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Coronavirus Roundup: College Outbreaks Prompt New Guidance

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Thursday, August 27 and Friday, August 28.

The Students' Building at Vassar College
Collin Knopp-Schwyn
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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, August 27 and Friday, August 28. 

432,767 cases confirmed (636 new)
8,002,897 tests performed (97,826 new)
Positive test rate: .65%
25,312 deaths (3 new)
478 current hospitalizations
122 current ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

Colleges in New York State will have to move classes online for at least two weeks if they see spikes of more than 100 cases or if cases rise above five percent of the campus population, Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a Thursday announcement. The latest guidance comes in response to reports of campus outbreaks, both in New York State and around the country, as students return to campus.

SUNY Oneonta is currently struggling with an outbreak on its Otsego County campus, with almost 30 students testing positive since the beginning of the academic year. WAMC interviewed SUNY Oneonta senior Abigail Perrin about what it’s like to be on campus right now (weird), how the university is handling things (not well), and who this is impacting most (full-time Oneonta city residents). 

An outbreak is underway in Western New York, where more than 100 new cases were found on Thursday. Cuomo announced Friday that New York State is deploying a “SWAT team” to the region to set up eight new sites for free rapid testing, in coordination with local healthcare providers. WBEN reports that the team will use Abbott’s rapid-response ID NOW tests, a “point-of-care” test that has had issues with accuracy, but can return results within an hour. 

Another rapid-response point-of-care test from Abbott Labs, the BinaxNOW antigen test, just received emergency approval from the FDA this week. Antigen tests are fast and cheap to administer, and they don’t work the same way as the PCR tests that are mostly used to diagnose COVID-19. They don’t screen directly for the virus’s genetic material, like a PCR test does, but for proteins made by the virus that function as “antigens”: molecules on the outside of the virus that the immune system can detect and react to. In order to get a positive result on most antigen tests, a patient has to be carrying a high viral load; PCR tests for COVID-19, which are sensitive to tiny fragments of virus, will often keep coming back positive long after a patient is no longer contagious. Antigen tests are often described as “less accurate” than PCR tests. That’s true if you’re a primary care doctor wondering if your patient’s symptoms are a result of COVID-19, but if you’re an epidemiologist or a public health expert looking to find contagious people quickly so outbreaks can be isolated and traced, antigen tests can be more useful than their PCR counterparts. Vox has a good in-depth explainer on what antigen tests are, why at-home antigen tests haven’t been approved by the FDA yet, and why some experts are arguing that they should be.

Evictions are on hold in New York State until October 1, held in limbo by a series of executive orders from Governor Cuomo and a decision by the state Office of Court Administration (OCA) to halt eviction proceedings in court. It’s a stopgap measure, and the OCA said this week that unless Cuomo or the state legislature can come up with a more comprehensive solution, it will resume eviction proceedings in October, a situation that will likely result in mass evictions statewide. Curbed reports that housing advocates are eyeing two potential bills in the legislature: one that would enact a blanket moratorium on evictions for one year after New York State lifts the state of emergency, and another that would cancel rent and some mortgage payments accrued between March 7 and 90 days after all state pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Earlier this week, scientists reported the first documented case of someone being infected twice with COVID-19, a 33-year-old Hong Kong man who did not develop symptoms the second time he was infected. More reinfection cases are now emerging, including a 25-year-old Reno, Nevada man whose second infection was worse than the first. The prospect of being vulnerable to infection again is worrying to COVID-19 survivors—but what do these cases tell us about how likely that is? There is still a lot we don’t know about the risk of reinfection, STAT News writes. “There are millions and millions of cases,” Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina told the outlet. The more important question is, “What happens to most people?” Science moves slower than the virus, and we simply don’t have a good answer to that one yet.

Two tiers of the Albany County jail are on lockdown after an inmate scheduled for transfer to Downstate Correctional Facility tested positive for COVID-19, the Times Union reports. 

Students in grades 7-12 in Albany city schools may go remote this fall—not because of coronavirus, but because of steep state budget cuts, the Times Union reports. The Lansingburgh school district in Troy is weighing a similar decision.

Associations that represent New York State nursing homes are asking for looser restrictions on visitors and a reduction in staff testing for facilities in less-infected areas, calling the state’s requirement for weekly testing an “unfunded mandate” that is straining the capacity of nursing homes.

The FDA’s top spokeswoman, Emily Miller, has been fired, in the wake of a recent FDA decision to grant an emergency use authorization for plasma treatment of COVID-19 that sparked widespread controversy and intense criticism of the agency from public health experts. Miller was on the job just 11 days. As a right-wing political activist with no science or medical background, Miller was a deeply unusual choice to lead public communications for an agency that tends to stay out of the political fray. Shortly before she was fired, STAT News dug into Miller’s appointment to the agency: The now-ousted PR chief has been a correspondent for One America News Network, the author of a book on gun rights, and a Washington Times columnist who took aim against trans rights and birth control. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also faced intense public outcry this week. The agency’s testing guidelines were changed on Monday, with new language that suggests that people who have been in close contact with someone who had COVID-19 may not need to be tested unless they have symptoms. The CDC itself estimates that 40 percent of cases are asymptomatic; many officials and public health experts blasted the agency’s new guidelines, fearing that encouraging people without symptoms not to get tested would lead to greater spread of disease. In a statement released late on Wednesday, CDC director Robert Redfield apparently backtracked on the change, but the new testing guidelines posted Monday have not been revised.

Speaking of the CDC: Governor Cuomo, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont issued a joint statement Thursday blasting the agency for its decision to weaken COVID-19 testing guidelines. The governors wrote that their states “will continue to follow the advice of health experts to contain and prevent the spread of COVID-19, and therefore will not be changing our guidance that prioritizes testing for this population.”

Announced by New York State on Thursday and Friday: 

  • New York State has kept positive test rates below one percent for three solid weeks, Cuomo said in a Friday statement.
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
University coronavirus pages: Sarah Lawrence, Iona, SUNY Purchase, Manhattanville, Westchester Community College, Rockland Community College, Dominican, Mercy has a guide to apple picking during the pandemic. “The experience will look a little different this year,” they write. Expect reservation requirements, attendance caps, social distancing, and mask-wearing enforcement.

Westchester County will hold a virtual town hall covering senior citizen issues this Wednesday, September 2, from 6-7pm.

Seems like Westchester County residents now need to mask up and put on bug spray. The county health department announced this week that the season’s first batches of mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus were detected in Elmsford, Hastings, Mount Vernon, and Rye.

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 student living in one of the dorms at SUNY New Paltz tested positive for COVID-19 this week. In a reversal from earlier policy, which allowed students to return to campus without being tested, the university is now requiring all students taking in-person classes to be tested for COVID-19, The Other Hudson Valley reports. The student and their roommate are in quarantine. 

For the second time this week, Marist College has suspended and sent home a group of students for participating in an off-campus party. On Wednesday evening, college officials placed the Champagnat Hall dormitory under temporary quarantine, after residents there came into contact with a COVID-positive off-campus student at a party. The latest round of suspensions follows the college suspending 15 students on Monday for failing to follow coronavirus guidelines at an off-campus party.

Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, which has a case dashboard updating daily, reports 17 positive test results among students and two among staff so far this academic year. The college reports 12 known active cases as of Friday evening, a number that includes “students currently in isolation with a positive diagnostic test result or an employee currently not reporting to work because of a positive diagnostic test result.”

Hudson Valley One dove deeper into the eye-popping residential real estate numbers in Ulster County this summer. Not only did median prices in July rise by 20 percent over last year, but they got more expensive as summer dragged on: $318,000 in the first half of July, $332,500 in the second half of July, and $345,250 in the first half of August. “Such a steep rise in such a short time, a reflection of intense competition among buyers, may be unprecedented,” reporter Geddy Sveikauskas writes. Half-million-dollar sales doubled in that period this year compared to last.

The Highlands Current took a closer look this week at the Beacon school district, one of a few in Dutchess County starting the year with some in-person instruction while most surrounding schools start in all-remote mode. The paper also interviewed Dutchess and Putnam County election officials about how they’re preparing for a deluge of mail-in ballots this November

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan announced on Thursday that the county’s Office for the Aging will allocate $170,000 out of federal stimulus funds to providing food services to Ulster County senior citizens.

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

Sullivan County saw a spike in cases this week, with 16 people testing positive on Wednesday and Thursday. Active cases were up to 23 in the county on Friday, after hovering in the single digits last week. County health officials issued three potential exposure warnings this week: one for Nelly’s Sports Bar in Monticello on August 15, one for Ahava Medical in Liberty between August 19 and 25, and one for Appletree Kosher Supermarket in Liberty on August 23 and 24

A Thursday article in the Sullivan County Democrat said that despite the sharp rise in positive tests, county health officials had not seen evidence of a cluster of linked cases. The story discusses new positive test results received by the county on Monday, so it is possible that linked cases may have since been discovered in the 16 new cases from Wednesday and Thursday. The Democrat also reported that the owner of Bernie’s Holiday Restaurant and Crust Italian Eatery in Rock Hill has decided to shut down both restaurants temporarily after an employee tested positive. 

The River reached out to SUNY Cobleskill for more information after a report last week from the Schoharie County Department of Health that two students at the university had tested positive for COVID-19. The positive tests were not made public by the university, and at least a week went by between the SUNY Cobleskill community receiving notification of the first positive test and county health officials alerting the public. University spokesman Caleb Grant said that there have been no further positive tests so far on the SUNY Cobleskill campus, and that the university was working on a case dashboard that he hoped would be live on the website by the weekend. “We work very closely with the county Department of Health,” he said. “We report all our cases to them and follow their protocols.” 

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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.