Rising Hospitalizations Threaten Indoor Dining – COVID-19 Update

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Saturday, December 5 through Monday, December 7. Published in collaboration with The River Newsroom

NEW YORK STATE
7,302 new cases yesterday
152,287 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 4.79%
83 deaths yesterday
4,602 hospitalizations
872 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

The nation’s top COVID-19 authority is getting out a little more these days—at least virtually. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, paid a videoconferenced visit to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Monday COVID-19 briefing to talk about New York State’s pandemic response, and what lies ahead for us all. His central message: Brace yourselves, New York, we are in for a very tough couple of months. Although it has been more than a week since Thanksgiving, Fauci said he expects the full impact of the holiday to emerge over the next 10 days, just in time to coincide with the beginning of another surge in holiday travel. “The middle of January could be a really dark time for us,” Fauci said, stressing that there were things both ordinary citizens and governments could do to lessen the suffering.

Cuomo asked Fauci a list of questions in the briefing—mostly on important pandemic topics, although there was a segue or two, Cuomo-style, into the doctor’s favorite New York foods (Nathan’s hot dogs, pastrami) and whether he’d rather be Al Pacino or Robert De Niro (Fauci diplomatically deigned to choose). On the topic of school transmission and strategies to protect schools from shutdowns, Fauci offered Cuomo a piece of advice that New York State is unlikely to take: Pay restaurants to close. “When we were talking about what the best strategy would be, we would say something like, ‘Close the bars, keep the schools open, it’s the best thing to do—so long as you subsidize and help the restaurateurs and the bar owners, so that they don’t go down and essentially crash because of the economic strain,’” Fauci said.

“I think you’re exactly right,” the governor replied, before pointing a finger of responsibility at the federal government. “Congress, Washington also has to understand those bars, those restaurants, they need financial assistance because this has been a long year and they have bills to pay,” Cuomo said. “You can’t tell them, ‘We have to close you down,’ without saying, ‘Here’s the economic reality and we’re going to help.’”

Closing restaurants down is exactly what Cuomo plans to do. The governor unveiled more details about the state’s strategy shift toward using regional hospital data to drive pandemic policy, a move he’s been alluding to in recent briefings. In Monday’s briefing, Cuomo said that if rising hospitalizations in a region do not “stabilize” within five days, the state will act. In the case of New York City, that would mean closing indoor dining altogether. For the state’s nine other regions, it would mean moving indoor dining from 50 percent capacity to 25 percent capacity.

Those rollbacks of indoor dining could happen as soon as next Monday. Although Cuomo told reporters “it’s not inevitable,” he clearly expects it to happen. “You have to alter your behavior to reduce the spread. Do I believe between now and five days, we’ll see a stabilization rate in New York City? I would be pleasantly surprised,” he said.

Swift action might bring case numbers down, but there is little anyone in the state can do to turn hospitalization rates around before next week. That’s because rising hospitalizations are the result of rising cases that have already happened, following a week or two behind case numbers in a predictable way. If all COVID-19 transmission in New York State were to stop now, hospitalizations and deaths would keep rising for some time before beginning to fall again.

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The New York State Restaurant Association, reacting swiftly to Cuomo’s announcement on indoor dining, pleaded for help in a prepared statement Monday afternoon. “The confusing, patchwork system of micro-clusters, regional restrictions and blanket statewide rollbacks has made it virtually impossible for restaurants to continue indoor dining,” the association said. “With the looming limits on indoor dining and outdoor dining no longer practical, many of our members will be forced to shut their doors, and for some it may be their final service…The restaurant industry is on life support and will die without financial assistance from the federal government. We need our elected officials, including Governor Cuomo, to be our biggest advocates.”

Looking beyond next week, Cuomo and state health officials plan to take more drastic measures, in a return to the kinds of shutdowns imposed by New York State on Pause, if hospital numbers continue to worsen. “If our hospital capacity becomes critical, we’re going to close down that region. Period,” Cuomo said Monday. The metric the state will use: If the growth rate in the seven-day average of hospitalizations shows that within three weeks, the region will hit 90 percent of hospital capacity, the state will impose “red zone” shutdowns of nonessential business and gatherings on the region. “You can’t be Italy. You can’t overwhelm your hospitals. If you are at a rate that is going to overwhelm your hospitals, you must shut down. Not just indoor dining: Shut down. Only essential businesses,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo and state health officials are ordering hospitals to boost capacity by 25 percent, the governor said Monday, a figure smaller than the 50 percent increases Cuomo indicated last week that the state would ask for. Hospitals across the state are preparing for another round of “surge and flex,” a load-balancing system the state attempted to implement in the spring. “What happened in the spring, interestingly, was not that the system was overwhelmed. Individual hospitals got overwhelmed, and the individual hospitals did not have the capacity to balance patients,” Cuomo said. For an in-depth look at what hospitals are doing to prepare and where the bumps in the road are likely to lie, the Gotham Gazette recently published a long feature on the topic.

Upstate is now worse than the New York City metro area, Cuomo said. “New York City, Long Island, we actually have a lower rate hospitalized than upstate, which is an exact flip of where we were in the spring,” he said. “Spring, we had a largely downstate situation, and upstate the situation was much better.”

Another topic of conversation between Cuomo and Fauci: Vaccination, which will begin soon in New York State, but remains out of reach for all but the most high-risk healthcare workers and nursing home residents because of limited supply. Asked by the governor when vaccination would hit “critical mass,” Fauci said that he thought that with the right outreach, the goal of vaccinating enough of the population to allow for a full return to most activities could be reached in the summer of 2021. “I would think by the time you get to the beginning of April, you’ll start getting people who have no high priority—just a normal man and woman, New Yorker in the street, who’s well, has no underlying conditions,” Fauci said. If most of the general population can be immunized between April and June, then by the time most people have reached maximum immunity—about seven to 10 days after the second dose—it will be mid to late summer.

Congress appeared to be moving closer to an agreement on coronavirus stimulus legislation, but reporting on Monday indicated that compromise is likely more than a week away. That’s because the government is set to shut down this Friday, December 11, if a new government funding bill is not passed. Congress will likely approve a stopgap measure funding the government at its current level for one more week, during which time Congressional leaders may attach a version of the $908 billion economic stimulus package to the must-pass government spending bill. Several critical protection measures are set to expire on December 31, including the CDC’s eviction moratorium, $300 weekly unemployment benefits, and unemployment for freelancers, contractors, and gig workers. One of the last remaining items of contention in the stimulus package is a liability shield that would protect businesses from being sued if workers became sick with the coronavirus.

Writing for the justice publication The Appeal, three legal and public health scholars looked at how the expiration of the eviction moratorium would significantly worsen the COVID-19 crisis. “Although they’re rarely treated as such, evictions are a public health crisis,” the authors write, synthesizing the findings of a recent paper on pandemic housing strategy. Eviction increases mental-health factors that weaken the immune system, disproportionately affects high-risk populations who have less access to health care, and can lead to transiency, homelessness, and crowded environments in which the virus would spread more easily.

Almost 12 million Americans will start 2021 more than $5,000 behind on rent, The Washington Post reports. Also numbering about 12 million: Americans who are about to see their unemployment benefits run out, months after emergency federal unemployment supplements designed to get workers through pandemic disaster have already run dry.

Atul Gawande, a public health expert and professor of surgery at Harvard Medical school who is now part of Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, talked to The New Yorker Radio Hour on Saturday about potential obstacles to vaccinating the US. About 70 percent of Americans must be vaccinated for the virus to die out, Gawande said, but research suggests up to half of Americans would not be comfortable taking the vaccine upon FDA approval. Vaccinating healthcare workers first would give a big boost of confidence in the vaccine, Gawande said. “Healthcare workers are everywhere, which means we’re all going to know people who got vaccinated, and we’re going to see they did alright.” The surgeon, who is also a staff writer for The New Yorker, said he would feel comfortable engaging in most normal activities within six months, but eradicating COVID-19 would have to be a global undertaking. “A few months in, and we will begin to realize…this can’t just be about distribution of the vaccine in the United States, this is also going to have to be about enabling global inoculation,” he said.

A promise by the Trump administration to deliver 300 million doses of vaccine by the end of 2020 isn’t going to be met, The Washington Post reports. The first allocations to states are far lower than state officials expected, and states have scrambled to alter their plans to deal with the scarcity. Not helping: Federal officials who passed up a chance in the summer to buy more doses from Pfizer, meaning the US will have to wait for Pfizer to meet commitments to other nations before we get another round of vaccine supply from the drugmaker.

In the near future, we may be carrying vaccination cards to show proof of COVID-19 immunity, CNN reports. Another vaccine bright idea that hasn’t gotten much traction yet, but might take off: Paying people $1,500 to get their second dose, a former Congressman’s plan to deliver both stimulus checks and an incentive for vaccination in one fell swoop.

Rudy Giuliani dominated the headlines this weekend, but he’s not the only political New Yorker to test positive for COVID-19 recently: State Senator George Borrello and his wife have both tested positive, Spectrum News reports. Longtime Auburn Assemblyman Gary Finch is hospitalized with COVID-19, and he has a message for his constituents: Wear a mask and keep to your household. “Avoid crowds so you’ll be around for the next Christmas and the next few holidays. You just got to get through this one,” he said.

Travel testing without a poke in the nose: A new test site that will run on SUNY saliva testing technology will launch soon at the Albany International Airport, and several other test centers are planned for other parts of the state, the Times Union reports.

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 have been made to New York State’s focus zones since our Wednesday roundup: New York State’s zone maps have been unchanged since before Thanksgiving. The state currently has 26 microcluster focus zones, located in Erie, Niagara, Monroe, Onondaga, Rockland, Chemung, Tioga, Orange, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties, as well as in Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island. The positivity rate across New York State’s focus zones in Sunday’s data was 6.57 percent. The positivity rate statewide with the focus zones excluded was 4.27 percent.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY
County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

“I think we can safely say we are in a second peak of the disease without question,” Westchester County Executive George Latimer said in his Monday coronavirus briefing. Through Sunday, the county had an estimated 7,925 active cases, roughly equivalent to the number of infections at the end of April. Latimer stressed that many more people are getting tested now than in the spring, and the virus is not as widespread in the county now as it was during its early peak. For example, hospitalizations are in the low 300s, Latimer said—he did not specify the number—still well below what they were in the spring. On Sunday, 6.1 percent of those tested were positive, according to the state dashboard, the fourth consecutive day above a 6 percent test positivity ratio. The last time the county’s rolling seven-day average test positive rate was above 6 percent was May 21. Latimer reported five deaths Monday, bringing the county’s total over the past week to 19.

Rockland County reported 1,960 active cases on Monday and 69 hospitalizations, up from 52 on Friday, according to the county’s coronavirus dashboard. On Sunday, 4.3 percent of those tested were positive for the virus, below the county’s weekly average of 5.6 percent.

In Putnam County, there were also signs that the infection curve is slightly bending. The county added 37 new cases on Sunday with 5.4 percent positivity, significantly below its rolling seven-day average of 8 percent, according to the state’s regional coronavirus dashboard.

About 50 people, mostly small business owners in the village of Port Chester, publicly called for the state to lift coronavirus restrictions that are keeping them closed. Port Chester has been in an orange zone for about a month, which means high-risk businesses like nail salons, hair salons, and gyms must remain closed. As of Friday, the village’s positivity rate was 10.27 percent. Many of those protesting said the microcluster restrictions are not working, and without clarity from the state on the future of the cluster enforcement strategy, local businesses cannot afford to keep losing customers to surrounding municipalities.

If you happen to see masked enforcement agents on the streets of Rockland and Orange counties in the coming weeks, it’s not the Watchmen but rather state health department agents. On Monday, the NYSDOH issued an urgent appeal for staffers to deploy to hotspots in the two counties and enforce mask and social-distancing safety protocols. Health department spokesperson Gary Holmes said that it’s not uncommon to request that some staffers volunteer to redeploy to help address the pandemic. No word yet on if the health department staffers will have any kind of enforcement mechanism to wield.

The Westchester County Department of Social Services is seeking gift card donations for its holiday gift drive benefiting foster children in the county. The annual charitable drive will provide gift cards in lieu of boxed toys this year in order to minimize the contact between people.

The Westchester County Office for Women and the Westchester Women’s Advisory Board will hold a joint virtual discussion on Tuesday, December 8 to discuss “staying sane during pandemic times.” The event begins at 7pm and will feature a psychologist, a certified stress management specialist, and the director of Yonkers’s Office of the Aging. You can register online here.

Rockland County accepted a grant of about $68,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the weekend. The fund will provide the county with “emergency preparedness assistance for the protection of life and property related to the COVID-19 public health emergency,” according to an update posted to the county’s Facebook page, and will be administered by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY
County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

A dozen protesters gathered near the Orange County government offices in Goshen on Sunday to protest school closures. Schools in the county are remote-only until January 19, but demonstrators said there should continue to be in-person classes with a remote option. “The assignments are getting done,” Ciara Lasanta said of her 5-year-old son. “But is he learning? No.” County Health Commissioner Dr. Irina Gelman released a statement in response saying that 500 COVID-19-positive residents—78 percent of whom were students—exposed other students, facility, and staff to the virus during the two-month window schools were mostly open in the county. County Executive Steve Neuhaus preemptively bashed the protestors during his briefing Friday, saying the plans “boggle the mind.”

People seeking COVID-19 tests for precautionary reasons should expect a slower process as the national testing system comes under strain, Dutchess County Health Commissioner Dr. Anil Vaidian said Friday. More people are seeking tests, putting stress on testing facilities and the commercial labs that process them. Vaidian expects hospitals, medical groups, and others in the region to prioritize symptomatic individuals when it comes to rationing rapid tests. The speed with which PCR tests are processed for others is expected to slow, he added.

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan told The Daily Freeman on Monday that there had been four deaths over the last 96 hours in the county. “The frustrating part is, we saw this coming,” Ryan said. There were still a small number of people refusing to wear masks, and small gatherings continued, Ryan said, adding 70 percent of cases in the last two weeks were traceable to household gatherings, including Halloween parties. “It’s beyond frustrating, because now we’re seeing people lose their lives from that kind of behavior,” he added. A total of 283 people tested positive since Friday in the county, resulting in a positivity rate of 5.4 percent.

Kingston native Army Col. Robert “RJ” Mikesh is the IT and logistics lead in distributing COVID-19 vaccines through Operation Warp Speed. Mikesh’s labyrinthian charge is to coordinate between the federal government, the Department of Defense, states, pharmaceutical companies and shipping companies to have the vaccine ready to be administered within 48 hours of FDA approval.

The Columbia County Department of Health issued a press release stating six cases had been tied to a county-based business. The release did not identify the business, only that cases were limited to employees and their families “at this time.” The River has reached out to the health department to learn more.

The Columbia County Recovery Kitchen, which has delivered 25,000 freshly prepared meals since the beginning of the pandemic, is looking for additional families and individuals in need as the winter season bares down. People in need are referred to the private volunteer organization by county agencies, Head Start, the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, and others, but the organizers worry some people facing food insecurity in the county are not on these organizations’ radar. If you or your family is food insecure or you know someone who is, email  info@columbiacountyrecoverykitchen.org.

Four people died in Orange County over the weekend, County Executive Neuhaus announced in his Monday briefing. Three were nursing home residents. The number of available ICU beds was at 50 percent, Neuhaus said, far within the range of what local hospitals could handle, though 102 people remained hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Neuhaus welcomed the state Department of Health “mask squad” in county communities where the virus is surging. (For more details on the initiative, see our blurb in the Lower Hudson Valley section.) “I met with the state police last week,” Neuhaus said. “They’re going to supermarkets, department stores. They’re saying, ‘Hey, wear a mask, here’s a free mask.’”

Horizon Medical Group, in conjunction with the Orange County health department, is offering free COVID-19 tests at the following locations:

  • Newburgh Ministry: 9am to 4pm on Thursday, December 10;
  • RECAP, Middletown: 1:30pm to 4pm, Tuesday, December 15 and Friday, December 18;
  • Salvation Army, Middletown: 10:00am to noon, Tuesday, December 15 and Friday, December 18;
  • Guild of Saint Margaret, Middletown: 9:00am to 5:00pm, Wednesday, December 23.

Residents can register at one of Horizon’s drive-up testing locations in New Windsor or Goshen or by calling (800) 859-0085.

CATSKILLS
County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie
Four COVID-19 cases in Schoharie County have been linked to a November 25 concert at the Frog Alley Brewery in Schenectady County, county health officials said in a Facebook post on Saturday. The four were not all part of the same group, health officials said. On Monday, county health director Amy Gildemeister told The River that the county currently has 44 active COVID-19 cases, the highest number announced by the county so far.

On Monday, Greene County’s plan to reduce its in-person workforce, announced last week, went into effect. Many county services are now appointment-only; the Catskill Daily Mail has some information on how county offices and services have been affected by the shift. Drive-through COVID-19 testing is available through Greene County Public Health in the Water Street parking lot at the rear of the County Office Building, 411 Main Street in Catskill, on Wednesdays, December 9, 16, and 21.

The latest partially covered face of Delaware County’s “Mask Up DelCo” mask-wearing campaign: Ed O’Neill, co-owner of the Andes Hotel and the Shire Pub in Delhi. The Shire closed down briefly in October after an employee tested positive for COVID-19; the pub has since reopened.

Sullivan County recently added a map to its website showing information about local COVID-19 testing. New York State also has a “Find A Test Site Near You” statewide map of locations.

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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