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Coronavirus

Coronavirus Roundup: New York Confirms First South African Variant Case

At least 70 cases of the UK variant have also been found. Plus: new CDC guidance on schools and masks, a non-apology from Cuomo on nursing home data, and vaccination opens to those with comorbidities.

An electron microscope image showing SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the US. Image captured and colorized at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana.
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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 15, in collaboration with The Other Hudson Valley.

NEW YORK STATE

7-day average positive test rate: 3.7%
882 deaths past 7 days
6,623 hospitalizations (1,270 in ICUs)
Share of population fully vaccinated: 4.3%
Share of population given 1 dose: 10.3%
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

The first known case of B.1.351, the so-called “South African variant,” has been found in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in a televised Monday briefing. The viral variant was found in a patient at a New York City hospital who had been transferred from Connecticut. Of the three main variants of concern to epidemiologists—which also include B.1.1.7, discovered in the UK, and P.1, discovered in Brazil—the one found in South Africa is believed to have the most potential for resistance to current vaccines

New York State’s COVID-19 surveillance program at the Wadsworth Center, which sequences a tiny fraction of daily cases from around the state for variants, is still finding more cases of B.1.1.7, the more-transmissible “UK variant,” as well. As of Saturday, the count was up to 70 with 11 new cases, including the first known case in Rockland County.

In the weeks following Attorney General Letitia James’s explosive report finding that state officials undercounted deaths in New York State nursing homes, public outcry over the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing home data has only grown. Last Thursday, Governor Cuomo’s secretary Melissa DeRosa held a closed meeting with Democratic legislators to discuss the issue, in which she admitted that the state had kept data under wraps that was being sought urgently by legislators, the press, and the federal Department of Justice. A recording of the meeting was obtained by the New York Post, and it paints a pretty damning picture of the Cuomo administration’s approach. “We froze,” DeRosa said, telling lawmakers that state officials feared data would be used against them by the Trump administration if they released it. “It was not our intention to put you in that political position with the Republicans.” 

Governor Cuomo gave a lengthy defense of his administration’s refusal to release nursing home data in Monday’s briefing, while maintaining that the state Department of Health “has always fully and publicly reported all COVID deaths in nursing homes and hospitals.” At the heart of the scandal is the state’s exclusion of thousands of deaths of nursing home residents who died in hospitals from the nursing home data, who were not counted as nursing home deaths by the state until forced to by a state Supreme Court judge.

In Monday’s briefing, Cuomo admitted a mistake, but stopped short of apologizing, saying that he should have been more forthcoming with the press and the public. “The void we created by not providing information was filled with skepticism and cynicism and conspiracy theories,” he said. When asked by a reporter whether Attorney General James should investigate, Cuomo sought to put the issue to rest. “There is nothing to investigate,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything to clear here.”

The governor’s remarks got immediate pushback on Twitter from reporters and state legislators across the political spectrum. Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat from Queens, offered an especially blunt assessment: “Gov Cuomo just blamed my uncle for dying of COVID in a nursing home and blamed my family for not being tough enough to deal with it,” he tweeted. Republican Rob Ortt of North Tonawanda, the state senate minority leader, called Cuomo’s non-apology a “shocking slap in the face to the New Yorkers who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.”

Albany statehouse reporters will be watching closely to see if the Cuomo administration takes a new approach to releasing information under pressure, or if they stick to their old ways, despite paying lip service to transparency. The Times-Union’s Chris Bragg recently laid out several other ways Cuomo has been stonewalling the press for years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidelines for school reopening last week, in a lengthy road map sure to include something irksome for just about everyone involved with the issue. Most schools can reopen for at least some in-person learning, even with high rates of local infection and not all teachers vaccinated, the CDC says—but older students in middle and high school may need to learn remotely if community transmission is high, which it currently is across much of the country. The agency also says that reopening schools safely should take priority over other reopenings in the community, but as The New York Times points out, “the CDC has no power to force communities to take steps to decrease high transmission rates—such as closing nonessential businesses—in order to reopen schools.”

Also updated last week: The CDC’s guidance on masks. In light of increased transmission from the new variants, and better scientific data on how well the fit of a mask protects the wearer, the agency now recommends that people wear a surgical mask under a cloth one, or wear a mask that fits closely and has multiple layers.

Vaccine distribution is incredibly complicated, and with the federal government now playing more of a role in sending vaccines to pharmacies and other providers, it is only becoming more so. The National Governors Association, which Cuomo chairs, sent a public letter on Monday to the Biden administration asking for more coordination with state vaccination efforts to avoid “redundancy and inefficiency.” 

People who have been vaccinated with both doses and are at least two weeks past their second shot no longer have to quarantine if they come into contact with a COVID-19-positive person, according to recent CDC guidance. New York State has adopted the policy.

On Monday, COVID-19 vaccination sites in New York run by the state and some other providers opened up to people under 65 who are vulnerable because of medical conditions. A list of the comorbidities that make New Yorkers eligible for the vaccine is available on the state website, and those who meet the criteria can now schedule an appointment at a state site through the state “Am I Eligible” web tool. Local health departments will also begin receiving some vaccine doses earmarked for people with comorbidities soon, state officials said Sunday

Restaurants and bars can stay open until 11pm in New York State as of Sunday, according to a new executive order signed by Cuomo that also allows gyms, casinos, and billiards halls to extend their pandemic hours past the previous 10pm cutoff. 

Also extended: The deadline for enrolling in a political party in New York State. In the wake of some confusion about the cutoff, which this year fell on a Sunday, another executive order signed by Cuomo gives voters until Tuesday, February 16 to change their party enrollment in time to vote in this fall’s primary elections.

Large arenas and other venues in New York State with a capacity of more than 10,000 can reopen on February 23 at 10 percent capacity, Cuomo announced Wednesday. Venues must submit their reopening plans to the state Department of Health for approval, and event attendees must test negative before the event.

US Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, was in Onondaga County on Monday to advocate for the inclusion of $25 billion in restaurant aid in the $1.9 trillion package of COVID-19 funding Democrats are pushing to pass. Schumer told reporters the aid for restaurants and bars has bipartisan support in Congress. Not addressed in the press conference: The politically explosive issue of nursing home data in Schumer’s home state. Reporter Morgan McKay of Spectrum News tried to press the Senator on the issue, but he “left quickly out the back door without taking questions,” she tweeted.

In Congress, negotiations over the next COVID-19 stimulus bill are underway, with a ticking clock: Unemployment benefits will run out for millions of Americans in less than a month. With the Democrats holding a slender majority in the Senate, the fiercest negotiations are happening within the party, between more progressive members who want to see direct aid to more Americans and an increase in the minimum wage, and conservative-leaning Democrats who could potentially sink a deal if a minimum wage hike is included.

Some good news on vaccine supply, although it won’t arrive immediately: The Biden administration recently announced deals with vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna that will secure enough doses to immunize 300 million Americans by the end of July.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam
County vaccine pages: Putnam

Putnam County has created a page on its website listing COVID-19 vaccination locations with eligibility guidelines, and an extensive FAQ section addressing a wide range of vaccine questions. It’s a useful resource and will be linked in our roundups going forward, as have vaccine pages in other counties. Neither Rockland nor Westchester County has created a standalone vaccine page, but both are providing information and updates on their coronavirus pages, linked above.

New Yorkers under the age of 65 with comorbidities were allowed to schedule vaccine appointments beginning February 14, but in an update posted to its coronavirus page on February 12, the Westchester County Department of Health said that it “must prioritize essential workers in the 1b category for vaccination” at this time. The update does not say explicitly that people under age 65 with comorbidities cannot get vaccinated, but suggests that the county does not have adequate supply to vaccinate everyone who is eligible at this time.

Cumulative coronavirus deaths in Westchester County surpassed 2,000 last week, according to the county’s coronavirus dashboard, and overall cases climbed above 100,000 over the weekend. But active cases have continued to decline and now sit at 6,728, a decrease of almost 1,300 over the past week. Three weeks ago there were more than 11,000 active cases in the county.

Putnam County currently has 540 active cases, a decrease of 125 compared to last week, according to state data analyzed by The Examiner.

Active cases in Rockland County declined by a slightly lower percentage, from 1,838 last Monday to 1,743 as of the most recent update on the county coronavirus dashboard.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

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

Ulster County received 1,500 vaccine doses this week, 400 fewer than last week, though County Executive Pat Ryan said the drop was a result of hospitals receiving fewer doses for healthcare workers because most have already been vaccinated. Ryan also announced a new prioritization chart describing when residents would most likely get vaccinated. The chart does not represent a change in county policy, but instead is a guide of probable timing for when groups will get shots. Ryan encouraged residents to fill out a preregistration form at covid19.ulstercounty.gov to be informed when vaccines are available. The county executive will deliver the annual State of the County address on his official Facebook page this Tuesday at 3pm.

Columbia County continued to see a rapid decline in cases. There were 8 new cases reported Saturday, significantly down from mid-January, when upward of 50 new cases were reported a day. Two deaths were reported in the last week.

Dutchess County’s active caseload jumped over the last week, from 810 confirmed cases last Monday to 1,146 confirmed cases on Saturday. But the positivity rate, at 4.2 percent, is far lower than the 9.1 percent seen one month ago, and has fallen slightly since last week. Thirty-six deaths have been reported between the end of last month and Saturday, the last available data point.

Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus spoke about what would happen if the state legislature removes Governor Cuomo’s emergency powers, which have been in place since last March, during a COVID-19 briefing Monday. Neuhaus also suggested that vaccines should be distributed based solely on population. “The system hasn’t worked. This is an opportunity to improve the system and [reorder] it the way it was designed—to let the local counties run it.”

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro excoriated Governor Cuomo on Twitter after the governor’s Monday briefing, where he addressed revelations that his administration concealed the pandemic’s toll on nursing homes to avoid a federal investigation. “His rambling, lying, incoherent finger pointing press conference was just the latest chapter in his failed administration,” Molinaro tweeted, calling for an independent investigation.

CATSKILLS

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

Delaware County Public Health officials announced on Sunday that they will begin vaccinating people over 65 with comorbidities at county vaccine clinics. (No, “over 65” is not a typo: Starting this week, the county is expanding its vaccination effort, which has been limited to essential workers, to elderly people who also have comorbidities.) In a video update posted to social media, county Health Director Mandy Walsh said that local officials are unable to schedule appointments for any doses they have not received yet, but are beginning to get a better sense of the flow of supply from the state. “What we’d like to do is now that we’ve had a few weeks of more consistent, limited supply of vaccine—but we know we’re getting some—is to try to provide a weekly update as to what is going on,” she said.

For more information on where vaccine is available in Delaware County, residents should keep a close eye on a new web page run by United Health Services, the hospital network running the Southern Tier’s vaccination hub. The most recent information on the Southern Tier vaccination page shows Walgreens and CVS pharmacies offering vaccination to the elderly in Sidney, Delhi, Stamford, and Margaretville, four local hospitals vaccinating the 1A eligibility group, and county Public Health carrying out 1B vaccinations. 

Active cases have risen again in Delaware County, and are up to 129 after dipping below 100 last week. The county currently has 23 residents hospitalized for COVID-19. 

Oorah, the organization that operates two Orthodox summer camps in Schoharie County, is suing county health officials in federal court in response to pandemic enforcement actions and steep fines levied against the camps last summer. The lawsuit claims a pattern of discrimination stretching back more than a decade; for a little background reading, we recommend The Wall Street Journal’s 2012 account of a local debate over the camps’ tax-exempt status, and a 2014 update on the situation in the Watershed Post.

In a recent update, Greene County health officials urged local residents who are eligible because of age or comorbidities to check with their local pharmacies or doctor’s offices. The county is currently reaching out to eligible essential workers through their employers to sign up for vaccination. “Once we open clinics to the general public, we will let you know how to sign up,” they wrote.

Over the weekend in The River, we wrote about New York State excluding food and farm workers from vaccine eligibility, and spoke to Sullivan County Public Health Director Nancy McGraw about her department’s efforts to tamp down outbreaks in large food processing workplaces early on in the pandemic. McGraw is worried about local food workers. “They should be right up there on the prioritization list,” she said.

Information superhighway, meet dirt road: In the more remote parts of Sullivan County, where internet access is limited, a new mobile classroom on a school bus is literally putting the internet on wheels. The Liberty Central School District will be the first to use the new bus, the Sullivan County Democrat reports. “Post-pandemic, we’re hoping it becomes a community resource,” said Sullivan BOCES District Superintendent Robert DuFour.


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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.