This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties published Monday, March 29, in collaboration with The Other Hudson Valley.
NEW YORK STATE
7-day average positive test rate: 3.5%
420 deaths past 7 days
4,575 hospitalizations (890 in ICUs)
Share of population fully vaccinated: 16.8%
Share of population given 1 dose: 29.6%
New York State coronavirus page
New York State vaccine page
New York State official pressroom
COVID-19 hotline: (888) 364-3065
Vaccine appointment hotline: (833) 697-4829
The River’s COVID-19 vaccine guide
In a surprise press release Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all New Yorkers 30 and older would be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination on Tuesday, March 30, and everyone 16 and older on Tuesday, April 6. Every other state besides Arkansas and Wyoming had already set a timeline for mass eligibility, and under Wyoming’s county-by-county system, all adults in most counties are already eligible.
Cuomo’s announcement followed Albany County Executive Dan McCoy calling on the state to broaden eligibility to all adult New Yorkers in a briefing Monday morning. Perhaps more politically relevant: Cuomo’s announcement was timed for release shortly before a press conference with a new accuser, who says the governor was “aggressive” in kissing and touching her during a 2017 visit to her flood-damaged neighborhood. Politically motivated or not, expanded vaccine eligibility is good news for healthy younger New Yorkers who have been waiting on vaccination to go back to work or socialize, or who are working high-risk essential jobs.
On Monday, President Joe Biden and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky urged states to slow their roll on reopening, warning of rising infections that could swell into a fourth wave if they outpace the vaccination effort. “We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope,” Walensky said in a video briefing, but added that she also felt a sense of “impending doom.” If the US rushes to ditch precautions too quickly, she said, we risk another spike of hospitalizations and death. “I have to share the truth, and I have to hope and trust you will listen.”
Where does New York State stand in the nationwide resurgence of new cases? Near the top, unfortunately; only our neighbor New Jersey currently has more new cases per capita. A recent USA Today analysis of Johns Hopkins University data ranked New York first among states where COVID-19 is spreading fastest on a per-person basis.
New York must vaccinate all prison and jail inmates immediately, a state judge ruled on Monday. State Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt wrote in her decision that by treating prisoners differently than people in other kinds of “congregate” housing, such as nursing homes and group homes, the state “irrationally distinguished between incarcerated people and people living in every other type of adult congregate facility, at great risk to incarcerated people’s lives.”
Meanwhile, Cuomo’s troubles continue to grow. The Times Union had a pretty damning scoop last week in which state insiders accused the governor and the Department of Health of playing favorites with scarce testing resources in the early days of the pandemic. “One of the people familiar with the matter said that the people with close ties to the governor, including his relatives, would have their samples moved to the front of the line at Wadsworth and be given priority. They were referred to as ‘critical samples,’” reporter Brendan Lyons writes. The state Assembly’s impeachment inquiry, which now spans several issues plaguing the beleaguered governor, is looking into it.
The state has launched a new digital “vaccine passport” in conjunction with IBM, dubbed the Excelsior Pass, that New Yorkers can use as evidence of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to get into workplaces or event venues. Caveat emptor: Privacy experts are a little dubious of it, and according to The Intercept, people who actually understand how blockchain works think there’s no earthly reason this thing needs to have blockchain technology in it.
New York State is opening a new mass vaccination site at Rockland Community College, not long after a coalition of local and state officials from Rockland County issued a public demand to Cuomo and the Department of Health to open a vaccination center in the county. The new site opens Thursday, April 1.
It’s unlikely to happen, but at least one pandemic expert wants to see New York enact a month of stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns to give the vaccination effort time to catch up. “The only way we beat the virus is by using vaccinating and simultaneously imposing stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions to end transmission and stop variants from emerging. This is the fastest route back to normal,” Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute argues in the editorial pages of Gotham Gazette.
On the very-good-news front: Scientists have now had a chance to look more closely at how the mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer have performed in a real-world setting. A fresh study from the CDC found that the vaccines were 90 percent effective in preventing all infection—not just symptomatic disease—in a group of healthcare workers, essential workers, and first responders who received vaccination. It’s more evidence that vaccines do a good job of blocking transmission, a hopeful development for the return of a more sociable world.
Children can’t yet be vaccinated against COVID-19, because the separate clinical trials needed to ensure that the vaccines are safe for them have not yet been completed. But epidemiologists think we won’t be able to get to herd immunity without vaccinating children. In a New York Times op-ed Monday, prominent experts Jeremy Samuel Faust and Angela Rasmussen lay out the case for vaccinating even those who tend to bounce back fastest from coronavirus infection. “The most important and least recognized reason to vaccinate all children quickly is the possibility that the virus will continue to spread and mutate into more dangerous variants, including ones that could harm both children and adults,” they write.
Also in The New York Times recently: An in-depth look at one nursing home’s slow, laborious effort to convince their fearful staff to get vaccinated, one conversation at a time. Forest Hills in DC now has 79 percent of staffers vaccinated, but it wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight. The key, Forest Hills CEO Tina Sandri told the paper, is being willing to respect and listen to people’s fears: “Beliefs change with time or new knowledge, so we have to ride it out. Listen hard, don’t judge and let them move at their own pace.”
The pandemic is looming over the state budget process for the second year in a row—this year, almost literally, with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. Federal aid to state and local governments passed as part of the recent stimulus bill is giving legislators a bit of breathing room as they race to finalize the budget by the April 1 deadline, but there’s a fierce debate afoot in the legislature—newly empowered in budget negotiations by Governor Cuomo’s political troubles, and by a Democratic supermajority—over whether to raise new taxes on New York State’s ultrawealthy.
Statewide, 29.6 percent of New Yorkers now have at least one dose of vaccine, according to state data. In the Hudson Valley and Catskills region, Orange County still trails the state at 24.1 percent, with rural Delaware next at 25.2 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, Ulster and Westchester counties are tied with 33.6 percent of their populations having at least one dose.
Gothamist data journalist Jake Dobkin wrote an impassioned, if wonky, plea last week for New York State to join New York City in the age of technology, and start releasing machine-readable data on COVID-19 and other vital public health topics. From out here in the sticks, where vital public health data from county health departments is even less accessible, Jake, we feel your pain.
A new federal law enacted last Wednesday, the Save Lives Act, authorizes the VA to vaccinate all veterans, their spouses, caregivers and Civilian Health and Medical Program recipients, regardless of whether they are eligible to receive care from the VA.
The CDC recently extended the national ban on evictions through June to allow time for $45 billion in rent and mortgage assistance, enacted as part of the most recent stimulus bill, to reach Americans facing eviction.
LOWER HUDSON VALLEY
At long last, Rockland County is getting a mass vaccination site. Governor Cuomo announced Monday that the state will open a hub at Rockland Community College this Thursday, April 1, with appointments opening at 8am on Tuesday, March 30. The site will run seven days a week from 8am to 7pm. Elected officials in the county have been calling on the state to open a mass vaccination site for weeks, and greeted Monday’s announcement warmly. “I thank the Governor and his staff for listening to our concerns and stepping up to help protect the people of Rockland,” County Executive Ed Day said in a statement.
The statewide uptick in cases has not spared the lower Hudson Valley. The CDC ranks Rockland, Westchester, and Putnam counties as “high” risk for COVID community transmission based on the number of new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week.
Westchester County Executive George Latimer discussed the alarming trend in his Monday coronavirus press briefing, noting that active cases in the county have declined by only about 300 overall since March 1, after falling by more than 4,000 over the previous month. In the last two weeks, cases are up, and hospitalizations have also risen slightly. “We presume the variants are creating a more communicable disease,” Latimer said. “The numbers are not as encouraging as we hoped they would’ve been.”
Positive test results are up across the region, as well, with indicators pointing in the wrong direction. In Westchester County, 4.8 percent of people tested were positive yesterday, and the county’s rolling 7-day average is 4.1 percent, according to the state tracker. In Rockland County, those numbers are 5.9 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively, and in Putnam County, 5.7 percent and 5.4 percent.
Active cases in Ulster County have surged 28 percent since reaching a low of 1,488 March 1. Ulster County Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith blamed a slackening of vigilance as the primary cause for the surge during a COVID-19 update Thursday, but also said variants could be behind the increase. One case of the “New York variant” and five cases of the B.1.1.7 variant had been found in the county as of the update, but Dr. Smith said that was an undercount, as only a fraction of cases are tested for genetic variations, and results lagged because of the lengthy testing process.
Despite the rising numbers, some schools in Ulster County are shifting further out of the remote-leaning model. Saugerties schools will begin teaching in person four days a week in mid-April, while all New Paltz schools will shift to in-person learning four days a week by late that month. The New Paltz expansion comes thanks to new recommendations by the Ulster County Department of Health, according to a letter from the superintendent’s office, the most significant of which is requiring three feet of separation between students instead of six feet. The state is “eyeing” recommending three feet of separation instead of six feet after the federal CDC changed its recommendation, but the official state guidelines remain unchanged. Expanded in-person learning at New Paltz schools also comes after a survey of parents revealed broad support for more in-person instruction, according to Hudson Valley One. Parents also expressed concern over their children’s academic performance and mental well-being.
A rise in COVID-19 cases in Columbia County since mid-March is partially attributable to an outbreak at the Brookwood Secure Center in Claverack, according to county Health Director Jack Mabb. The facility houses boys under the age of 16 who have been convicted of violent felonies in adult court. State prisons in New York have been publishing data on COVID infections since last summer, but Brookwood is under the auspices of the state Office of Children and Family Services, which has not issued any data or statements on the outbreak. Mabb told the Register-Star on Thursday there were six infections at the facility, which includes staff. The number of new cases has continued to climb since, with 22 new cases recorded Monday.
Highlands Current Senior Editor Leonard Sparks has a column in this week’s edition about the possibility of never reaching herd immunity because too many people refuse to be vaccinated. Citing low vaccination rates of local hospital staff and increased availability at Hudson Valley vaccine hubs, Sparks suggests we may be nearing the point where most people wanting the vaccine have already gotten it.
Cases in Dutchess County have also increased dramatically, doubling to 1,435 after bottoming out in mid-February. The number of people hospitalized reached its lowest level on March 11 at 37, and has since risen to 58.
Marist College, which has extended its campus “pause” multiple times this month, hopes to resume in-person instruction on April 1, according to a letter sent to students and faculty last week. “This is not the spring semester any of us had hoped for,” the letter said. As of Friday, there have been 332 total cases since the beginning of the semester, all but four of which are among students.
The Police Benevolent Association of New York and state Senator Michelle Hinchey donated tens of thousands of dollars of PPE to Ulster County, according to the Kingston Wire. The supplies will be used at the county vaccination site in the Hudson Valley Mall.
“Be vigilant,” Sullivan County officials say: COVID cases in the county are going up. “Community transmission is widespread, and nearly 28% of the local March cases thus far are among those 24 years old or younger,” a recent release from county Public Health states. Local health officials urge everyone eligible to get vaccinated as soon as they can, with whatever vaccine is available to them.
Cases are also rising in Delaware County, where the total number of known active positives has risen from 115 a week ago to 139 as of Monday, and in Greene County, where total known active positives rose from 76 to 88 over the past week.
Schoharie County, whose health department has stopped regularly releasing active case counts, told The River on Monday that they are currently tracking 35 known active cases, a rate essentially level with where the county was in early February.
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