This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Saturday, January 16 through Wednesday, January 20.
NEW YORK STATE
13,364 new cases yesterday
195,409 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 6.84%
191 deaths yesterday
9,273 hospitalizations (1,621 in ICUs)
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
New President, new plan: The federal effort to control COVID-19, which has been uncoordinated and hamstrung by disagreement at the highest levels, is now coming into focus. President Joe Biden has inherited one hell of a mess, and there’s an urgent need for his administration to act both swiftly and effectively. A few good reads on the road that lies ahead: STAT News lays out nine of the biggest challenges to controlling the pandemic, Wired writes that “Biden’s COVID Plan Will Define His Presidency,” and Ezra Klein waxes genteelly furious in the New York Times’s editorial pages about the number of obvious actions that should have been done long ago, and have now been dumped on Biden’s desk.
On his first day in office, Biden signed a slew of executive orders, including a few aimed at taking immediate action on the coronavirus pandemic. Biden’s first executive order urged Americans to wear masks for 100 days, and requires their wearing on interstate public transportation, on federal property, and by federal contractors.
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his annual state budget address on Tuesday, and unsurprisingly, much of it revolved around the pandemic. The governor laid out two potential paths for the state budget: one for “aggressive post-COVID reconstruction” to be enacted if the federal government delivers $15 billion in aid to the state, and one of painful austerity and tax hikes if the feds fail to come through with a large package. For a look at what state leaders from across the spectrum of politics and industry have to say about Cuomo’s budget plans, we turn to the Albany Times Union’s React-O-Mat blog, which has gathered a fair amount of grumbling.
With providers running out of vaccine all across the state and health departments canceling scheduled appointments because of lower-than-expected supply, New York is in dire need of more doses. This week, Governor Cuomo sought unsuccessfully to buy more doses directly from Pfizer, in an effort to get around federal rules that allocate doses to states based on population. It’s kind of a dirty move from a governor who has been talking tough about the importance of fair vaccine allocation for months, and a member of Biden’s COVID Advisory Board didn’t think much of it. “Governor Cuomo, himself, had said back in the spring that the situation around ventilators was essentially ‘one big eBay’ with all of the states bidding against one another for ventilators, and I think this kind of an approach to vaccine allocation is going to result, frankly, in the same kind of situation that he, himself, was criticizing last spring,” epidemiologist Celine Gounder told CNBC.
As of Wednesday, 22 known cases of B.1.1.7, the so-called “UK variant,” have been found in New York State. The B.1.1.7 variant is more transmissible than the original form of COVID-19, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned recently that it could become the dominant form of the virus in the US by March if aggressive measures are not taken to lower transmission and increase surveillance of emerging strains. Scientists believe that current vaccines will continue to be effective against emerging variants of COVID-19 for some time, but there is a ticking clock: The more mutations the virus acquires, the less recognizable it will become to an immunized person’s immune system.
Vaccine rollout in New York State continues to be rough. The state has added new sites, and county health departments and other providers are setting up new distribution points as they receive doses, but supply is still very limited, and eligible people seeking appointments must navigate a confusing system of state, local, and private vaccination clinics. Almost as soon as new appointments open up at a site, they are claimed. Securing a coveted vaccine appointment requires luck, timing, and the ability to spend hours refreshing browsers and calling hotlines.
Early in New York State’s vaccination effort, vaccines were moving too slowly, and doses were being wasted because of tightly restricted eligibility. Now the state has the opposite problem: Sites are running through their allotted doses before new ones come in. Until supply increases, the effort will be going in fits and starts, Cuomo said Wednesday: “We’re going to be going from week to week, and you will see a constant pattern of basically running out, waiting for the next week’s allocation, and then starting up again,” he said. “We’re trying to smooth it out, but we’re also trying to get it out as fast as possible.”
County governments have been frustrated with Cuomo for weeks for keeping them on the sidelines of the vaccine effort. Now, as they begin to take on more of a role, they are pushing back against the state’s efforts to control which providers will handle which eligible groups. Governor Cuomo and state health officials are telling counties to focus on essential workers, and leaving the task of vaccinating the elderly to pharmacies. That isn’t sitting well with county leaders, who fear that the people most vulnerable to COVID-19 are being left behind. “Pharmacies have so few doses. Where do seniors and [the] vulnerable go?” Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro asked the Times Union, rhetorically.
Some counties are evidently vaccinating elderly residents: Sullivan County announced Wednesday that it would host a series of vaccine clinics in the next week for those 65 and older. And the state’s order that counties must be responsible for essential workers “doesn’t mean we cannot do other people,” Schoharie County Health Director Amy Gildemeister said recently at a county board meeting. The state’s vaccine plan is clearly a work in progress, and will soon be joined by yet another player in this complicated game: Federal vaccine clinics staffed by FEMA and the National Guard.
Still on hold in New York State: Vaccines for immunocompromised people under 65, who fall into the state’s current phase of eligibility, but are not as easy to define as a group as the elderly or essential workers. Cuomo said last week that the state was working with the CDC on how to define the eligible group; in the meantime, those with pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 can be vaccinated in New Jersey, but not in New York.
LOWER HUDSON VALLEY
The Examiner is tracking active case counts in Putnam County by keeping a daily total of all the new cases reported in the state’s tracker over the past two weeks, the same method Westchester County uses. The local newspaper’s total is a lot higher than Putnam’s official count: On Tuesday, the county dashboard reported 451 actives, while The Examiner counted 1,286. Our county active case graph and our data visualizations at The River use the official figures published by counties, and we think it might be confusing to switch methods in the middle of the pandemic, since adding Putnam’s data to our charts now would result in a huge, artificial active case spike in our chart. But for what it’s worth, The Examiner’s count is more useful than the county’s for comparing Putnam to its neighbors.
On Tuesday, Rockland County Executive Ed Day wrote an open letter to Pfizer, which has a research and development site in Pearl River, requesting that “any sale of vaccine here in New York include a provision which guarantees the distribution of vaccine directly to Pfizer’s home county of Rockland.” Day noted that 10 percent of Rockland residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and that the county has the second-highest death rate in the state.
Rockland did get some good vaccine news on Wednesday, in the form of a shipment of 2,100 doses of the Moderna vaccine. One-third of those vaccines are designated for essential workers under Phase 1B, which includes police, firefighters, teachers, college professors, and grocery store workers (the full list can be found here). Appointments are required, and can be made online at rcklnd.us/covid19—though at press time, it appears that all spots have been booked. The remaining 1,400 doses will be given to residents age 65 or older. Eligible seniors can make appointments by calling the county’s Office for the Aging at (845) 364-2110.
LoHud.com reports that a housing unit at the Westchester County jail is in quarantine after three inmates tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend. Joseph Spano, commissioner of the county Department of Correction, told the paper that the three infected individuals “are receiving appropriate medical care and treatment, and the remainder of the housing unit is on a 14-day quarantine.” He later added: “Of course we’re going to have cases, but our staff have been very diligent in following our numerous COVID-19 protocols. And that has had a positive impact on the overall health and safety of our agency since the onset of the pandemic.” The Westchester County jail, which is in Valhalla, is not managed by the state; New York prisons have seen several outbreaks over the course of the pandemic, and the overall positivity rate in state prisons is about 10 percent higher than in the general public.
Westchester County lost 61 residents over the past week to COVID-19, and active cases have climbed as high as they were in early April, County Executive George Latimer said in his latest coronavirus briefing, held on Tuesday because of the holiday. By Wednesday, active cases had declined slightly, to 11,372, according to the county’s dashboard. Hospitalizations also appear to be declining; as of Sunday, Latimer said, 513 Westchester residents were hospitalized, down from last week’s high of 554. In the 24 hours after the briefing, 13 more Westchester residents died, bringing the county’s total since the pandemic began to 1,819.
Latimer also revealed that the county’s Department of Seniors Programs and Services has established an information and assistance phone line to assist Westchester seniors with the vaccine appointment process. The line is staffed on weekdays from 8:30am to 4:30pm at (914) 813-6300.
Westchester County will hold a virtual panel to discuss COVID-19 on Thursday from 6-7pm. The panel includes County Executive Latimer; the mayors of Yonkers, New Rochelle, and Mount Vernon; and infectious disease specialist Dr. Dial Hewlett, who heads the county health department’s division of disease control. The event will take place on the county’s Facebook page, where residents can submit questions.
Putnam County held its third closed point-of-dispensing vaccine clinic on Saturday, when 308 people eligible under Phase 1B were vaccinated. The next POD clinic will be held Thursday and only covers essential workers under Phase 1B, since the county does not have enough vaccine to start inoculating residents age 65 or older. As County Executive MaryEllen Odell put it in a letter posted to the county health department’s website on Tuesday, “it should be easier and faster to get COVID-19 vaccine, but the hard truth is that a lot of our most vulnerable residents are having to wait too long to be vaccinated.”
An ICE detainee housed at the Orange County jail has been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to statistics maintained by ICE, and five guards have also tested positive. In a press release, the grassroots nonprofit Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson suggested the infection may have come from a recent transfer of detainees from a jail in Hudson County, New Jersey, which also contracts with ICE. Detainees protested with a hunger strike in late December, demanding they be released to be with their families while fighting their cases. Afterward, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson contends that some were transferred to Orange County as retaliation.
Dutchess County received a new shipment of 600 Moderna vaccines for two clinics this week, but appointments for both sites were filled within minutes. In a Wednesday town hall, County Executive Marc Molinaro urged patience and encouraged residents to sign up for the county’s free Dutchess Delivery system, which emails updates on information including how to make an appointment and when more vaccine is available from the state. Dr. Jeffrey Nicastro, chief medical officer at Nuvance Health, joined Molinaro to answer questions about the vaccines and from residents. A press release of the town hall is online, or you can watch the whole thing on the county’s Facebook page.
Hospitalizations and active cases are increasing in Ulster County, and Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan expects it to get worse. “We still believe, particularly on hospitalizations, that we’re not seeing the holiday effect yet,” Ryan said in his Tuesday coronavirus news briefing. Ryan says the county could surpass 2,500 active cases in the coming days, and that the county is averaging more than one death per day so far in 2021.
On Wednesday, Ulster County received 1,000 new doses of vaccine, which will be administered Thursday at the point of distribution at the Kate Walton Field House. In an email to the Daily Freeman, Assistant Deputy County Executive Daniel Torres said that “the appointments for this week are already claimed to accommodate those who had their appointments canceled last week.” Torres said the county hopes to know on Sunday about the next batch it will receive. County Executive Ryan said Ulster County is getting fewer doses of the vaccine this week than last week because the state is, too, which he blamed on the federal government. New York received 300,000 doses last week, and 250,000 this week.
Over in Orange County, vaccine appointments filled up within 30 minutes this week, County Executive Steve Neuhaus said in his Wednesday briefing. Like county officials throughout the state, Neuhaus expressed frustration at the lack of available vaccine, and said he did not know how many doses the county would receive next week. The need is urgent, with 866 Orange County nursing home residents still to vaccinate, and positive cases in at least eight of the county’s 17 long-term care facilities.
Neuhaus also said that the county will soon open a vaccine hub at a facility in Goshen, but residents should not expect a pleasing aesthetic experience. “It’s not beautiful,” he said. “I’m telling you, if you’re going there…you’re not getting on the love boat. It is an old office building that we converted into a vaccination site.”
Columbia County has counted 265 new cases in the past five days, including 65 on Wednesday, the fourth-highest single-day tally of the pandemic, Health Director Jack Mabb said. The situation is especially troubling in assisted living facilities, with Ghent Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, The Grand at Barnewell, and Livingston Hills are all experiencing outbreaks among residents and staff.
Columbia County also received 500 doses of vaccine this week, according to the same press release, all of which will be administered to people eligible under Phases 1A and 1B. There are no publicly available vaccine appointments in the county at this time.
Hudson-area parents of schoolchildren, listen up: the Hudson City School District is offering free Zoom workshops for parents and caregivers. Jennifer Bashant, founder of Building Better Futures, will host five workshops over the next two months on such topics as “Ways to Increase Your Child’s Motivation” and “Address Defiant Behavior and Bring More Peace to Your Home.” The first workshop—“A COVID-19 Playbook for Parents”—is Thursday, January 21. The workshop descriptions and registration links are on the school district website.
Sullivan County has announced a series of vaccination clinics for those 65 and over, scheduled for January 22, 25, 26, and 27. A separate clinic will be announced at a future date for eligible essential workers, county public health officials said. County Health Director Nancy McGraw said that the county had received 800 doses of the Moderna vaccine from New York State, 600 of which are earmarked for the elderly and 200 for essential workers.
Schoharie County Public Health has been getting—and giving out—about 100 vaccine doses a week, but they could handle 1,200 if the state would give it to them, Health Director Amy Gildemeister told the county board of supervisors last week. State officials have told the county that pharmacies will be responsible for handling the vaccination of the elderly, but no pharmacy in the county has yet received any vaccine, Gildemeister said.
Schoharie County opened registration on Wednesday for a vaccination clinic for essential workers, which filled up within two hours. Another clinic will be announced for those 65 and up. Eligible people interested in being vaccinated should keep an eye on the county health department’s Facebook page, since announcements about upcoming clinics are apparently not being made on the county website.
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