Thanksgiving Cancelled – COVID-19 Update

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Saturday, November 21 through Tuesday, November 24. Published in collaboration with The River Newsroom.

NEW YORK STATE
5,906 new cases yesterday
191,489 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 3.08%
33 deaths yesterday
2,724 hospitalizations
545 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

Across New York State, yellow zones are multiplying rapidly—and a few are turning orange and red. The list of New York State microclusters got longer on Monday, when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced five new focus zones on Long Island and upper Manhattan. Existing focus zones in Staten Island as well as Monroe and Onondaga counties will be subject to more intense restrictions this week, as a result of worsening numbers.

Westchester County currently has six focus zones: yellow zones in Yonkers, Ossining, New Rochelle, Tarrytown, and Peekskill, and an orange zone with a yellow buffer in Port Chester. All but the Port Chester zone were put into place less than a week ago. State and local officials expect that those zones, along with several other hotspots around the state, will become more restrictive soon because of worsening numbers. Westchester’s yellow zones are on track to become orange, and Port Chester’s orange zone may deepen to red, Cuomo said in a Sunday briefing. In neighboring Orange County, a yellow zone in Newburgh and New Windsor is on track to become orange, and in Putnam County, Brewster is close to meeting the requirements for a yellow zone.

Confusion around the state’s microcluster strategy continues to be an issue, and it’s hard to predict from the available case data where the state will place a new focus zone, in part because focus zones do not necessarily follow town, city, or zip code lines. One of the more confusing aspects of the strategy: Rural areas must hit higher infection rates before entering a focus zone than more urban places, under a four-tiered system that assigns counties to a tier based on population.

New York State hit a grim milestone in the ongoing fall surge this week: For the first time since the spring, a temporary field hospital has opened up to deal with increasing COVID-19 cases, on the grounds of the Staten Island University Hospital.

As absentee ballots have trickled in after Election Day, Democrats in the state Senate have continued to pick up seats—enough that they may have a veto-proof supermajority in the upper chamber. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said Monday that Democrats will have at least 42 members when the 2021 legislative session begins, a two-thirds supermajority that means they wouldn’t need a single Republican vote to override a veto from Governor Cuomo. A tax hike on the wealthy is among the progressive policy initiatives that might be on the table for state Democrats now, which would go some way toward closing the budget deficit. The latest Senate seats that flipped from Republican to Democrat after absentee ballots were counted are both in the Hudson Valley: Freshman Senator Pete Harckham appears to have won reelection in district 40, while Michelle Hinchey declared victory in the 46th district on Friday.

On Monday evening, CNN broke the news that the General Services Administration will begin the formal transition process of handing the reins of the executive branch to the Biden administration. That’s good news for pandemic response at the federal level: Except for Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s ambitious and competent vaccine development effort, the federal response to COVID-19 has mainly been to let states fend for themselves. President-elect Joe Biden has an ambitious plan for responding to the pandemic, involving the rollout of widespread free testing, local aid, and financial assistance for workers and businesses, but until the transition process gets under way, those efforts are on hold.

A third vaccine maker has entered the running with good preliminary results from clinical trials: AstraZeneca, whose vaccine was developed in conjunction with Oxford University researchers. The efficacy of the Oxford vaccine initially appeared to be behind that of Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, with an estimated 70 percent protection, although researchers later found that adjusting the size of the two doses of vaccine yielded a boost to 90 percent efficacy. The bottom line is that either efficacy rate would be a huge success: The biggest advantage of the AstraZeneca vaccine is that it can be manufactured quickly and cheaply. The manufacturer predicts 3 billion doses will be available in 2021, and at about $4 a shot—compared to $20 for Pfizer’s vaccine, and more than $30 for Moderna’s—it is cheap enough to be far more accessible to poorer regions of the world than its peers.

In most counties as well as in New York State as a whole, the public doesn’t get a lot of data on how well contact tracing is working. One measure of that is how many cases can be traced to a known contact: The greater the percentage of cases that come from known sources, the better contact tracing is working, and the more local health officials are able to keep infection rates under control. Albany County has been pulling back the veil on contact tracing lately, and it’s not pretty: Of 46 new cases found on Monday, health officials could only trace five, the Times Union reported. It’s a growing problem, not only as cases and risk rise in the community, but as people become more unwilling to disclose their private lives to contact tracers.

When is 3 percent not 3 percent? We’ve noted in our roundups for The River that New York City and New York State are using slightly different methods to calculate case numbers, which led to some confusion last week when the two methods disagreed on whether the city had hit the threshold for schools closing. In this Sunday’s paper, two New York Times reporters go deep on how the state and city handle data differently, and why it matters.

Plenty of parents—and public-health-savvy New Yorkers—are upset that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has not yet shut indoor dining and gyms, despite opting to close schools in response to rising infection rates. The state politics magazine City and State is here to remind us that the mayor’s hands are tied: While the governor has granted de Blasio some limited say over schools, closing businesses is Cuomo’s call, not the mayor’s. And so far, the governor hasn’t pulled the trigger. Cuomo has faced criticism for delaying tough measures too long early in the pandemic, and some public health experts fear history may be repeating itself.

A disturbing revelation this week: A huge Satmar wedding with thousands of guests held in Brooklyn on November 8, for the grandson of Kiryas Joel’s Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, was deliberately hidden from public view and promoted by word of mouth in the community. Governor Cuomo is pressing Mayor de Blasio to investigate the event. Meanwhile, another of Rabbi Teitelbaum’s grandchildren was scheduled to be married in the Congregation Yetev Lev synagogue in Kiryas Joel on Monday. As of Monday afternoon, the Times Herald-Record reports, state officials were scrambling to have the event canceled if it could not meet social distancing, masking, and 50-person maximum attendance requirements. A microcluster focus zone centered on Kiryas Joel was recently removed from the state’s list of focus zones after case numbers improved; local health officials have expressed worry that improving positivity rates in the Orange County village were due in part to people refusing to be tested for COVID-19.

Right hand, meet left: While local health officials urge people to stay home or scale back Thanksgiving plans, local sheriff’s offices are pushing a different message. The New York State Sheriffs’ Association has come out against the enforcement of New York’s 10-person limit on home gatherings, and many individual county sheriffs are taking a similar stance—some with more defiant bombast than others. “We do not know if the Governor’s limit on home gatherings to ten individuals is the right number or not,” NYS Sheriffs’ Association Deputy Director Charles Gallo said in a statement. “That is a decision for science, not us, to make. We do know, however, that the Governor has attempted to foist upon local law enforcement an impossible task.” In Albany County, Sheriff Craig Apple is hoping people will voluntarily scale back: “I’m actually kind of hopeful that most people will just do the right thing and keep the gatherings below 10,” he told The New York Times last week.

In a radio interview Monday afternoon, Governor Cuomo shared that his Thanksgiving plan was to have his 89-year-old mother and two of his three daughters join him in Albany. One can imagine that it would have been a lovely feast, but that plan contravenes the CDC’s guidance urging people not to travel for Thanksgiving—not to mention the advice of the governor himself, who just last week said, “This year, if you love someone, it is smarter and better to stay away.” Well. Two hours later, Governor Cuomo reversed course and nixed the plan. “[G]iven the current circumstances with COVID, he will have to work through Thanksgiving and will not be seeing them,” Cuomo senior adviser Rich Azzopardi said. But did the “current circumstances with COVID” change in those two hours, or was it the backlash on social media that caused the governor’s about-face? More on this developing story as news emerges.

Microcluster Focus Zone Update

New York State’s current strategy for curbing infection assigns neighborhoods with outbreaks to “microcluster focus zones” that are coded red, orange, or yellow depending on severity. The NY Forward website has a guide to the restrictions on business, schools, worship, and gatherings, plus high-resolution maps of focus zones in the microclusters.

New focus zones: On Monday, Governor Cuomo announced five new yellow zones: one in upper Manhattan, and two each in Suffolk and Nassau counties on Long Island.

Better: None.

Worse: Parts of existing yellow zones in Staten Island, Monroe County, and Onondaga County were redrawn as orange zones, closing schools and enacting restrictions on businesses that will take effect later this week.

No change: Existing focus zones will remain in place in Erie, Niagara, Monroe, Rockland, Chemung, Tioga, Orange, and Westchester counties as well as Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

The positivity rate in New York State’s focus zones on Sunday was 4.48 percent. The positivity rate statewide with focus zones excluded was 2.73 percent.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY
County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam
University coronavirus pages: Sarah Lawrence, Iona, SUNY Purchase, Manhattanville, Westchester Community College, Rockland Community College, Dominican, Mercy

The spread of COVID-19 in Westchester County is looking increasingly grim. On Monday, the county reported that 5 percent of residents tested Sunday were positive for the coronavirus, and hospitalizations climbed to 168, up from 125 a week ago. “The numbers are not good,” County Executive George Latimer said in a Monday briefing. “They are in general showing now a solid almost two-month rise in COVID infections.” Westchester is up to nearly 50 active cases per 10,000 county residents, the highest known active case rate in our 11-county region as of the most recent available county data. Its cumulative death toll reached 1,500 with one more death reported Sunday.

Hospitalizations in Rockland County hit 60 on Monday, the most in the county since May 21, according to the county’s coronavirus dashboard. The positive test rate in the county yesterday was 3.3 percent, slightly higher than the statewide average of 3.1 percent.

Rockland County is helping residents apply for grants to help pay for heating bills this winter. The grants are administered as part of New York State’s Home Energy Assistance Program. “Between dropping temperatures and the COVID-19 pandemic we are facing what could be an extremely difficult winter,” said Commissioner of Social Services Joan Silvestri. “It is more important than ever that we get this assistance to those who need it most. You can find more information, including qualifying details, on the county’s website.

If you were to just look at the microcluster maps, Putnam County would appear to be in good shape relative to its lower Hudson Valley neighboring counties: no cluster zones cross into its borders. But Putnam’s average test positivity rate over the last week—5.7 percent—is the third-highest in the entire state, behind only Genesee and Cattaraugus counties (neither of which has a microcluster). On Sunday, 110 people out of 1,647 tested came up positive for COVID-19, a 6.7 percent rate. In Friday’s roundup, we wrote about the opacity of the state’s microcluster strategy, and growing questions from public health experts about its effectiveness.

Open Door Family Medical Center in Ossining is partnering with the Westchester County health department to offer free rapid testing this Tuesday, from 12pm-6pm, and Wednesday, from 9am-3pm. Appointments are required; call (914) 995-7425 to schedule.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY
County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia
University coronavirus page: Bard, Vassar, Marist, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Ulster, Columbia-Greene Community College, SUNY Orange

Several law enforcement officials said they will not be enforcing Governor Cuomo’s 10-person limit on Thanksgiving gatherings. Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa, a Democrat, told the Daily Freeman that education was the answer, adding it was difficult for law enforcement to enforce the governor’s mandates since they were not laws. Town of Ulster Police Chief Kyle Berardi agreed. “Do I have the right to enter your home? What gives me that authority? For any normal situation you would need a court order to enter someone’s home. … We’re trying to help the public stay well through this pandemic. I think the governor’s office is putting us in a tough situation,” he told the paper. Greene Sheriff Pete Kusminisky and Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett will also not enforce the mandate. “We do not have the resources or inclination to peep into everyone’s home to see how many people are at the dinner table,” Kusminsky said in a statement.

Five more people died of COVID-19 over the weekend, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus said in his briefing Monday, two of which were residents in nursing homes. Neuhaus said all five were “elderly.” There were at least 154 new cases on Monday alone; 24 people tested positive in the City of Newburgh and 23 in New Windsor, which the county executive said brought the yellow zone encompassing the two municipalities close to becoming an orange zone.

With cases and anxiety rising across New York, more people are getting tested for COVID-19, putting a strain on testing sites and laboratories not seen since the Spring. Though the state says 85 percent of tests are returned within three days, the Poughkeepsie Journal interviewed a sick resident who had trouble getting a testing appointment scheduled in the first place.

Fifteen students at SUNY New Paltz tested positive as the college tested its entire on- and off-campus population prior to the end of the semester. Forty-six students and six staff members have tested positive since the beginning of the semester after more than 10,000 tests, giving the school a positivity rate this semester of 0.26 percent. The school did not require testing before arriving on campus this semester, but quickly mandated all students taking classes be tested after a case emerged at the beginning of the semester. SUNY New Paltz will hold only remote classes when the spring semester begins January 19 and will switch to a blend of in-person and remote learning February 1.

The number of active cases in Columbia County has fallen in the last week, from 102 to 72, according to the county Department of Health.

Households with remote learners and no existing internet connection can get 60 days of free internet access from two major internet service providers in the region, according to the Kingston Wire. Those whose local provider is Optimum should call (866) 200-9522 for more information; those whose local provider is Spectrum should call (844) 488-8395. College students living on their own without broadband are also encouraged to call.

Village Jerk in Beacon will close for two weeks after a positive COVID-19 case, the restaurant’s proprietor announced on Facebook.

CATSKILLS
County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie
University coronavirus pages: SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Delhi, SUNY Sullivan

As the holiday approaches, rural Catskills health officials are urging residents to scale back gatherings or hold remote Thanksgiving celebrations: Health departments in Schoharie, Delaware, and Sullivan counties have posted recent Facebook updates calling for caution.

An employee at the Old Bat Factory in Hancock has tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Delaware County Department of Health. Anyone who was at the deli on Friday, November 13 from 10am until 5pm, or on Saturday, November 14 from 5am to 11pm, should contact their healthcare provider if they develop symptoms over the next two weeks.

On-the-ground local reporting and analysis has never been more important, and that’s what The River aims to provide. But we need your help to continue the work we’re doing. Will you support our journalism today?

OF INTEREST?
The River has a guide on where, how, and when to get tested for the coronavirus in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. To read more of our coronavirus coverage, 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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