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Coronavirus Roundup: New Response Strategy Targets ‘Microclusters,’ Not Regions

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Tuesday, October 20 and Wednesday, October 21.

Rise and fall! Rise and fall!
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 for Tuesday, October 20 and Wednesday, October 21. 

488,506 cases confirmed (2,026 new)
13,197,504 tests performed (124,789 new)
Positive test rate: 1.62%
25,679 deaths (7 new)
950 hospitalizations
201 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

New York State’s COVID-19 metrics are looking a little more ominous lately. Tuesday’s statewide positivity rate, at 1.62 percent, was higher than it’s been since June. Outbreaks are still ongoing in several hotspot areas of the state, and on Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced two new “microclusters” in Steuben and Chemung County where schools, gatherings, and businesses will face restrictions to bring numbers down. The current uptick might be the beginning of a larger second wave in New York—and as cases rise in new areas around the state, New York has a new plan for tackling outbreaks, which Cuomo discussed in a public briefing on Wednesday.

New York State’s new plan for tackling flare-ups of COVID-19 is a more surgical tool than the regional “NY On Pause” regulations that tied restrictions on work, school, worship, and social activities to case metrics across large swaths of the state in the spring. It’s also much more complicated. The guidance, released Wednesday, describes a process for identifying neighborhoods with high transmission rates, drawing borders around them based on an array of factors impacting public health, and assigning them to red, orange, or yellow zones based on a combination of case metrics and the population of the surrounding city or county. The color of the zones indicates the severity of the outbreak—orange and red zones face stricter restrictions on schools, gatherings, worship, and business than the surrounding yellow zones drawn as a buffer around them.

In place of New York’s 10 economic development regions, Cuomo’s new strategy divides counties (and a few cities) into four tiers based on population:

  • Tier 1, the most urban, includes all of New York City and Long Island, as well as Westchester County, Erie County, and the cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany.
  • Tier 2 counties, with 150,000 or more residents, include the Hudson Valley counties of Orange, Rockland, Dutchess, and Ulster.
  • Tier 3 counties, with 50,000 or more residents, include Putnam, Sullivan, and Columbia counties.
  • Tier 4 counties, the most rural in the state, include Delaware, Greene, and Schoharie in the Catskills.

Why does it matter which tier an outbreak happens in? According to the new guidance, if two neighborhood outbreaks have the same metrics for new cases and positivity rates, New York will place tighter restrictions on the more urban neighborhood. A microcluster that erupts in a Tier 1 county will be assigned to a red zone if its positivity rate exceeds four percent on a seven-day rolling average for 10 days. But that same four percent positivity rate would be a yellow zone in rural Delaware or Greene County.

The targets for case numbers and positivity rates that define a “microcluster” are clear, if painstaking to calculate. What’s less clear is how the maps are drawn. From the guidance, it appears that state and local health officials have some flexibility in drawing borders around outbreaks: They can use ZIP codes, census tracts, municipality or county lines, or “contiguous neighborhood” boundaries to define outbreak zones. Health officials can consider age or “demographic information” to determine whether the outbreak is focused on certain groups. Maps in situations where most cases are traced to an institution or a single large event might look different from those where infection is more spread out in the community.

The state’s new plan also sets targets for neighborhoods to leave microcluster zones when their infections go down. Along with numerical targets for new cases and positivity rates, health officials will look at factors like enforcement and community cooperation to decide whether an area is recovered enough to leave the microcluster, or have its zone color downgraded.

Some microclusters in Brooklyn and Queens that have been the focus of targeted restrictions have improved enough for New York State to downgrade their zones, Cuomo said Wednesday. The state released new maps of the updated Brooklyn and Queens microclusters in a press release. In Orange and Rockland as well as Broome County, there have been improvements in the positivity rate, but the zones are staying in place for now. “Although we made a lot of progress, the numbers are still not acceptable. So, we have more to do,” Cuomo said.

New York State enacted microcluster regulations in two new hotspots Wednesday: an orange and yellow zone in Chemung County, and a yellow zone in neighboring Steuben

Broome County, where the state has drawn a yellow zone around a local outbreak, is still working to get transmission under control. In Wednesday’s briefing, Cuomo said the positivity rate in the Broome County microcluster had gone from 4.8 percent to 4.6 percent—“marginal progress at best.” But at nearby Binghamton University, where in-person classes have been on pause for several weeks because of a case spike, rates have fallen and students are headed back to class, the Press & Sun-Bulletin reports.

As if a complicated new strategy for fighting outbreaks wasn’t enough, New York State may soon enact new rules for out-of-state travelers. Cuomo said in Wednesday’s briefing that the state’s current policy, which requires a two-week quarantine for all travelers from heavily impacted states, might soon be replaced with a strategy based on testing. “We are working with global experts to see if there’s a difference in methodology to quarantine. How do you use technology? How do you use testing? Because our current method is, you come here and you have to stay here for 14 days before you leave. The enforcement of that is highly problematic. We’re not equipped to do that,” he said. 

The looming problem with New York’s travel quarantine is that 43 US states currently meet the criteria to be on the list, and that includes our nearest neighbors. “There is no practical way to quarantine New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “You would have to do some theory of border checks all across the state, and from an economic point of view there’s too many interconnections with Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey. People live and work one place, work in the other place. It would be devastating for the economy.” 

Worth noting: Even without applying it to bordering states, there is no practical way to enforce New York State’s existing travel quarantine requirement, although that hasn’t stopped Cuomo from enacting it. Also worth noting: CDC guidance clearly advises not to use testing to try to wiggle out of quarantine requirements. “It can take up to 14 days after exposure to the virus for a person to develop COVID-19 symptoms. A negative result before the end of the 14-day quarantine period does not rule out possible infection,” the agency says in a FAQ on COVID-19

Just in time to illustrate the growing problem along New York’s most frequently crossed border, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy went into quarantine at the middle of a public event on Wednesday, after a staffer tested positive.

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has suspended visitation at the Greene and Elmira state prisons because of ongoing outbreaks, effective 3pm on Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal has more on the state’s growing prison COVID-19 problem.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is teaming up with celebrity chefs to press her fellow Congresspeople for a bill to bail out restaurants. In a truly astonishing feat of acronymese, the bill is dubbed the RESTAURANTS Act, shorthand for “Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive.”

Harm reductionists across New York State, who work on the front lines with drug users to try to reduce overdoses and deaths, are warning that Cuomo’s budget cuts have caused syringe shortages. Filter magazine has an in-depth story this week, featuring multiple people in the field who fear that shortages of clean needles and other supplies might lead to community HIV outbreaks down the road. (And you can still read our feature from last month on how the pandemic has changed harm reduction work in the Catskills.)

The official death count of COVID-19 in the US is around 220,000, but the true cost of the pandemic in American lives is higher. According to recent data from the CDC, “excess deaths” are about 299,000 for 2020 so far, indicating that more people have died this year than would be expected in a typical year. Some of those excess deaths may have been undiagnosed COVID-19 deaths, but the pandemic has also exacerbated substance abuse and mental health problems, and made it difficult or impossible for many people to get medical care. Among the report’s more sobering findings: The group with the largest increase in excess deaths was 25- to 44-year-olds, whose excess death rate is up 26.5 percent in 2020.

The CDC expanded its definition of who counts as a “close contact” of a COVID-19-positive person on Wednesday, in updated guidance drawn from a case of transmission at a Vermont prison. A guard at the prison contracted COVID-19 despite only having fleeting interactions of less than a few minutes at a time with inmates who later tested positive; the agency now advises that anyone who was within six feet of a COVID-19-positive person for at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period counts as a close contact.

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

Putnam County issued two health alerts for possible exposure to the coronavirus. The first is for anyone who visited Dunkin’ Donuts at 1 Star Ridge Road in Brewster on Friday, October 16 from 6am to 12pm; Saturday, October 17 from 6am to 2pm; and Sunday, October 18 from 6am to 2pm. The second is for anyone who worked at or visited Tijuana Mexican Restaurant & Cantina at 376 Route 6, Mahopac on Saturday, October 17 from 6:30pm to 8:30pm.

In recent weeks, rumors have swirled of a federal probe into a fraud this spring involving Mount Vernon city employees who created fake businesses in order to get pandemic relief loans. Whether or not such an investigation exists is not publicly known, but the talk has gotten loud enough that the Mount Vernon mayor saw fit to intervene. In a memo to all employees Tuesday, Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard directed any employees who might have taken part to alert City Hall officials. has more details.

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

Bard College will close its Annandale campus to visitors, but the measure is precautionary, and Dutchess County Department of Health says there are no active cases of COVID-19 associated with the school, County Executive Marc Molinaro said in his weekly virtual town hall Wednesday. Molinaro also said that the cluster reported at Marist College stemming from an October 3 gathering has run its course, as has the outbreak at Hedgewood Home for Adults in Beacon.

In his latest coronavirus briefing, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus dinged the state for not allowing the county to open up movie theaters and amusement centers located within the county but outside its hotspots. Neuhaus said Rockland County Executive Ed Day is also pressing the governor on that topic.

Columbia County reported three new cases in its Wednesday update, bringing the total number of active cases to 35, up from four at the beginning of the month.

Hudson Valley One has a look at how the Saugerties, Onteora, Kingston, and New Paltz school districts are approaching in-person instruction, as students begin to trickle back into classrooms.

Over in Middletown, district teachers say their requests to teach remotely due to their health risks have been refused. An October 15 Board of Education meeting got heated, with multiple teachers pleading with the district for a change of heart and saying their lives depended on it, the Times Herald-Record reports.

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

Greene County officials called on the state to help them control the outbreak underway at the county correctional facility, which now includes at least 100 inmates and 26 employees. Greene County Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger and County Administrator Shaun Groden requested a number of immediate actions from Governor Cuomo and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. “We’re simply asking for better communications and transparency from the state,” Linger and Groden said in a press release. “Our offers to help seem to have fallen on deaf ears.” The officials sounded a more doleful note in an interview with Columbia-Greene Media. “We’re eight months into this now. How has the state not addressed this?” Groden said. “You can’t social distance in general population. This knee-jerk reaction needs to end.” Groden went on to say that even if the state and DOCCS take action, it may be too little, too late.

New research from Moody’s Investors Services predicts that regional casinos, like Resorts World Catskills, will face pandemic-related financial challenges that exceed those following the Great Recession and 9/11. As the Times Herald-Record notes, Resorts World Catskills had problems before the pandemic: $500 million in debt at the end of last year, a remote location, and pre-pandemic earnings that were barely half of projections, with monthly losses topping $10 million.

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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.

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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.