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Coronavirus Roundup: CDC Alters Guidelines Under Apparent Political Pressure

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Tuesday, August 25 and Wednesday, August 26.

The CDC quietly relaxed guidelines this week concerning testing and quarantining after travel.
Jim Gathany
  • Credibility:

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Tuesday, August 25 and Wednesday, August 26. 

431,340 cases confirmed (566 new)
7,821,634 tests performed (71,189 new)
Positive test rate: .80%
25,305 deaths (8 new)
492 current hospitalizations
136 current ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lost credibility with a lot of public health experts this week, in the wake of a decision allegedly made under pressure from the Trump administration. On Monday, the agency quietly relaxed its guidelines for who should be tested for COVID-19, stating that those who have been in close contact with an infected person “do not necessarily need a test” unless they show symptoms or are medically vulnerable. Previous guidelines have advised anyone who has been in contact with an infected person should be tested. The change has no obvious public health benefit, and will, if adopted, lead to more cases spreading undetected. The news that the CDC is caving to apparent political pressure follows hard on the heels of a controversial weekend Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decision, which also has experts worried about political influence being brought to bear on an agency that should be driven by science and the public interest.

Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, spoke out against the CDC’s new guidelines as best he could, considering that he has just undergone vocal polyp surgery and is being advised not to talk for a while. Fauci told CNN on Wednesday that he was under general anaesthesia while the CDC’s new testing recommendations were being adopted last week, and that he is “worried it will give people the incorrect assumption that asymptomatic spread is not of great concern.”

Testing isn’t the only arena in which the CDC has relaxed guidelines this week: The agency has also dropped its guidance to travelers returning from highly infected areas to self-quarantine for 14 days. Several states, including New York, are maintaining their 14-day quarantine rules for travelers coming from hot spots despite the CDC no longer advising the practice. 

In a briefing and an appearance on MSNBC on Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo blasted the CDC both for backing off on the quarantine guidance and for telling people they do not need to be tested unless they have symptoms. “The history books are going to record this. Shame on the people in the CDC. These will be indefensible actions in the light of history. Indefensible,” he said. State health commissioner Howard Zucker backed up Cuomo’s assessment of the CDC’s actions: “Regarding the CDC situation, this is indefensible from a public health point of view, and I have to say it makes absolutely no sense. And I’ve spoken to the scientists at the CDC and they say it’s political, so I concur with all you’re saying that this is just indefensible,” Zucker said.

The federal Department of Justice has requested data on state-run nursing homes from four states, all with Democratic governors, and is mulling an investigation. On Wednesday, after the request was issued, governors of three of the four states—New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—fired back with statements, saying that the request was political in nature. Cuomo issued a joint statement with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, calling the inquiry a “nakedly partisan deflection” and claiming that the DOJ was selectively targeting Democratic states, writing that at least 14 states have issued nursing home guidance similar to New York’s controversial (and short-lived) policy of forcing nursing homes to accept COVID-19-positive residents. The Cuomo administration has faced intense criticism from members of both parties in the New York State legislature over the policy, which was reversed in May. 

The New York Council of School Superintendents issued a public letter on Wednesday asking Cuomo to reconsider his decision on school sports and cancel all sports until 2021. “Authorizing school athletics could jeopardize successful resumption of in-person learning for students,” wrote executive director Charles Dedrick. 

US Representative Antonio Delgado continued a tour around New York’s 19th district this week, visiting Free Bird Farm, a 134-acre certified organic farm in Montgomery County. Delgado reiterated the need for agriculture-specific relief in future coronavirus legislation, touting a bill he co-introduced last week, the Helping America’s Farmers Act, which would create an Agriculture Economic Injury Disaster Loan at the USDA.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand also made the case for small-farm COVID-19 relief on Wednesday, in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue demanding benefits from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The program was supposed to help farmers of all sizes, but “a recent report makes it clear that has not been the case at all,” wrote Gillibrand. “The program has favored large, industrial farms over smaller, more diversified ones.”

On Sunday, New York State was approved by FEMA for funding to make $300-a-week unemployment payments to people receiving at least $100 in state unemployment benefits. Thirty-one other states have also been approved for the Lost Wages Assistance program. With only South Dakota opting out of the program so far, it appears likely that the funding set aside for the payments will not last more than a few weeks. Currently competing for the same dollars in FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund: Hurricane Laura, which is poised to devastate a swath of the Gulf coast. If the Disaster Relief Fund balance dips below $25 billion, funding for the Lost Wages Assistance program will be cut off.

New York State’s COVID-19 positivity rate has remained below one percent for almost three straight weeks, although the state is keeping an eye on upticks in Western New York. “We still have a caution flag for Western New York, which is at 1.4 percent today,” Cuomo said Wednesday.

Sales tax revenue has plummeted as a result of the pandemic. From January through July, statewide sales tax collections were down 11.3 percent over the same period in 2019, according to figures released earlier this month by the state comptroller’s office. But a handful of counties are actually collecting more sales tax so far in 2020, and the two counties with the largest year-on-year increase are in the local area: Westchester County, in the lower Hudson Valley, and Delaware County, in the rural western Catskills. Westchester’s sales tax revenue for January through July is up 13.5 percent this year, an increase driven by county hikes in local sales tax rates last August. Westchester’s sales tax collections for July are up 18.7 percent over July 2019. Delaware County’s sales tax revenue is up 6.9 percent for the year so far, although that increase has reversed course recently: The county’s July 2020 sales tax collections are down 19.1 percent over July of 2019. 

Boards of elections across New York State are recruiting paid poll workers in an effort to shore up needed staff for what is shaping up to be a deeply logistically challenging election. According to the New York State Board of Elections, 55 percent of poll workers in the state are over 60, and many are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. Anyone interested in working on Election Day or the early-voting period leading up to it can visit to find out more information about becoming a poll worker, or to fill out an application. 

Announced by New York State on Tuesday and Wednesday: 

  • Five states were removed from New York’s quarantine travel advisory list on Tuesday: Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Maryland, and Montana. Guam was added to the list. The current list of states and other areas from which all travelers to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut must quarantine for 14 days: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Guam, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Virgin Islands, and Wisconsin.
  • State inspections of 1,024 bars and restaurants in New York City and Long Island on Monday turned up only two not in compliance with pandemic guidelines, according to a state press release.
  • New York State is preparing emergency response systems for storms expected to move into the region on Thursday, both from the weakened remnants of Hurricane Laura and from a storm system moving east from the Great Lakes. 
  • Fashion Week will go forward in New York City in September with no spectators indoors and strict capacity caps for outdoor events, Cuomo announced Tuesday. 
Rate of active cases per 10,000 residents, drawn from the latest county data. Active case data unavailable for Rockland and Orange counties.

Since mid-May, The River has been collecting and charting data on the number of active COVID-19 cases by county in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. Below is a Flourish animation we have compiled that shows the rate of active cases per 10,000 residents for each county over time, from May 12 through the present date.

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

The Putnam County Department of Health issued two health alerts warning of possible COVID-19 exposures. The first is for anyone who attended the 10am mass at St. James Church in Carmel on August 23; a member of the public who was at that service has since tested positive for the coronavirus. The second alert is for anyone who was at ShopRite on NY-52 in Carmel from 1-3pm on August 23. A member of the public who was at the supermarket during those hours has since tested positive.

The Westchester County Industrial Development Agency on Wednesday launched its program to provide grants to small businesses and nonprofits negatively impacted by the pandemic. The grants are in amounts up to $10,000 and must be used to buy personal protective equipment or install equipment necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Westchester County also announced more than $340 million in bond financing for two major local nonprofits through the county’s Local Development Corporation. Some $300 million will be used to refinance outstanding debt at Westchester Medical Center and to fund capital projects and new equipment at its Valhalla campus. An additional $40 million in bond financing will help Sarah Lawrence College reduce its credit reliance, help it recover from the financial impacts of COVID-19, and fund “new initiatives and existing functions” at the college.

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Daryl’s House, the Pawling restaurant and music venue owned by Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates, has temporarily closed due to pandemic financial pressure, the Poughkeepsie Journal reports, joining an ever-growing list of restaurant and live music venues that have been shuttered by COVID-19.

Ulster RESPOND—a partnership between the Ulster County Economic Development Alliance and Accel7, an early-stage technology and business accelerator, to help businesses navigate the pandemic—will hold its next strategy webinar on Thursday at noon. The webinar is titled “Negotiating To Stay Open In COVID: Insights From Entrepreneurs.”

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro announced during his weekly pandemic briefing on Wednesday that the county had received a grant from the state Department of Health that will allow it to hire five public health advisors for up to 18 months. The advisors “will be responsible for performing investigations and advising on all phases of coronavirus pandemic control efforts,” according to a press release.

The Kingston Daily Freeman interviewed officials at SUNY Ulster, Bard College, Marist College, SUNY New Paltz, and Columbia-Greene Community College about how they’re implementing safety protocols and reopening plans for a story published Tuesday.

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

On Wednesday, Sullivan County Public Health Services announced two potential recent exposures in the county. The first concerns Nelly’s Sports Bar, in Monticello; two individuals who visited the bar on the night of August 15 later tested positive for the coronavirus. County health officials also announced that an employee of Ahava Medical Rehabilitation and Urgent Care Center at 25 Carrier Street in Liberty has tested positive, and continued to work after testing positive despite being sick. Anyone who visited the facility on August 19, 20, 21, or 23 “may have been exposed to an employee who was actively contagious with COVID-19, and so should contact Public Health Services at (845) 292-5910,” officials wrote in a statement. 

The town of Fallsburg is cautiously considering reopening parks that were closed during the pandemic, the Sullivan County Democrat reports. 

Five employees of Bassett Medical Center in the Otsego County village of Cooperstown recently tested positive for COVID-19, the Daily Star reports. The medical center is part of Bassett Healthcare, a network that also has hospitals in Delaware and Schoharie counties. 

Schoharie County could end 2020 $10 million in the red unless federal aid for state and local governments materializes, county administrator Steve Wilson told the Board of Supervisors last week.

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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.