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Coronavirus Roundup: Cuomo Threatens Cuts if Hotspots Can’t Contain Virus

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Tuesday, October 13 and Wednesday, October 14.

The village of Kiryas Joel, one of the coronavirus hotspots in Orange County.
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This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Tuesday, October 13 and Wednesday, October 14. 

477,940 cases confirmed (1,232 new)
12,342,180 tests performed (111,744 new)
Positive test rate: 1.10%
25,605 deaths (7 new)
938 hospitalizations
201 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

New York State’s COVID-19 clusters are still burning hot—and so is our governor’s temper. In a fiery briefing with reporters on Wednesday, Andrew Cuomo threatened to cut funding for local governments and schools in hotspots in Rockland and Orange counties and New York City if they can’t crack down on gatherings. “I don’t like to do that,” Cuomo said. “Budgets are tough all across the board. I don’t know how else to get them to do the enforcement they need to do. So, hopefully that will motivate them, because nothing else I have done has motivated them—not my rapier wit, not my sense of humor, not my guilt, not my blame, not my admonition, and not my pleas. Maybe money works.”

Cuomo imposed the new restrictions on COVID-19 hotspots on October 6 in a new effort called the Cluster Action Initiative. In “red zones,” the center of the areas where the heaviest restrictions apply, schools have been ordered to close, gatherings have been banned, and houses of worship have been restricted to a 10-person maximum capacity. But within the red zones, centered on Orthodox neighborhoods where most children go to private yeshivas, some schools have continued to operate in defiance of state orders, and gatherings are still being held. Cuomo announced in Wednesday’s briefing that he was sending a letter to New York City, Orange and Rockland counties, the town of Ramapo, and the village of Spring Valley (located within Ramapo) warning that they will lose state funding if they do not enforce school closures and limits on gatherings. Curiously not listed among the local governments Cuomo is addressing: The Orange County town of Palm Tree, and its village of Kiryas Joel, where Orange County’s hotspot is located.

Despite being directly threatened with budget cuts, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus is standing behind Cuomo’s actions. “He is frustrated, as I am, about Palm Tree, and the lack of compliance, the in-your-face lack of compliance,” Neuhaus said in a video statement on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon. In the video, Neuhaus said he doesn’t know why Cuomo’s letter did not go to the local governments of Palm Tree and Kiryas Joel. “Maybe there was a mistake. My conversation with him: I said the county and the state have been shoulder to shoulder in the town of Palm Tree, trying to get them to comply.”

Rockland County Executive Ed Day also publicly sided with the governor on Wednesday, releasing a pointed statement saying that the county remains “fully in support of the Governor’s New York State Police Enforcement Task Force” to enforce the lockdown initiatives in local hotspots, and blaming local municipalities for failing to control the outbreaks. “The Town of Ramapo and Village of Spring Valley have outright refused to step up and protect their residents and the residents of our county,” Day wrote.

Considering the drama unfolding in the town of Ramapo, one might think the town website would address the issue. But as of Wednesday evening, there was nothing on the town announcement page about the hotspots. The town has posted some recent information on Facebook about a new water fountain at a local park, and an important educational presentation about bears. The village of Spring Valley’s website does, at least, have a map of the local hotspot zone and its new rules.

Cuomo has been annoyed lately with reporters who insist on reporting the statewide positivity rate, a number that has been pushed upward by elevated case counts in the state’s hotspots. In briefings, Cuomo has been citing the rate in the hotspots—6.29 percent, as of Tuesday’s data—and the rate in the rest of the state minus the hotspots, which currently stands at 0.95 percent. Including all of the state’s testing data, the statewide rate is currently 1.1 percent. The governor’s beef with using the statewide number is that because more tests are being done in the hotspots, the statewide results are influenced more by elevated hotspot rates than they would be if testing were being carried out at the same rate statewide. “You have an oversample of the highest infection rate in the state, the clusters, so it skews the number,” Cuomo said Wednesday. (He’s also taken to calling the most heavily infected areas “micro-clusters,” instead of “clusters” or “hotspots,” which we’re scratching our heads about.)

For our part, at The River, we’re going to keep reporting the statewide positivity rate in our coverage, while also reporting on the governor’s updates on positivity rates in the hotspots and in the rest of the state. We’re aware that New York State’s COVID-19 data isn’t perfect, and we do our best in covering the numbers to point out what’s missing, and give context on what those numbers mean. One important factor to keep in mind: The positivity rate of COVID-19 tests in New York State isn’t an estimate of the rate of COVID-19 in the state’s population. It’s a number that measures how many of the tests conducted in New York State are coming back positive. It’s a useful number for tracking whether the state’s COVID-19 problem is growing. But the tests being run are not conducted at random: They’re a sample of people who are worried enough about their potential exposure to get a test. In areas where outbreaks are happening, more people are going to get tested, and it seems disingenuous to us to call for these “oversampled” areas to be excluded from the numbers.

A proposal drafted by a trio of fringe scientists, unveiled on October 4 by a libertarian think tank, calls for governments to end their efforts to protect people from contracting COVID-19 and allow the virus to run unchecked through younger, healthier swaths of the population in an effort to develop herd immunity. The proposal, dubbed the “Great Barrington Declaration,” has mostly been met with horror from the scientific community, but has growing support among the general public. This week, the Washington Post and The New York Times reported that the White House has endorsed it, in opposition to the federal government’s own scientific leadership at the CDC and NIH. (Editor’s note: In Monday’s roundup, we opted not to link to a local news story that featured the Great Barrington Declaration because we thought the paper gave it too much weight, presenting “both sides” of a scientific issue that most experts are in broad agreement on. The fact that the White House has embraced this document might make it news, but it doesn’t make it mainstream science.)

Dueling memos: In response to the Great Barrington memo, prominent epidemiologists and other COVID-19 experts are signing another statement—the “John Snow Memorandum”—explicitly opposing any strategy that involves letting people get infected. “Any pandemic management strategy relying upon immunity from natural infections for COVID-19 is flawed,” it reads. “The evidence is very clear: controlling community spread of COVID-19 is the best way to protect our societies and economies until safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics arrive within the coming months. We cannot afford distractions that undermine an effective response; it is essential that we act urgently based on the evidence.” (Editor’s note: The statement isn’t named after the Game of Thrones character, it’s named after British doctor John Snow, sometimes called the “father of epidemiology” for tracing a London cholera outbreak to an infected water pump in 1854. We will note, however: Winter is coming.)

From data on New York State’s COVID-19 “Report Card” site, which tracks case numbers in public and private schools, it appears that many positive cases are not being reported by school districts, especially in the Mid-Hudson region and in New York City. A regional summary of positive cases reported since September 8 lists a total of 4,046 cases in children between 5 and 17 years old, but schools reported a total of only 1,470 cases. There is a difference between lab report numbers and school numbers in every region of the state, but the gap is most pronounced in the Mid-Hudson region, where labs reported 857 cases in children since the start of the school year and schools reported 193 student cases, and New York City, where labs reported 1,681 cases and schools just 363. Governor Cuomo has threatened to shut down schools that refuse to report data.

Announced by New York State on Tuesday and Wednesday: 

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

Active cases have declined slightly in Rockland County, dropping from 1,582 on Monday to 1,340 on Wednesday. The county still has more than 40 known active cases per 10,000 residents, a rate far above any other Hudson Valley county at present. 

A drive-through flu vaccine clinic scheduled for Friday in Brewster has been rescheduled due to the threat of rain. The new date is Monday, October 19 at the same time—1-6:30pm—and place: the Putnam County health department office at 1 Geneva Road in Brewster. Anyone who already scheduled an appointment for Friday can keep that same appointment time on Monday.

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

Orange County currently has 529 active cases, 182 in the town of Palm Tree, according to a briefing by County Executive Steve Neuhaus on Wednesday. The county has about 14 known active cases per 10,000 residents. Despite having a declared hotspot along with neighboring Rockland, Orange County does not currently have the second-highest active case rate in the Hudson Valley and Catskills: That dubious honor belongs to Greene County, where a COVID-19 outbreak in a state prison has pushed the active case rate to nearly 20 per 10,000 county residents.

Several yeshivas in Kiryas Joel, the center of Orange County’s COVID-19 hotspot, have refused to close despite an order issued by Cuomo on October 6 requiring all schools in “red zones” to shut down for at least two weeks. The state is in the process of issuing an order under public health law to close schools in Kiryas Joel, Neuhaus said in his Wednesday briefing. Orange County’s attorney is also preparing lawsuits against the schools in an effort to force them to shut down. “Unfortunately, we’ve got to go to court over this,” Neuhaus said. 

Cases in Ulster County continue to rise, though at a slower rate than earlier in the week. The county’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 174 active cases through Tuesday. On that day, nine of 641 people tested were positive for the coronavirus—a 1.4 percent infection rate, down slightly from Monday’s 1.79 percent.

Marist College extended its precautionary campus pause through this Friday, October 16, after a handful of positive tests on campus last week. According to its COVID-19 dashboard, the college currently has 26 COVID-19-positive members in isolation off campus, and another three in isolation on campus.

A staffer at the Rondout Valley Central School district tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, the district reported. According to a statement from Superintendent Joseph Morgan, the district conducted an evaluation and determined that the staff member has had no contact with students while contagious.

Columbia County reported six new cases on Wednesday. There are currently 21 active cases in the county.

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

An outbreak in the Greene Correctional Facility, a state prison in Coxsackie, has driven Greene County’s case numbers and active case rates to heights not seen since the spring. The county is currently tracking 93 known active cases, and in Monday’s New York State data, almost 12 percent of the COVID-19 tests done in the county came back positive. In a Wednesday statement, county public health officials said that 85 percent of the current cases are connected to the prison. “Greene Correctional Facility made the decision to do a large-scale testing since the initial outbreak. In doing this, they found multiple positive cases inside the prison. Those in contact with the positive cases have been contact traced and required to quarantine, if necessary, depending on interaction,” county officials wrote.

Sullivan County Public Health Services issued a public health alert for anyone who was at the Dollar General Store at 100 Main Street in Livingston Manor on the following dates: October 5 between 1 and 10pm; October 6, 7, 9, 11, or 12 between 8am and 5pm; October 10 between 1 and 10pm; and October 13 between 8am and 1pm. An individual later tested positive for COVID-19 and was contagious during those periods. Anyone who thinks they may have been exposed should self-isolate for 14 days, and if symptoms develop, call their health provider or Sullivan County Public Health Services at (845) 292-5910.

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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.