This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Thursday, December 17 and Friday, December 18. Published in collaboration with The Other Hudson Valley.
NEW YORK STATE
12,697 new cases yesterday
249,385 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 5.09%
120 deaths yesterday
1,068 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065
Since the vaccination effort began earlier this week, about 19,000 New Yorkers have gotten their first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine, Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a Friday briefing. But none of them are in nursing homes: The program that will vaccinate nursing home residents and staff, a federally run collaboration with CVS and Walgreens, has not yet gotten underway, in part because the logistics of vaccine delivery and obtaining consent are more complicated in nursing homes than for front-line healthcare workers. But New York’s most vulnerable will get their turn soon. Cuomo aide Gareth Rhodes told reporters in the briefing that the program will start Monday, December 21 in New York State. Pharmacists will be visiting 618 nursing homes across the state to administer the vaccinations. “We expect this will move as quickly as possible,” Rhodes said.
And then there were two: Moderna’s vaccine received an emergency use authorization from the FDA on Friday evening, and will soon join the Pfizer vaccine in the active rollout. New York State is expecting a delivery of 346,000 courses of Moderna vaccine shortly. The state’s independent vaccine review panel has also given the vaccine the greenlight. Adding Moderna’s vaccine to the distribution chain will make logistics easier, especially in rural areas: Unlike Pfizer’s, the Moderna vaccine does not require special ultracold freezers for storage, and it is shipped in smaller batches, making it more flexible for distribution in less populated areas. Moderna is also the only vaccine to show preliminary data indicating that it offers some protection against asymptomatic spread, though doctors and researchers hope that Pfizer’s very similar vaccine will also prevent asymptomatic transmission.
The discovery that Pfizer’s vials typically contain enough vaccine for six or seven doses, not just the five on the label, has been widely hailed as a sort of Hannukah miracle, and may extend the reach of the tiny amount of Pfizer vaccine available to states right now. But Hannukah is over, and there’s more depressing news on the Pfizer front: Many states were told by federal Operation Warp Speed officials on Wednesday that their expected Pfizer shipments have been reduced, worrying health officials and sparking confusion. Meanwhile, the good folks who brought us the White House outbreak tracker are still doing the CDC’s job: They’ve set up a new data tracker keeping tabs on vaccine allocations to 50 states, eight territories, six cities, and five federal agencies, powered by information from local news reports and state press releases.
On Friday, Cuomo said that the 90 regional vaccine distribution hubs across the state, which are being run by the large hospital networks designated to oversee vaccination in each of the state’s 10 regions, have distributed vaccine doses to 292 sites statewide, in preparation for Phase II of the vaccine rollout. “This is not going to be done by the political system. It’s not going to be done by the county executive; it’s not going to be done by the town supervisor. It’s all being done by medical facilities, so there will be no politics in the distribution,” Cuomo said.
With cases still rising statewide, the question of whether New York State (or New York City) is headed for shutdown has been a hot topic in recent briefings. On Friday, Cuomo said again that shutdown was not certain. “I do not believe that we are destined to have a shutdown,” he said. “It is totally in our control, and the shutdown is totally avoidable. Totally.”
If Cuomo and New York State health officials had stuck with the original “Cluster Action Initiative” rules, unveiled less than two months ago, much of the state would probably be in red zone shutdown territory now. Faced with a relentless rise in cases and positivity rates, Cuomo has essentially abandoned a strategy that created “focus zones” in areas of high positivity rates, and is now using a strategy of enacting shutdowns in response to threats to hospital capacity, although focus zones that were declared under the old system remain in effect.
On Friday, Cuomo said that all hospitals are required to inform the state if they predict that they will hit 85 percent capacity in the next three weeks, which would spur the state to take shutdown action. So far, no hospital network has yet raised that alarm, Cuomo said. “If that regional hospital system says, ‘We’re going to hit 85 percent in three weeks,’ we’ll have a 15 percent buffer, that’s when we would shut down the economy,” he said. “Three weeks from today is roughly January 8. No hospital in the state believes they’re going to hit 85 percent by January 8.”
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 declined in New York State on Thursday for the first time in over two months, dropping from 6,147 to 6,081. It’s good news, but with cases still rising, just one day of decreased hospitalizations, and that day coinciding with a heavy snowstorm across much of the state, it’s doubtful the drop will hold up. “We’ll find out if it continues tomorrow, but it’s good news,” Cuomo said. Meanwhile, daily COVID-19 deaths stayed level at 120, the same as Wednesday’s number.
Nurses on the front lines at New York State’s hospitals are worried about the weeks ahead.
“We’re worse off in some ways than we were in the beginning,” New Rochelle nurse Shalon Matthews told The New York Times this week. “We need staff, we need help, we need resources. I’m fearful for my patients and I’m fearful that the same thing that happened back in March, it’s going to happen again—and once again, we’re not prepared.”
There is still not another coronavirus stimulus package. On Friday, with a government shutdown looming, Congress passed a two-day extension of federal-government funding to give lawmakers more time to iron out the final details of a proposed $900 billion relief package. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Friday evening that there were “still some significant issues outstanding” in the way of a deal, adding that House lawmakers should not expect to vote earlier than Sunday at 1pm. In the Senate, Senator Bernie Sanders was pushing for increased direct payment to Americans, while Senator John Thune, the Number 2 Republican in the chamber, said expectations of a deal this week reflected “a triumph of hope over experience.”
Congressman Antonio Delgado, a Democrat representing New York’s 19th district, announced Friday that he had been vaccinated “on the advice of public health officials.” Congressional physician Brian Monahan wrote in a letter on Thursday to members of Congress and their staffers that Congress would be given a small number of doses of Pfizer’s vaccine in the first phase of vaccination “to meet long-standing requirements for continuity of government operations.” Forbes reports that 50 members of Congress have been infected with COVID-19 so far, three-quarters of them Republicans. Delgado will hold a Facebook town hall on Saturday, December 19 at 10am.
Note: There is no one method counties use to calculate active cases. Both the state and counties draw data from the same electronic lab reporting system, but county health officials clean up the data to ensure accuracy. But differences in how counties report active cases make comparisons difficult. Two in particular we’re keeping an eye on: Ulster County, where the number of active cases reported by the county seems very high compared to how many daily cases are being found, and Putnam County, where the active case count seems very low. Another way to look at local current infection data is the CDC’s county data, which shows the number of cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period.
In Thursday’s coronavirus news briefing, Westchester County Executive George Latimer said that the county has suspended sharing a map breaking down cases by community while it tries to shorten the lag time between when the county gets data compared to the state. That gap has led to instances where the county and state trackers depict different data for the county. Latimer warned that when the next map is published, it will show a significant jump in the number of cases because of the steady uptick in infections. “Do not be alarmed,” he said. “If it’s more accurate, it’s more helpful.” On Thursday, the county saw a slight decline in active cases, which Latimer called “fairly surprising” before attributing it to the fact the county did not test as many people with the winter storm rolling in—only about 9,500. Friday’s numbers from the state tracker show nearly 13,000 Westchester residents were tested, with 716 of them (5.5 percent) positive for the virus.
In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Westchester County teamed up with faith leaders in Port Chester and Peekskill for public service announcements targeted at religious followers. The Port Chester PSA features Rabbi Ben Goldberg from Congregation KTI, Pastor Jim O’Hanlon of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, and Pastor Patrice L. Kemp Sr. of Saint Frances AME Zion Church. The Peekskill PSA features Mayor Andre Rainey, Father Esteban Sanchez of Church of the Assumption, and Pastor Reverend Gary L. Colter of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church. In the videos, the faith leaders warn that the pandemic is far from over, and extol advice like hand-sanitizing, wearing masks in public, and avoiding indoor gatherings. “It’s not political,” said Revered Kemp. “It’s not even an infringement on your rights.”
Westchester County also published a video demonstrating how to use the BinaxNOW card test, which this week was authorized by the FDA for use by patients at home with a prescription. County Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler appears in the video, encouraging county schools to use it to conduct mandated testing of their communities.
From the Department of Transparency The River Could Have Used, Like, Months Ago: Putnam County health officials released a short press release on Friday stating that the county’s COVID dashboard will be updated on Mondays over the next few weeks, presumably due to the holiday schedule.
Active cases in Ulster County shot above 2,000 Thursday; one out of every 87 people in the county is believed to be infected. There are more than enough hospital beds to handle patients even if hospitalizations continue to rise, County Executive Pat Ryan said, with 24 residents currently hospitalized.
Columbia County recorded 33 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, a record. The surge in new cases led the county Board of Supervisors to order all nonessential and some essential county departments to reduce the number of people at their offices by half. The county Human Services Building, which houses most county offices, was closed late Wednesday after a possible COVID-19 exposure. It will reopen Monday after a deep clean.
Vaccinations in Orange County nursing homes should begin Monday, County Executive Steve Neuhaus said Friday, and take two weeks to complete. A second dose is required three weeks after the first. In his remark, Neuhaus mentioned Valley View Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center, the county-owned facility undergoing its second COVID-19 outbreak after 50 residents died this spring.
An argument over masks at a Marshall’s in Newburgh caught on video last week racked up more than 40,000 views on YouTube as of Friday. In the video, a woman with kids in tow threatens to beat up a man after he tells her to put on a mask. “Freedom of speech! Freedom of speech! Kiss my ass! Freedom of speech!” the woman asserts after a security guard approaches.
Ulster County’s first healthcare workers were vaccinated Wednesday. County Executive Ryan was at Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital to herald the good news, calling it “a significant step forward,” but warned it would be months before the vaccine was widely available. Four more deaths were announced Friday in the county.
The Hudson Valley Center of Performing Arts will put on the Nutcracker ballet for the 10th year. The show was recorded, with the performers masked. It will screen Monday, December 21 at the Four Brothers Drive-In in Armenia.
Sullivan County’s active case numbers have increased dramatically this week, jumping from 151 on Monday to 201 on Friday. Some of the rapid increase was due to a batch of data from Middletown Medical, dating back to late November, that was never uploaded to the state’s laboratory reporting system due to a glitch in a new software system. Sullivan County health officials discovered the error, and said on Wednesday that they were sorting through data on about 200 cases in the county that they had not previously received from Middletown Medical. Orange County cases were also affected by the glitch, but the county has not yet released any numbers on how many new cases have been found that were linked to the error.
Sullivan County health director Nancy McGraw posted a Friday video briefing on Facebook in which she addressed the issue with Middletown Medical. “They were very forthcoming,” she said. McGraw said that the providers at Middletown Medical had already notified people who tested positive, a process that was unaffected by the glitch.
A diner at the Ciao Bella restaurant in Monticello recently tested positive for COVID-19, Sullivan County health officials said in a press release Thursday. The person who tested positive attended a party at the restaurant on December 12 from 6 to 10pm. “While there is currently no indication that the patron contracted the virus at the restaurant, the diner was at a group party, and the restaurant was hosting over two dozen people at the time, many of whom were not wearing masks,” health officials wrote.
According to an update on the Schoharie County Department of Health Facebook page, Schoharie currently has an estimated 80 active cases, with a rate of transmission of 1.53, which indicates the number of people each infected person is spreading the virus to. The update includes a graph charting the number of people hospitalized in the Mohawk Valley over time. There are currently 194 COVID patients hospitalized, the most in the pandemic thus far, and more than 3 times the previous peak in the region, which came in early June.
Delaware County contact tracer Jessica Decker put a human face on the contact tracing process in a recent video put out by the county health department that describes how contact tracing is done in the county. Health officials are working with Delaware Opportunities to deliver food boxes and cleaning supplies to people in quarantine, Decker said.
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