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Coronavirus Roundup: New York Begins Vaccinations

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Saturday, December 12 through Monday, December 14.

Sandra Lindsay, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, was the first person in the US to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial.
Kevin P. Coughlin
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This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Saturday, December 12 through Monday, December 14. Published in collaboration with The Other Hudson Valley.

9,044 new cases yesterday
159,844 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 5.66%
85 deaths yesterday
5,712 hospitalizations
1,040 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

New York State got a much-needed shot in the arm early Monday morning: The first person to be vaccinated in the US, a Queens critical care nurse named Sandra Lindsay, received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine from her colleague Dr. Michelle Chester. Governor Andrew Cuomo was on hand for the historic occasion, and had a chat with Lindsay for the TV cameras. “I feel hope today,” Lindsay said. “I feel like healing is coming, and this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history.”

In a Monday briefing, Cuomo said the state was in the process of vaccinating 10,000 frontline healthcare workers on the first day of the vaccine rollout. The first phase of vaccination is focused on hospital staff who come into contact with patients, as well as nursing home residents and staff. Vaccination of nursing home residents in New York will begin on December 21, under a federal program that the state has opted to participate in. 

Like the rest of the nation, New York State is tough pandemic territory: buoyed by hope that the vaccine rollout will begin to make an impact on COVID-19 suffering, but still in the grip of an accelerating fall surge in infections that is threatening both the physical health and the livelihoods of people across the state. On Monday, Cuomo said that if the state does not reverse course on infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, there could be widespread shutdowns of all nonessential business activity. “If we do not change the trajectory, we could very well be headed to shutdown,” he said. 

Currently, the state’s main metric for deciding whether to enact broad shutdowns is not positivity rates, but hospital capacity, a theme Cuomo has been returning to in recent briefings. New York health officials are tracking hospital capacity and predicting the impact of current trends on hospitalizations in the weeks ahead. If hospitals in a region are predicted to hit 90 percent capacity within three weeks, Cuomo said, a red zone will be declared, forcing the shutdown of all nonessential business. “No region is in that situation now, and that’s the situation we’re trying to avoid,” he said. As of Monday, indoor dining is closed in New York City and in a few focus zones, but still operating across most of the rest of the state.

On Monday, the governor updated New York State’s list of microcluster focus zones for the first time since before Thanksgiving. Two new zone maps were added to the state’s list of local color-coded zones where stricter pandemic regulations apply: a yellow zone in Genessee County, and one in Oneida County. Another existing yellow zone in Niagara County was expanded. High-resolution maps of the state’s focus zones, of which there are now almost 30, are available on the NY Forward website, along with information on the restrictions that apply in yellow, red, and orange zones in the state.

The state’s daily press releases with information about positivity rates in the individual focus zones have recently been replaced with numbers on hospitalization and hospital capacity. In Monday’s release, the most recent numbers show that among the state’s 10 regions, the Finger Lakes region currently has the largest percentage of its population hospitalized for COVID-19. Critical care capacity is currently most strained in the Mohawk Valley, where just 23 percent of ICU beds are available.

After months of letting Cuomo take the lead on pandemic response, the New York State legislature may be finding its spine. Assembly speaker Carl Heastie told reporters on Monday that the legislature may pass tax increases before the end of the year to deal with the state’s massive budget deficit. The end-of-year deadline is important, Heastie said, because if legislators wait until 2021, there may be legal hurdles to passing an increase that applies to 2020 wages.

In his Monday briefing, Cuomo argued against a tax increase, which is likely to fall mostly on the wealthiest New Yorkers, without addressing the legislature’s plans directly. “You have to do a tax increase in the context of a budget, otherwise you don’t know how much to raise in taxes,” Cuomo said. The governor is arguing that the state should wait to see how much federal aid is forthcoming before tinkering with the tax code, and has also argued that a tax hike on millionaires or billionaires would drive them out of New York State.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill: A $908 billion bipartisan pandemic stimulus bill has emerged, but it remains unclear whether its backers can get it passed. A key holdup: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who has so far been unwilling to pass a bill unless it contains language shielding businesses from liability for COVID-19 death and sickness. Not included in the latest version: Direct payments to Americans, an item that Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are fighting to pass separately. 

A small break for Capital Region restaurants: Albany County Executive Dan McCoy signed an executive order Monday that caps fees from third-party delivery services like GrubHub and DoorDash at 15 percent. 

Also in Albany: The Capital Region’s flagship hospital, Albany Medical, has begun vaccinating hospital workers. So far, the hospital has received 975 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, and has wasted no time getting them to workers on the front lines of patient care. The hospital is not requiring staff to be vaccinated, the Times Union reports.

In a new feature story on the pandemic, Atlantic science writer Ed Yong takes on the monumental response of the research community to COVID-19, an effort Yong likens to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo spaceflight program. “Nothing in history was even close to the level of pivoting that’s happening right now,” McGill epidemiologist Madhukar Pai told the magazine. But although COVID-19 research has yielded great victories, especially in vaccine development, there has been a lot of sketchy science too, Yong writes. And in non-pandemic fields of research, like conservation and climate change, progress has slowed to a crawl as resources have been diverted toward the pandemic. Much as it has exposed existing problems in society, COVID-19 has shown the flaws in the way we do scientific research, Yong writes—and hopefully, we’ll learn from them in time for the next pandemic.

The Buffalo News this week takes a look at the plight of local government—and the fears of local officials that if federal aid does not come soon, a fiscal disaster will fall on the shoulders of counties and municipal governments in the middle of a vaccine rollout.

Related: On a more international scale, the scientific journal Nature ran a feature story this week on the importance of investing in public health, a key function of county and city governments. Many rich nations, including the US, have seen contact tracing programs fail and fall behind on the task of keeping up with the pandemic, while less wealthy nations got the job done more effectively with better use of public health staff and resources. “If there’s a single lesson that every country needs to learn, it’s invest in your public-health system,” said Selina Rajan, a public health expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

Rockland and Orange county executives signed onto a joint statement issued by a bipartisan coalition of senators and assembly members opposing the potential elimination of Metro-North service west of the Hudson River. The move comes as mass transit faces what one advocate described as “existential peril” in a New York Times article on the revenue shortfalls that transit agencies across the US are facing due to massive reductions in ridership this year. The MTA’s cost-cutting plan would also slash service east of the Hudson River by 50 percent. “In the event that the MTA makes disproportionate cuts to West-of-Hudson rail service on the Pascack Valley and Port Jervis lines, we have mutually agreed to support legislation that would withdraw our counties—and tax dollars—from the MTA,” the statement reads. No decision has yet been made.

Overall hospitalizations declined in Rockland County over the weekend. The county now has 35 percent bed capacity, according to its coronavirus metrics dashboard. Eighty-four people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county, out of 2,193 active cases. The county reported 11 additional coronavirus-related deaths since Friday.

The latest hospitalization data out of Westchester County is also not terrible. The county has about 8,600 active COVID-19 cases right now, County Executive George Latimer said in a Monday briefing. The last time active cases were around 8,600, in the spring, there were 953 people hospitalized—much more than are currently hospitalized in the county. Westchester lost 31 people to the virus over the past week, more than the number who died in two summer months, Latimer said.

To prepare for a potential spike in deaths over the winter, Westchester County is building a space in Valhalla to store two refrigerated trailers that could serve as makeshift morgues, reports The site is a county-owned field adjacent to the county Labs and Research facility on the Grasslands campus. The trailers could be used if local funeral parlors are overwhelmed by the number of dead, as they were during the pandemic’s first wave in the spring.

The state Department of Health is expected to give Montefiore Nyack Hospital the responsibility for vaccination administration of high-risk residents at community facilities in conjunction with future vaccine shipments, said Dr. Anthony V. Matejicka II, vice president and Chief Medical Officer at Montefiore Nyack, in a long article on about the first day of vaccinations in New York. Matejicka said the hospital’s initial delivery of vaccine would be administered to hospital staff and providers.

Putnam County released an update for its community impact dashboard covering December 4-10. As of last Thursday, the county estimated it had 203 active cases and 15 hospitalizations. Two people died of COVID-19 causes during that week.

Westchester’s consumer protection office issued a release on its Facebook page warning residents of potential vaccine scams. The post notes that the vaccine is expected to be free, that there are no sign-up lists, that you can’t pay to get inoculated earlier, that Medicare or Social Security won’t call you about it, and that residents don’t need to give out their social security number, credit card, or bank info to get the shot.

Rockland County is having a blood drive this Wednesday to address an urgent shortage of blood supply. The drive will take place from 8am to 12:30pm at the Robert Yeager Center, Building A (50 Sanatorium Road, Pomona). Donors must make an appointment; walk-ins only if capacity permits. Sign up to donate online, and remember to eat, drink, and bring a donor ID card or ID with name and photo.

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Columbia County Health Director Jack Mabb told Hudson Valley 360 that more people are lying to contact tracers. “The trend now is to see people resistant to Health Department COVID-19 involvement. That only helps to allow for the virus to spread,” he said. A person who attended a wake at a private home in Ghent on December 6 tested positive after also attending a funeral at a home with more than 100 people in attendance on December 9. The funeral’s host lied to the health department, saying there were only 10 people there—the maximum allowable by executive order. The truth only came out when another attendee called the health department.

The surge of New York City residents who relocated due to the pandemic has shot housing prices in Columbia County upward. The Other Hudson Valley spoke to realtors in the county, who described intense bidding wars, properties being bought within hours, investment groups, and a “pandemic premium” on rentals.

The majority of the 96 new COVID-19 cases seen in Columbia County last week were the result of Thanksgiving gatherings, the county Department of Health announced Saturday. Since then, 51 additional cases have been announced, and 19 people are hospitalized. The county Department of Health also announced an exposure from a staff member at Planet Fitness in Greenport. Anyone who went to the gym on December 5, 6, or 7 should monitor for symptoms.

Orange County announced eight new deaths from COVID-19 on Monday. The victims ranged in age from 57 to 90, and seven of the eight were nursing home residents.

Mabb issued a statement Monday correcting an assertion he made on News10 that the COVID-19 vaccine would be available to the general public in mid-January. “We are expecting to have vaccines available for EMS personnel and doctors who do not work at the hospital available by mid-January,” the statement read in part. “Our hope is to have the vaccine available for the general public in April or May of next year.”

Dutchess County Health Commissioner Dr. Anil Vaidian reminded residents that they could not “test out” of quarantine. “When you test, you’re actually looking at one point in time. If you test negative on Day Three, that does not mean you will not become symptomatic, or test positive, on Day Five.” The Centers for Disease Control’s updated guidance states quarantine should last 10 days, but Vaidian pointed out that decision was mostly made so people would actually abide by the quarantine, and that New York has not taken up the guidance.

Ulster County hit a sobering milestone over the weekend: With 1,821 known active cases among the county’s roughly 178,000 residents, more than 1 out of every 100 people in the county currently has an active COVID-19 infection. As of the latest county data available on Monday, Ulster County has the highest rate of known active cases per capita in the Hudson Valley and Catskills region—although that may not mean Ulster in fact has the highest infection rate. County health departments do not all use the same method for calculating active cases, a factor that makes it difficult to compare numbers between counties. And according to county-level data from the CDC, several Hudson Valley counties have had more new cases per capita in the past seven days than Ulster.

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Faced with an ongoing rise in cases, and anticipating further growth in the local COVID-19 infection rate in the weeks ahead, Greene County activated its emergency operations center on Monday, a move that centralizes local disaster response under a single chain of command. Neighboring Columbia County made a similar move in early November, after a rapid spike in cases there. As of Monday, there are currently 96 known active positive cases in Greene County. 

Several Greene County schools have gone remote in response to rising cases, and others are preparing for increased testing that will be required if the area is declared a “focus zone” by the state, the Daily Mail reports.

Schoharie County active cases are climbing to new record highs: As of Monday, the county has 71 active cases, up from 49 last Wednesday

Pandemic-related budget issues are forcing staffing cuts at the management level at the Bassett healthcare network that serves much of Delaware and Schoharie counties, the Daily Star reports. Hospital officials say the move will not have an impact on patient care, but it seems like a bad time to be letting people go.

The Sullivan County Department of Motor Vehicles, already deeply backed up because of pandemic cutbacks on staff and hours, now must shut down for two weeks because of a case in the office, county officials announced Sunday. 

Things to look forward to: In a story about how local restaurants are responding to the incredible business challenges of the pandemic, local tavern owner Brewster Smith told the Sullivan Democrat that there will be good times ahead, if we can just get through the winter. “I do think that come this summer it’s going to be a bit of a celebratory explosion,” he said.

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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.