped on Monday, when New York City reopened, to 20,140, about four percent higher than what it was during the middle of the pandemic. LoHud.com also reports that the Metro-North added 19 trains to its schedule on Monday, and will add another 48 to the morning and afternoon rush hours by next week. The bump will get the railroad to 61 percent of its normal weekday service.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients increased from 16 to 22 in Rockland County in the last 24 hours, still a far cry from the numbers seen in late April, when hospitals held more than 200 patients in any given day. Maintaining a low rate of new hospitalizations is one of the metrics required to continue the phased reopening, but the increase was not expected to jeopardize the region’s trajectory, according to LoHud.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Emergency Room admissions are down 40 percent at Columbia Memorial hospital in Hudson, and the number of people seeing specialists there has also dropped even though elective surgeries are once again permitted. CMH officials said the hospital was not in danger of closing. The hospital furloughed 125 staffers in mid-April due to the slowdown, which has mostly been attributed to people being fearful of hospitals during the pandemic, though the cancelation of elective surgeries in the state also contributed.

Dutchess County executive Marc Molinaro provided an update on the projected revenue losses in the county in his COVID-19 town hall on Facebook live. The county expects to lose between $40-80 million, about half of which derives from sales tax losses, which generally account for 41 percent of the county’s revenue. Molinaro noted that the three monthly sales tax payments Dutchess County has received from the state since March 1 have been lower than 2019.

Two announcements from Ulster County executive Pat Ryan: On Tuesday, Ryan outlined his “Outdoor Dining Initiative,” which opens up county parking lots for seating and encourages municipalities to suspend local ordinances and zoning laws to allow for more socially distant outdoor dining pursuant to the rules outlined in Phase Two of reopening. And on Wednesday, Ryan formally announced the formation of a housing advisory committee to addresses the causes and drivers of Ulster’s affordable housing shortage and recommend strategies that the county can pursue to alleviate it, in conjunction with municipal, business, and community partners.

Thirty-one Columbia County employees agreed to be furloughed for either one or two months this summer to help close the pandemic-sized hole in the county budget. The plan is expected to save the county $81,000. This is distinct from mandatory furloughs negotiated between the county and the United Public Service Employees Union, wherein most county employees will not work or not be paid for one day out of every two-week pay period until December, a plan expected to save the county $1.5 million.

CATSKILLS

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Sullivan County is no longer the second-most-unhealthy county in the state, according to a county press release: it now ranks as the third-most unhealthy. Though the improvement in ranking, as calculated by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was released to the county in March, officials decided not to release the news in the face of an overwhelming health crisis. “The timing would have been awkward, and the messages would have conflicted at a time when so many people were becoming ill, so we chose to wait until now to share this very welcome news,” according to county health director Nancy McGraw.

The latest victim of the pandemic in Schoharie County: Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School’s childcare center, which suffered a total loss of revenue when schools closed down on March 13. District board members voted to approve shutting the center down last week, the Times-Journal reports.

The Roxbury, a Wonkaesque temple of luxury whimsy built on the bones of a Catskills strip motel, got dealt a rotten hand by the pandemic: Owners Gregory Henderson and Joseph Massa opened their second boutique hotel, a multimillion-dollar gut renovation of a nearby mansion dubbed Stratton Falls, in February, and promptly lost all their customers in one fell swoop. “The virus has devastated our business,” Henderson told Condé Nast Traveler in April. But they’re back: On Wednesday, the Roxbury owners announced the reopening of both hotels, with a list of safety precautions that includes contactless check-in, hand-held UV disinfection gadgets for staffers, and cooling-off periods for rooms after every occupancy.

OF INTEREST?

The River has a guide on where, how, and when to get tested for the coronavirus in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. We also have a regularly updated list of resources on our website. To read more of our daily news roundups, visit our coronavirus page.

The River and The Other Hudson Valley are 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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