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Coronavirus Roundup: Looking at an Apparent Outbreak in the Hudson Valley

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Thursday, September 24 and Friday, September 25.

Free COVID-19 testing is available at the Ramapo Cultural Arts Center in Spring Valley Monday through Friday between 9am and 5pm.
Ramapo Cultural Arts Center/Facebook
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This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Thursday, September 24 and Friday, September 25. 

453,755 cases confirmed (908 new)
10,323,463 tests performed (94,818 new)
Positive test rate: 0.96%
25,446 deaths (7 new)
511 hospitalizations
154 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

New York State’s test positivity rates still look all right statewide, but zoom in on the hotspots in the Hudson Valley and it’s clear there’s an outbreak underway. Rates have been ticking up in Rockland and Orange counties for more than a week; in the latest test results from Thursday, positive rates were above four percent in both counties. Cases from Rockland and Orange made up more than 12 percent of all cases statewide on Thursday, the Times Herald-Record noted. It’s impossible to say for certain from the data, but the Mid-Hudson areas that are now having large outbreaks have large Orthodox Jewish populations. With a worrying new outbreak also underway in Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, and the timing of skyrocketing local numbers falling between the high holy holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Mid-Hudson’s rising numbers appear to be linked to a growing problem in New York’s Orthodox communities. 

The new cases in Rockland and Orange counties are concentrated in just two towns. In Rockland, 371 of the 534 currently active cases in the county are in the town of Ramapo. In Orange, 41 of Thursday’s 65 new cases were from the town of Palm Tree, where the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel is located. Thursday’s daily case count was the highest in Orange County since May 5, Executive Steven Neuhaus said in a Facebook live briefing.

The outbreaks in Rockland and Orange counties are affecting the numbers for the Mid-Hudson region overall. On Thursday, Mid-Hudson had a 1.7 percent positivity rate; of the other nine economic development regions of the state, only Western New York, which stood at 1.1 percent positivity, had a rate above one percent, according to the state’s NY Forward dashboard. So far, Governor Andrew Cuomo has not addressed rising case numbers in the Hudson Valley. On Thursday, when the latest positive cases from Rockland County were 3.3 percent of all tests and the Mid-Hudson region stood at 1.5 percent positivity, Cuomo didn’t raise the alarm in his televised briefing: “We’re watching Western New York, we’re watching New York City, there’s been some ticks, but overall, we are still okay,” he said. 

Free COVID-19 testing is available at the Ramapo Cultural Arts Center on 2 Dr. Berg Lane in Spring Valley, from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday. “All are welcome, regardless of insurance or immigration status,” says a Ramapo town flyer advertising the test site. Call (888) 364-3065 to schedule a test.

Mask-wearing is low in the Williamsburg Orthodox neighborhoods where new outbreaks are underway, the Times of Israel reports. Residents chalked the lax precautions up to a combination of denial, bad information, lack of leadership from rabbis, and plain old fatalism. “We all had it already,” one passerby told a reporter. Although antibody testing has found that most people in hard-hit Williamsburg still do not have antibodies to COVID-19, there is a popular misperception in the community that the wave of illness that hit hard in the spring means the neighborhood now has herd immunity. Former city councilman David Greenfield thinks it’s a media problem: “Their main source of news tends to be right-wing news sources,” Greenfield told the news outlet. “The right-wing media downplays the effectiveness of masks.”

New York City health officials are threatening to impose new lockdowns in Orthodox neighborhoods where outbreaks are underway, The New York Times reports. “This may be the most precarious moment we are facing since we emerged from lockdown,” city Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said. Things are getting tense in Brooklyn: A confrontation erupted on live TV on Friday between Ted Long, director of the city’s contact tracing program, and an angry Orthodox man.

Orange County Executive Neuhaus, a Republican, joined fellow GOP executive Ryan McMahon of Onondaga County and Democrat Steve Bellone, executive of Suffolk County, in a joint plea via Zoom press conference for President Donald Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to provide federal disaster funding for local governments struggling to keep services going through the pandemic. “Rather than recovering over the next couple of years, next few years, we’re looking at a recovery that may take a decade or more,” Bellone said. “Do what our national government has always done when local communities are hit with unprecedented disasters, and step in and provide that assistance.”

New York State legislators clearly need to do something about the state’s budget disaster, but with Election Day looming, nobody seems to want to, the Buffalo News reports. “Coming back to Albany to do anything fiscal always presents a potential danger, and politicians are risk-averse, particularly those in marginal seats,” Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf told the paper. 

An effective vaccine is key to restoring some semblance of life as we knew it before the pandemic—and in order to work, the vaccine must have the trust of most of the public. But the number of Americans who say they’re willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it arrives is falling, among both Democrats and Republicans. The White House has put intense and obvious political pressure on both the CDC and the FDA, the agency that will ultimately be responsible for approving any US vaccine, and recent polls have found that most Americans are worried political meddling might result in a vaccine being pushed through before it’s been thoroughly vetted. In Thursday’s briefing, Cuomo took on the complex issue of vaccine trust in a politicized environment, announcing that New York would conduct its own review of vaccine data before recommending it. “Frankly, I’m not going to trust the federal government’s opinion and I wouldn’t recommend it to New Yorkers based on the federal government’s opinion,” he said. “New York State will have its own review.” (This editor’s $0.02: All due respect, but neither Trump nor Cuomo is qualified to oversee vaccine safety trials. Can we please leave this one to the scientists? -Ed.

New York State’s “Report Card” public dashboard of school COVID-19 data has gotten more robust since it was launched earlier this month. Private and charter schools have been added to the site recently, along with colleges both in and out of the SUNY system. Cuomo said Thursday that all state-licensed labs are now feeding data into that school data system along with school districts.

In a joint statement on Thursday, Cuomo and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer called for a Congressional probe into the Trump administration’s politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic response. “The unprecedented and unacceptable scale of this tragedy is the direct result of President Trump and the federal government’s deceit, political self-dealing, and incompetence,” the governors wrote. 

A Long Island police officer recently tested positive for COVID-19 after driving his daughter home from SUNY Oneonta, CNHI’s Joe Mahoney reports. The officer, Kenneth Vicino, is angry with the state for not retesting students before sending them home. His daughter tested negative in pooled campus testing about a week before being sent home, but Vicino believes she was infected after the pool test was given. “They shouldn’t have released these kids, No. 1,” he said. “No. 2, if they were going to release thousands of kids back to communities, they should have done another test because it takes three or four days after the exposure for you to become positive. They should have at least quick-tested them to see if they had it or not.” All told, SUNY Oneonta is reporting that 684 students were sickened with COVID-19 on campus; on Friday, the number of students in quarantine or isolation on campus finally hit zero, three weeks after the campus shut down in response to a spiraling outbreak.

Times Union columnist Chris Churchill has a very simple question for New York State: How many nursing home residents have died of COVID-19? He’s not alone: A loud and bipartisan chorus that includes families of residents, healthcare experts, politicians both in and out of Cuomo’s party, and of course, reporters, has been hollering for the state Department of Health to release the data. Last week, the Empire Center for Public Policy, a think tank that leans conservative but is grounded in the world of facts and data, filed a lawsuit against the state DOH for refusing to release a full count of how many nursing home residents died after being transferred to hospitals. For months, Cuomo and his spokespeople have dismissed any effort to get that data as a political ploy—a stance that, frankly, does not inspire confidence in the state’s health policy leadership. “There’s no honest defense for this absurd charade, and nobody who isn’t on the state payroll would defend it,” Churchill writes. Hear, hear.

New York City’s outdoor dining program, originally scheduled to shut down on October 31, has been given a reprieve. On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared it would be made permanent. Propane heat lamps are now legal in the city, too, at least on some streets—although good luck finding one, columnist Ginia Bellafonte reports. “Like everything useful in this pandemic,” said Mark Levine, a city councilman who has been advocating for permanent outdoor dining, “they happen to be in short supply.”

Have you responded to the census yet? If you haven’t, you’re not alone: New York’s self-response rate so far is 63.2 percent. Thursday brought good news: Now you have more time (until October 31, to be exact). Earlier this year, the census deadline was extended because of the pandemic; then last month, the Trump administration abruptly moved up the deadline in an effort widely seen as an effort to limit responses that will be used next year to reallocate seats in the House of Representatives and redraw political boundaries nationwide. But a federal judge in California ruled late Thursday that the administration’s rationale was insufficient, and that census counting can continue through October. The legal challenge, which was brought by Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, is a major win for a more accurate census count.

Rate of active cases per 10,000 residents, drawn from the latest county data. 

Below is a Flourish animation we have compiled that shows the rate of active cases per 10,000 residents for each county in our coverage region from May 12 through the present date.

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

Rockland County did issue one exposure warning late on Friday afternoon. An individual who tested positive for COVID-19 attended three separate Spanish language masses at the Gracepoint Gospel Fellowship Church (384 New Hempstead Road, New City) while they were infectious. Anyone who attended masses at that church on Friday, September 18 from 7:30-9pm; Sunday, September 20 from 2-3pm; or Wednesday, September 23 from 5:30-7pm should contact the county health department at (845) 364-2997.

The Putnam County Department of Health has issued two exposure warnings in recent days. Anyone who was at Arturo’s Tavern (878 Route 6, Mahopac) on Monday, September 21 between 4pm and 11pm, and/or at Eveready Diner (90 Independent Way, Brewster) on Saturday, September 19 from 6-7:30pm and Tuesday, September 22 from 7-8:30pm may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Twenty students at Pace University’s Westchester campus have tested positive for COVID-19, university officials said this week. The results came following widespread testing on the campus after four students tested positive on Monday. That prompted the university to test about 600 additional community members, 16 of whom were positive for the virus, a positive rate of about 2.5 percent.

Twelve Westchester County park playgrounds will reopen this Saturday with guidelines for public health. The playgrounds will be open from 8am until dusk. The full list can be found on the county’s website.

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

A positive test for a Kingston schools food-services worker sent fear through the district, forcing it to suspend food distribution temporarily. But the test turned out to be a false positive, and the employee has since tested negative for the virus, the district announced Friday. Food distribution will resume Tuesday, after Yom Kippur.

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

Students are a few weeks into the fall semester, and so far, the six districts in Greene County seem to be adapting to the harsh reality of the pandemic as well as can be expected, reports Columbia-Greene Media. Five of the six districts are offering a hybrid learning model, and there has been just one positive COVID-19 test so far, in Coxsackie-Athens—and even that one is in dispute. The state Department of Health COVID-19 Report Card recorded the case, but Coxsackie-Athens Superintendent Randall Squier said the district is not aware of any positive cases among its student body. “Who that person is, we don’t know,” he said Friday. “We didn’t put it there.”

Thursday’s extension of the census deadline is especially good news for the rural Catskills, whose counties have had some of the worst participation rates in the state. As of Wednesday, Sullivan County had the second-worst self-response rate of any county in New York State at 36 percent, with Delaware not far behind at 42 percent, and Greene at 44 percent. The overall statewide self-response rate so far is 63.2 percent.

Sullivan County has created a survey to assess the needs of local employers as students go back to school and parents go back to work. The survey is being jointly conducted by the county Division of Community Resources, its Center for Workforce Development, and its Child Care Council, and will be available through October 15.

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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 is 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.