COVID-19 Update – Counties Reject State Virus Tracking System

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 Saturday, June 12.

LOCAL DIVE

By Roger Hannigan Gilson, Lissa Harris, and Phillip Pantuso

Contact tracing is not a new or esoteric process: Find a sickened person, interview them, figure out who they’ve been around, then find out if those people are infected. Local health departments are using the same techniques for COVID-19 that they have used in the past for measles, tuberculosis, and other diseases. But recently, they have faced pressure from New York State to get on board with a new statewide system, which has been giving county health officials some serious headaches.

In May, the state began using CommCare, a system developed by Boston-area software company Dimagi, in an attempt to standardize contact tracing across the state, and provided counties with contact tracers.

Many counties wish they hadn’t.

Columbia County Department of Health Director Jack Mabb says the county has stopped using CommCare and contact tracers provided by the state after having problems with both.

“This was a humongous endeavor on the part of the state, and I think they just tried to build something too quickly,” he says. The CommCare system tripled the time it took the county’s contact tracers to interview sickened residents, and the state-provided tracers couldn’t be, well, traced.

“We couldn’t tell what they were doing, we couldn’t tell what they got done,” Mabb says. And although he was told the state would provide contact tracers from the region, Mabb says they didn’t know the area or the community.

What’s more, according to Mabb, the documentation CommCare provided, such as isolation orders and letters clearing recovered patients for work, were not on official letterhead, and therefore were not legally binding documents.

Columbia County has 25 of its own contact tracers—14 health department employees and 11 county employees from other departments, all of which have been trained. Mabb says the county did not need CommCare or the state tracers, and probably never would. “The bottom line is, I don’t see the pandemic coming back with such force that we can’t handle this ourselves.”

A few miles down river, Dutchess County used a combination of CommCare and its own internal system before completing a transition to CommCare for all tracing on Friday, in conjunction with guidance from the state. The county—which is the second-largest in the mid-Hudson Valley, with nearly five times the population of Columbia—needs more than 250 contact tracers to meet the state’s criterion, but it also isn’t using any state-provided tracers.

Instead, county officials put out a call to the public on social media and via email, and more than 400 people responded offering to volunteer. Currently, Dutchess County has 350 trained contact tracers, who are a combination of community volunteers, county employees, and Medical Reserve Corps volunteers, allowing the health department to surge as needed in the event of a large influx of potential cases.

Sullivan County, meanwhile, is also using its own data tracking system in addition to CommCare. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county was using Excel spreadsheets to track contacts. But when the numbers of people who were isolating because they were sick or under mandatory quarantine grew so large that the system became unwieldy, the county built an Access database to handle contact tracing, Sullivan County Public Health Director Nancy McGraw says. The county is now maintaining that database alongside CommCare, a system that requires staffers who are already working seven days a week to spend more time dealing with data.

“We’re going to continue to maintain that through this rollout of CommCare, because we want to make sure that we’re able to have local control over our data sets, and some pieces of information that we have that CommCare does not seem to have reports for,” she says.

In rural Schoharie County, where there are currently only a handful of active cases, health officials are also maintaining their own spreadsheet-based system along with CommCare. Schoharie County Public Health Director Amy Gildemeister said that the learning curve for training staff to use CommCare has been painful. “None of us are particularly thrilled about switching systems in the middle of the current situation,” she says. “I do understand the need for it. It hasn’t been fun. It hasn’t been smooth.”

Gildemeister said that if the county sees a significant outbreak, they might ask the state to send contact tracers to help out, but they would prefer to do the work themselves.

“We know our county. We know our residents,” she says. “If a particular family has a need, like if they need food or if they need a prescription picked up, we’re usually able to accommodate that pretty easily. And it’s much less complicated than having somebody else who possibly doesn’t live here being involved.”

Contact tracers are more than just disease detectives, Gildemeister says: They give solid health advice to people in isolation or quarantine, connect people with programs like Meals on Wheels or the county Office for the Aging, and must be well-versed in respecting HIPAA and maintaining confidentiality.

“This is a core function of public health that we are good at and we have been doing for a long time,” she says.

NEW YORK STATE
381,714 cases confirmed (822 new)
2,801,400 tests performed (72,395 new)
24,495 deaths (53 new)
1,898 hospitalizations
552 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

Something to celebrate heading into the weekend: New York State has the lowest rate of transmission of COVID-19 in the nation, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in Friday’s briefing. According to rt.live, a website launched in April by the founders of Instagram that tracks R0 (the average number of people each case infects) for COVID-19 state by state, New York’s R0 currently stands at .77; any number below one means that the outbreak in the state is currently shrinking, not growing. Also of note: The site gives confidence intervals for its estimates, and New York’s are among the smallest, meaning that researchers are more certain that the estimate is close to the true number; this is probably because testing in New York has been more widespread than in other states. At the other end of the spectrum, with an estimated R0 of 1.15, is Washington State, where outbreaks in the eastern part of the state are driving case numbers up. In the briefing, Cuomo credited a “disciplined” approach to reopening: “That is incredible. We were the number one state in terms of infection, number one in the nation, number one on the globe per capita, and now we’re the last state in terms of rate of transmission. That is because New Yorkers stepped up, they were smart, they were disciplined, they did what they had to do, and we have to stay there.”

There’s no sleepaway camp this summer, and they don’t want to talk about it. In a classic Friday news dump, New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker issued a statement late Friday afternoon on a very big news day, stating that he had decided not to allow overnight children’s camps to operate this season. Day camps will be allowed; on June 2, Cuomo announced that children’s day camps could reopen on June 29. In Brooklyn this week, hundreds of Hasidic Jewish children protested in the street in support of reopening summer camps.

Jesse McKinley, the Albany bureau chief for The New York Times, noted in a tweet about the decision that Cuomo told reporters earlier that day that a decision had not yet been made about sleepaway camps: “If you think @NYGovCuomo didn’t know the answer about summer camps at 12:30, I’ve got a summer camp to sell you.”

In case you were wondering whether Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio were still squabbling about minor issues, the answer is yes. On Thursday, Cuomo announced that pools and playgrounds statewide were cleared to reopen if local governments approve; de Blasio said he’s not ready to decide yet.

On Friday, officials from the Centers for Disease Control held their first public briefing since March to deliver the earth-shattering news that they are advising us to wash our hands, wear cloth masks, and stay six feet apart when possible.

Cases are on the rise in 21 states, according to an Associated Press analysis that compared the rolling seven-day average of cases on Monday to the same figure a week previously. The largest increases have been in the South and West, the AP reports; after an abrupt end to its statewide stay-at-home order on May 15, Arizona is seeing a dramatic increase in new cases and hospitalizations. Cases have also shot up in North Carolina, Texas, Alabama, and Arkansas, some driven by large outbreaks in meatpacking plants, prisons, and nursing homes. In New York, cases were up slightly on Friday, at 822, from their numbers in the preceding few days, but still lower than they were a week ago, when daily new cases were still above 1,000. Hospitalizations have continued to go down; on Friday, the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in New York State dipped below 2,000 for the first time since March.

A few New York State legislators are pushing to repeal broad liability protections for nursing homes and hospitals that were passed in April as part of the state budget. Cuomo and New York State officials have come under fire for their handling of nursing home policy, and more than 6,100 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19 statewide, the Times Herald-Record reports. Lawmakers backing the rollback of liability protection say that some of those deaths were preventable. “One of the clearest ways to hold these people accountable is to allow people to file claims,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat.

State Senator Jen Metzger, a Democrat representing the Hudson Valley’s 42nd district, has introduced a bill that would double the funding for New York State’s pandemic-oriented Nourish NY program, which connects New York State farm produce with food banks. Metzger is looking to tap into $25 million in unallocated funding from the federal CARES Act, a package of coronavirus legislation and stimulus funding.

Announced by New York State on Thursday and Friday:

  • The first five regions to begin economic reopening moved to Phase Three on Friday, getting the green light for indoor dining, nail salons, tattoo parlors, and other personal care services, subject to capacity restrictions and safety measures. The regions now in Phase Three are the Southern Tier, Mohawk Valley, Finger Lakes, Central New York, and the North Country. Guidance on Phase Three safety measures for businesses have been posted on the state NY Forward site. Still unclear: When gyms will be allowed to reopen.
  • Governor Cuomo said state health officials are evaluating when to lift the ban on visitors to nursing and group homes, but that it’s still too soon to do so.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

Outdoor summer camps in Westchester County parks will begin July 6 with social-distancing restrictions in place, county executive George Latimer announced on Thursday. A press release on the county website has details about modifications for individual camps. To prepare for the hordes of children gathered together, the county has enlisted the help of medical experts to provide updates on the coronavirus-related Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in youth. An online public info session will be held on June 17 at 6pm; to register visit www.westchestergov.com/youthbureautownhall.

The state still has not set a date for when visitors are allowed in group homes, which include homes for adults with developmental disabilities, and LoHud talked to parents who had not seen their adult children since early March. Many people with developmental disabilities have compromised immune systems, and their outcomes when infected with the coronavirus are worse. The parents said they understood their children needed to be safe, but wondered why some sort of plan had not been laid out for them to see their loved ones.

Tensions between Metro-North workers and leadership have been rising amid disputes over safety and pay, and on Thursday conductors sued the railroad, claiming that the increasingly crowded trains put them at risk of contracting the coronavirus. They are asking a federal judge to halt a schedule change Sunday night that would bring service up to 61 percent of what it was before the pandemic. Instead, conductors want to return to a full schedule that would allow for greater social distancing among workers and passengers.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

The count of active cases on Dutchess County’s COVID-19 data dashboard plummeted this week, from more than 1300 to just 438 cases. In a note on the dashboard, county officials explained the plunge as a consequence of moving from its own contact tracing system to the state’s CommCare system. “In verifying cases to be transferred, a significant number of individuals have been removed from the county’s active cases count,” they wrote.

A week after Governor Cuomo allowed religious services to be conducted at 25 percent capacity, the Times Herald-Record talked to local church leaders about conducting services. Methodist churches were holding off, following the dictates of upper clergy. “Methodists are not called ‘Methodists’ for nothing, right?” said Pastor Charles Young-Chul Ryu of St. Paul’s in Middletown. Calvary Baptist Church in Warwick will hold drive-in services, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in Middletown, outlined plans to take congregants’ temperatures and supply them with hand sanitizer upon entering.

The City of Hudson is reimagining its streetscape for the era of COVID-19. Warren Street, its commercial thoroughfare, will be turned into a “shared street” from 10am to 10pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, closed to all vehicular traffic except motorists going somewhere on the block. Parking spaces along Warren Street will be occupied by local businesses 24/7, with barriers dividing them from traffic. The plan hopes to allow pedestrians to socially distance and businesses to operate outside. Many of the stores are too small to keep six feet of distance, and there is less of a chance of contagion in the open air. Hudson will have a trial run for three days starting June 17.

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan on Thursday announced the launch of the Ulster County Recovery Service Center, which is less a “center” and more a portal for residents to access specially trained county staff, who will provide assistance for county government services. Residents can also access information 24/7 via a virtual assistant ChatBot. The virtual center is accessible on the county’s coronavirus page.

The Hudson Valley Hot-Air Balloon Festival, scheduled for July 10-12 at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds, has been postponed until the fall due to concerns about holding events during the pandemic, according to the organizers, who did not name a target date on their announcement.

CATSKILLS

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Phase Three of the economic reopening process began in Schoharie and Delaware counties on Friday, located in the Mohawk Valley and Southern Tier economic development regions of the state.

Liberty’s Vine and Branch Free Methodist Church has mostly closed its doors, but Robin and Ed Sostak, the husband-and-wife pastors who run it, are working harder than ever: The Sullivan County Democrat had a story this week on the church’s response to pandemic, which has grown to include online services, regular front-porch meetings with congregants, and church members delivering cards and care packages to each other.

Not canceled: Catskill’s Pride Parade, although the village’s LGBT rainbow-festooned march down Main Street to Dutchman’s Landing will be held on August 1 instead of the traditional Pride Month of June. “In Dutchman’s, there will be a whole bunch of activities and maybe a live band, hopefully some food truck vendors,” organizer Elliot Matos said. “We will keep social distancing in mind with all that. We will have a better understanding of how our numbers are by then. We have to see how we are with the COVID first and work around that.” This year’s event won’t be the first Pride Parade held in Catskill, but the village hasn’t had one for about a decade, the Catskill Daily Mail reports.

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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