New York’s Winter Plan Takes Shape – COVID-19 Update

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Tuesday, November 24 and Wednesday, November 25. Published in collaboration with The River Newsroom.

NEW YORK STATE
6,265 new cases yesterday
173,085 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 3.62%
41 deaths yesterday
2,982 hospitalizations
596 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

On the Thanksgiving menu for New York State: Corn. In a Tuesday public briefing, Governor Andrew Cuomo was in full dad-joke mode when he unveiled a new official state “Don’t Be A Turkey” mask. “How good-looking is this mask?” he said, modeling it for the camera. “Covers my nose and everything. I’m better-looking with the mask.” (Ed. note: The existence of an official state Thanksgiving mask has us wondering about Christmas. Are we in for a “You Better Watch Out” mask next?)

In the days leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, Governor Cuomo and state officials have been warning about the accelerating fall surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the state, and hammering on the importance of New Yorkers taking COVID-19 precautions seriously. But they don’t expect to see the trend turn around: In a briefing on Wednesday delivered from the Baber AME Church in Rochester, Cuomo said that the state is laying plans for infections to spike even higher as a result of holiday travel and socializing. “The airports are reporting travel that is way up and we’re going to see an increase post-Thanksgiving. We expect that,” he said. “That is going to take a bad situation and make it worse, because the numbers were already going up. We then have increased Thanksgiving travel that’s going to be an additional accelerant. Those numbers are going to go up again.”

Governor Cuomo also alluded to upcoming state COVID-19 policy changes that are still being hammered out. New York State is developing a “winter plan” for schools, Cuomo said, that will prioritize in-person education for kindergarten through eighth grade and provide testing to districts. “The infection rate in K-8 is generally lower than the local community, so you want children in school because it’s safer. Not to mention, they’re getting an education, their parents can go to work, etc.,” he said.

Another potential state policy change coming down the pike: Microcluster rules, which are already fairly complicated and opaque, might be tweaked to factor in local hospitalization rates. “Prioritize zones—orange, yellow, red—with hospitalization rate by the capacity in that local area, because we don’t want to overwhelm the hospitals,” Cuomo said.

The upcoming project of vaccine distribution has been a frequent topic for the governor in recent briefings. On Wednesday, Cuomo returned to the issue of inequality in vaccine distribution, saying that relying on existing healthcare facilities to serve as the backbone of the vaccination effort will leave Black and brown communities behind—along with rural areas, an aspect of the problem Cuomo hasn’t discussed much, but that many public health experts are worried about. “There are just fewer healthcare private facilities in Black, brown, poor, and rural communities. That’s why they have more underlying conditions. That’s why you have twice the death rate in the Black community,” Cuomo said.

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A New York State Department of Health rule enacted Tuesday for assisted living facilities has upended a lot of holiday plans, the Times Union reports. Residents who leave to spend holidays outside of the facility must test negative within 24 hours of returning. As one woman whose mother lives in Albany’s Atria Crossgates points out, this rule is not likely to catch a lot of developing COVID-19 infections: “If you get exposed on Thanksgiving, going back the next day and having a (negative) test isn’t going to prove anything,” Jill Knapp told the paper. She’s right, and for that matter, Governor Cuomo has spoken in public briefings about how tests often miss infections for days until the virus builds up to detectable levels. “Some of these regulations are just stupid.” Nursing home advocates are also perplexed as to what the new guidance means for people who return to facilities with a positive test: Will they be turned away? The state guidance is unclear.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is likely to shorten the recommended quarantine period from 14 days to as few as seven, according to widespread reporting Tuesday. That’s not necessarily because the science has changed, though, and the shorter quarantine period would ideally be complemented by a test. It’s mostly down to human behavior. “Shortening quarantine recommendations to focus on the period of time during which the vast majority of people who are exposed to the virus are likely to become contagious is a smart, pragmatic move that is likely to boost compliance,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told NPR.

Almost 6 million Americans say they’re in danger of eviction or foreclosure in the next two months, Bloomberg reports, citing a survey conducted by the US Census Bureau. Nationwide, 17.8 million are behind on rent or mortgage payments. The City reported this week that the first legal eviction in New York City since the pandemic began was conducted on November 20; without some sort of widespread state or federal action to prevent evictions, New York State (along with the nation) is likely to see mass evictions when pandemic tenant protection runs out at the end of the year.

Democrats in the New York State Senate now have a supermajority: A few tight races were resolved this week with the counting of absentee ballots, and the Democrats will have the 42 members they need to overturn a governor’s veto on legislation. That could mean policy changes ahead for how New York State deals with the pandemic: City & State did a Q&A with Democratic state senator Gustavo Rivera about why this could mean new taxes on high-income New Yorkers and a greater chance of passage for the New York Health Act, a draft bill that would enact single-payer healthcare in the state.

COVID-19 data is about to get weird because of the holiday. Erin Kissane of the COVID Tracking Project, an unofficial site that has become the nation’s most trusted source of coronavirus data after the federal government failed to step up to the task, wrote on Tuesday that holiday delays in lab testing, processing, and reporting are likely to make data at all levels very wobbly throughout the holiday weekend. After that, there will be another lag before we see cases rise from Thanksgiving gatherings: Kissane writes that we will start to see the impact of Thanksgiving sometime around the second week of December.

Restaurant dining is okay, but family Thanksgiving is out? You can go to a bar, but not after 10pm? A lot of state pandemic rules, in New York and elsewhere, don’t make much sense—and as cases rise, the logic of the restrictions being enacted is fraying, The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull writes. “Experts know what has to be done to keep people safe, but confusing policies and tangled messages from some of the country’s most celebrated local leaders are setting people up to die,” she writes, noting that while politicians know that activities like indoor dining are unsafe at current levels of transmission, they generally do not have the funds to step in and bail out businesses to enable mass shutdowns. The result: Fractured, illogical policy in the business sphere that isn’t doing much to keep people safe, while states plead with their residents not to gather in their own homes.

A new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute, a progressive nonprofit think tank based near Albany, has quantified the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color and immigrants. For example, in the third quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate for white New Yorkers was 10 percent, for Black New Yorkers it was 13 percent, for Asian New Yorkers it was 16 percent, and for Latinx New Yorkers the rate was 19 percent. “There is good reason to think that undocumented immigrants in New York have been most impacted by job loss, most at risk as ‘essential workers,’ and at the same time are excluded from aid other New Yorkers get because they are ineligible for state unemployment insurance, federal assistance, and other supports available to workers during hard times,” the report’s authors write. The report also recommends some policy initiatives as potential solutions, including passing the New York State Excluded Workers Fund, which would provide weekly payments to people who are unemployed but are excluded from the state’s unemployment insurance system.

In the wake of AstraZeneca’s Monday announcement that its vaccine looked promising in early data, scientists have criticized the company for being less than transparent about its protocols. The data on which AstraZeneca based its upper estimate of 90 percent efficacy was the result of a mistake in dosage in part of the clinical trial, not a deliberate effort to test different dosages. The fact that the more protective dose was found by accident doesn’t necessarily mean the findings aren’t real, but it might mean that the company’s most optimistic efficacy numbers would not stand up to FDA review, because the volunteers who got the more protective dose were not selected to be a random sample of the overall population, and may not have included older participants. It seems likely that Pfizer and Moderna, whose press releases about preliminary results contained more information about their protocols and findings, may get FDA approval for their vaccines before AstraZeneca. But if AstraZeneca’s data holds up to scrutiny, the Oxford-developed vaccine is still an important step forward for global public health, because it is far less expensive to produce than its competitors.

Rite Aid, which has offered free self-swab testing sites to adults, announced in a press release Tuesday that the program has been expanded to all individuals 13 years or older. For minors, legal guardians must provide consent, show a government-issued ID, accompany their children to the appointment, and supervise them during the test. All patients are required to preregister online at riteaid.com to schedule a time slot for testing. The program is being run in partnership with the US Department of Health and Human Services.

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.

No changes to microcluster focus zones in New York State have been announced since Monday. The state currently has 26 focus zones. For The River’s most recent update on zone changes, see our Monday news roundup.

The positivity rate across all of New York State’s focus zones on Tuesday was 5.28 percent. The statewide positivity rate with all of the focus zones excluded was 3.04 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

Over the past week, Westchester County registered more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases, 13 deaths, and nearly 200 hospitalizations, County Executive George Latimer said Wednesday in his latest coronavirus briefing. The county has 5,024 active cases and 198 hospitalizations, about a 4 percent hospitalization rate. “The rate is a good rate,” Latimer said, because it means that despite the recent spike, the county’s hospitals are not yet overstressed. “We would fear being in the high teens approaching 20 percent hospitalizations, that would be a much more concerning number.”

Rockland County confirmed two more deaths on Tuesday, and that hospitalizations had risen to 65. The estimated total number of deaths in the county due to COVID-19 is now 695. On Tuesday, LoHud.com reported on the Esplanade senior living community in the tiny hamlet of Palisades, where this month, seven residents have died and 20 cases have been confirmed. The home currently has 47 residents.

Daily positive test rates in Putnam County continue to be high. On Tuesday, the county confirmed 34 new cases out of 550 tests, a 6.2 percent positivity rate. By comparison, Westchester and Rockland counties were both at 4.2 percent. Putnam’s seven-day average of 5.8 percent positivity is the third-highest of all counties in New York. The county also announced Tuesday that it’s working with the state to get a zip code-level breakdown of cases to “residents, businesses, and schools that might be impacted by the Governor’s micro-cluster designations.”

White Plains Schools Superintendent Dr. Joseph Ricca and the Board of Education are getting pressured to switch from a hybrid model to all-remote learning next week, reports The Examiner News. Three unions representing teachers, administrators, and civil servants are fearful of the impact Thanksgiving will have on COVID-19 case numbers. In an interview with the outlet late Wednesday morning, Ricca said a final verdict on the union’s request has not yet been reached.

One piece of news we missed in Monday’s news roundup: Westchester-based Regeneron was granted FDA emergency use authorization over the weekend for its monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19.

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

In a Tuesday briefing, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan warned that the county is seeing “an increasingly sharp and sustained surge” that threatened to eclipse the spring. “What’s increasingly clear from the numbers is: If we don’t change what we’re doing now, this second wave is shaping up to be worse than the first wave,” Ryan said, warning that the county was headed for the enactment of a yellow zone if trends continue. To complicate the picture, Ryan said that Ulster County only recently began counting rapid tests in county case numbers, contributing somewhat to the rapid rise in recent cases; New York State has been including them in state data for some time. “These are still positives,” Ryan was quick to add—but rapid tests aren’t as accurate as PCR tests, yielding both more false positives and more false negatives, a topic explored in depth in a recent ProPublica story. So far, neither the state nor the county is publishing any information about how many of the tests reported are rapid versus PCR.

In a Facebook video briefing on Wednesday, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus said that nursing homes in the county were “not looking good right now”: Of the county’s 17 nursing homes, five have at least one resident who has tested positive, and 14 have had a staffer test positive. Another revelation in Neuhaus’s briefing: Orange County is tracking reinfections. Forty-two people in the county have tested positive twice for COVID-19, Neuhaus said. “These are people that actually tested positive in the first phase—I’m talking March, April, May—that have now tested positive in the second phase, meaning September, October, November.” The county has had a total of 16,304 positive cases, according to the latest information on the county dashboard.

Nursing homes in New Paltz are also seeing an increasing number of cases, according to Hudson Valley One. The New Paltz Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing reported Monday seven new positive test results, with 22 residents and staff suspected of having the COVID-19; a resident also died last week of the virus. Woodland Pond in New Paltz dodged a bullet earlier this month when a cluster at the nursing home proved to be a batch of false negatives, but on Monday reported seven staff members had tested positive.

The City of Newburgh passed a mask ordinance on Monday that levels a $250 fine for going maskless within six feet of others in public areas. An exception is made for members of the same household.

Dutchess County currently has 718 active cases and 42 hospitalizations, reported County Executive Marc Molinaro in his Wednesday coronavirus briefing. The county had a 3.2 percent test positivity rate on Tuesday, lowest among the seven counties in the Mid-Hudson Region.

A statue of a nurse has been moved from the lobby of Vassar Brothers Medical Center to the sidewalk in front of the Dutchess County Office Building to honor the sacrifice of nurses during the pandemic. The statue was created by local artist Nestor Madalengoitia.

The Onteora School District will go remote after Thanksgiving break until December 14 as a “precautionary measure” to tamp down post-Thanksgiving spread, according to a letter to parents obtained by the Daily Freeman.

Columbia County’s active caseload has continued falling. There were 61 active cases in the county Wednesday, compared to 92 a week before.

The Orange County Department of Health warned residents Wednesday that anyone who visited the Outback Steakhouse in the Town of Wallkill last week may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

A Hudson alderwoman asked Hudson Police Chief Edward Moore if he would be enforcing Governor Cuomo’s 10-person limit on Thanksgiving gatherings after the sheriffs of Columbia and Greene counties said they would not. He responded: “It’s never going to be the case that the police will knock down doors,” stressing officers will first educate people and “try to get people to comply…That’s our role—to try to educate people that it is their civic responsibility,” according to Gossips of Rivertown.

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

Sullivan County issued four public health alerts alerting residents to possible exposure:

The coronavirus claimed its 21st victim in Greene County today, according to the county Department of Health. Greene County began releasing a town-by-town breakdown of active cases for the first time Wednesday. Ten residents of Catskill are currently known to be infected, the most in the county, followed by nine in Coxsackie and six in Leeds.

Visitors to the Sullivan County Government Center, in Monticello, will be screened for COVID-19 exposure before entering beginning November 30. Visitors will be asked a series of questions and to provide contact information for tracing.

Community Action of Greene County told the Daily Freeman they are expecting 60 percent more requests for Thanksgiving dinners this year because of the economic impact of the pandemic. They are not taking food donations to limit person-to-person interactions, but are asking for monetary donations, which can be given here.

Turkey mask, meet official sheriff mask: Cuomo isn’t the only New York politician modeling facewear these days. Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond masked up recently for a campaign the county is running, Mask Up Delco: DuMond’s mask is a little more understated than Cuomo’s, but hopefully catches just as many particles.

In a Wednesday case update, the county’s first since November 16, Schoharie County health officials said that the county currently has 21 active cases, down from 34 a week and a half ago. According to county data, eight new positives were found on Wednesday, a high number for the tiny rural county. The county health department is urging residents to “plan your holidays with only the people who live in the same place that you do and keep your gatherings to the current 10-person limit for private gatherings.”

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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