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Coronavirus Roundup: Cuomo Under Fire For Ignoring Health Officials, Undercounting Nursing Home Deaths

“When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts,” the governor said. “Because I don’t.”

Governor Cuomo provides a coronavirus update from the State Capitol on January 29.
Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
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This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties published Monday, February 1, in collaboration with The Other Hudson Valley.


7-day average positive test rate: 5.1%
1,077 deaths past 7 days
8,003 hospitalizations (1,500 in ICUs)
Share of population fully vaccinated: 7.8%
Share of population given 1 dose: 1.8%
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

In The New York Times today: A devastating portrait of a politician who scorns the advice of his own scientific experts, sidelines them on important policy decisions while demanding loyalty, and scraps decades’ worth of public health planning in favor of brand-new programs helmed by political allies. And no, it’s not about Donald Trump: New York has its own top executive seeking to wield inexpert power over public health, in the form of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Nine top members of New York State’s health department have quit in the past year, and morale is at a low ebb, the Times reports. The story—for which three reporters on the metro desk interviewed five health department insiders—makes it clear that Cuomo’s habit of announcing major policy shifts on television, which has often caught local governments off-guard over the course of the pandemic, has been just as destabilizing for state health officials. “Tensions worsened in recent months as state health officials said they often found out about major changes in pandemic policy only after Mr. Cuomo announced them at news conferences—and then asked them to match their health guidance to the announcements,” the Times writes. 

The New York Times’s bombshell followed closely another very public pandemic scandal for the governor: A report from Attorney General Letitia James on the state’s nursing home pandemic response, released Thursday, that found that state health officials dramatically undercounted the deaths of nursing home residents from COVID-19. The report is shining a bright spotlight on conditions at nursing homes across the state—and on the Attorney General herself, for being willing to lock horns with a very powerful fellow Democrat. State lawmakers in both parties have grown impatient with the state Department of Health’s evasiveness on nursing home data, and a hearing in the state legislature scheduled for February 25 is shaping up to be dramatic.

New York State still hasn’t released comprehensive data on the demographics of who is getting vaccinated, but New York City data and an early picture of vaccinations among healthcare workers paint a distressing, if predictable, picture: The same racial inequalities that have made COVID-19 especially lethal in Black and brown neighborhoods are now emerging in the vaccine rollout, with white recipients getting vaccinated disproportionately more than other groups. City data shows that 48 percent of those vaccinated in New York City so far have been white, despite that group making up only about a third of the city’s population. The City reported recently that more than a quarter of those who have been vaccinated in the five boroughs so far live outside of New York City.

The positivity rate in daily COVID-19 testing has been falling steadily in New York for several weeks. At the same time, the new, more-transmissible variants already gaining a foothold in the US threaten to undo some of the progress made if vaccination does not roll out fast enough to counter their rise. But the threat posed by new variants is apparently not enough to sway state regulators from loosening the valve on economic activity. In a Friday briefing, Governor Cuomo announced new relaxations in the state’s emergency pandemic rules:

An intense snowstorm canceled many vaccine appointments scheduled for Tuesday, both at state sites and other vaccine points of distribution. State officials said that all appointments at the state-run sites would be rescheduled.

Good news: There are two new vaccines on the horizon, from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson, and their data looks good enough to be headed to FDA emergency use authorization along with Pfizer and Moderna. One of them—Johnson & Johnson’s candidate—is a single-dose vaccine, which would spare vaccinators a lot of logistical headaches. And while they appear to have lower efficacy than the vaccines already being administered in the US, early data suggests that the new vaccines, like their forerunners, are very, very good at their most important job: keeping people from being hospitalized and dying. The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang notes that even the lowest efficacy number reported so far—49 percent, for Novavax’s vaccine against the South African variant—is about as good as the average annual flu vaccine, and would have been considered a “game changer” before Pfizer and Moderna’s high efficacy numbers raised everyone’s expectations.

About time: Almost a year into the battle against COVID-19 in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued an order requiring masks to be worn on all airplanes and public transportation. The order went into effect Monday.

The Biden administration has signed a $231.8 million deal with Australian rapid test-maker Ellume to produce 8.5 million home tests for the US government, and to build a US-based factory that officials hope will bring the cost of the tests within reach for more Americans. Ellume’s test, which received emergency use authorization from the FDA in December, is the first home COVID-19 rapid test available without a prescription; the concept is good, but the tests are still limited in quantity, and the $30 price tag is a large hurdle for many.

So long, and thanks for all the data: The COVID Tracking Project, which grew from its humble beginnings as an ugly-but-functional online spreadsheet to become the most trusted source of COVID-19 data in the US, will shut down on March 7, the site’s one-year anniversary. “No one expected a volunteer pop-up collective to publish and interpret public health data for the United States for the first year of a global pandemic,” its founders wrote. “We began the work out of necessity and planned to do it for a couple of weeks at most, always in the expectation that the federal public health establishment would make our work obsolete.” Here at The River, in our small and local way, we can relate.


County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

Active case numbers in Westchester and Putnam counties continue to trend in a positive direction. As of Monday evening, the latest data showed 9,948 active cases in Westchester County, down from more than 10,500 over the week, the number cited by County Executive George Latimer in his Monday coronavirus briefing, and nearly 11,500 one week ago. Putnam County had 990 active cases on Sunday, down 37 from the previous day, according to data analyzed by The Examiner.

In Rockland County, the active case data has been a little bouncier. As of Thursday, there were 2,641 active cases, according to a Friday briefing by County Executive Ed Day. Later that day, the county’s coronavirus dashboard was updated to show that active cases had dropped by 330, to 2,311. But on Monday evening, the number was back up to 2,773. We’ll provide an update in the next roundup if the county provides an explanation for that volatility.

Day also said in his briefing that the Rockland County health department sent the state a plan in December for hosting a mass-vaccination site, which the county had done during a measles outbreak in 2018 and 2019. “If we get the word to do it, we’re ready to go,” he said.

Westchester County postponed vaccine clinics scheduled for February 1 due to the snowstorm. Those with appointments will get emails or text messages with new dates and times to reschedule for this week.


County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia
County vaccine pages: Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Steve Neuhaus, Orange County’s ever-quotable executive, said in frustration on a Monday video briefing that the state’s vaccine distribution system is “a CIA operation,” with county officials in the dark as to where vaccines are going, how many are being delivered, and when they will show up. “There’s eight pharmacies in Orange County that are supposedly getting the vaccines. How many are they getting?” he said. “This is very frustrating, it’s not a different story anywhere else in the state.” Neuhaus also said that hospitals in Newburgh, St. Luke’s and Cornerstone, serve vulnerable Black and brown populations and could be playing more of a role in vaccination, but are currently being directed by the state to focus on healthcare workers. 

Columbia County will no longer take appointments for its vaccine hubs, the county announced last Thursday, but instead will contact those who are eligible directly. Health Director Jack Mabb said the decision was made because the county was receiving so few vaccines. The county will only be giving shots to non-healthcare essential workers. “We are restricted by the New York State Department of Health to administer vaccines only to those in the 1B category,” according to Mabb. Other counties in the region have seemed to buck the state’s directive, with Dutchess County giving shots to a group of people with special needs, and Orange County vaccinating seniors.

Columbia County hit an all-time high of 474 active cases on Monday. Three people have died since Saturday, two of them from Ghent Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, which the county said had 87 residents and 40 staff infected by the virus. Mabb expressed frustration at the state’s lack of communication about the county’s nursing homes, saying the state does not notify the county when they visit, nor share the information they collect when they do. The county health department could “improve the quality of care” in nursing homes if they were given more control. “Much of what goes on in the nursing homes in terms of vaccinations and the spread is unknown to our department,” he said.

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan announced last week that Project Resilience, the county’s ongoing effort to bolster a social safety net frayed by the pandemic, will give $80,000 in new funding to 16 food pantries across the county, enough to provide another 120,000 meals to local residents. So far, county officials say, Project Resilience has served 300,000 meals and supported more than a hundred local businesses. The county project is also partnering with the YMCA on a new drop-in childcare program for students in grades K-6 in Ellenville.


County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie
County vaccine pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene

Delaware, Greene, and Schoharie counties, along with others in the surrounding area, are taking a cautious approach to the reopening of high-risk school sports by waiting for the seven-day average positivity rate to fall below 4 percent before allowing school districts to resume play. According to a recent announcement from Schoharie County Public Health, the decision to set a positivity rate threshold was coordinated among more than a dozen county health departments and local healthcare providers. Last week, seven Hudson Valley counties, also working in coordination on the reopening of school sports, came to a different conclusion, announcing that their health departments would allow high-risk sports to resume with new oversight

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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.

To read more of our coronavirus coverage, visit our coronavirus page.