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Coronavirus Roundup: Threats to New York’s Good Run of Test Results

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Tuesday, August 18 and Wednesday, August 19.

New York's run of low positive test rates will be challenged by schools reopening in coming weeks.
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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, August 18 and Wednesday, August 19. 

427,202 cases confirmed (631 new)
7,272,403 tests performed (80,425 new)
Positive test rate: .78%
25,270 deaths (6 new)
548 current hospitalizations
131 current ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

New York State is on a 12-day streak of COVID-19 positivity rates below one percent. But can we keep it up? School and university reopenings across the state are likely to be a major test of New York State’s COVID-19 containment in the days and weeks ahead. In a briefing on Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo urged New Yorkers not to relax just yet. “Maybe we are at halftime in the game, and we ended the first half in good shape after a brutal first half and we’re in the locker room. COVID is not over by any stretch of the imagination, and the feeling of complacency poses an obstacle in and of itself,” Cuomo said. “I’ve been saying ‘don’t get cocky, don’t get arrogant,’ but then on the other hand, I’ve also been saying ‘great news today, great news today, great news today.’”

A worrying sign elsewhere in the nation: Large outbreaks at colleges and universities that are already forcing campuses to go online, with the fall semester barely begun. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Notre Dame University scrambled to shut down in-person classes this week; UNC student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel earned itself a spot in the national news cycle for calling the situation on campus—accurately, in our opinion—a “clusterfuck.” Among the major universities modeling good critical thinking skills this week was Michigan State University, where administrators saw outbreaks already unfolding on other campuses, and moved to all-remote learning for undergraduates ahead of the start of the fall semester. 

The pandemic might not be over, but Cuomo has already written a book about it—or at least his ghostwriters have. American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic drops on October 13, just in time for the election. Cuomo announced the book deal on Tuesday, the day after delivering a fiery speech criticizing federal pandemic response at the Democratic National Convention. Predictably, he’s being roasted for it; we enjoyed Vulture’s headline, “Local Italian Man Writes Coronavirus Memoir.” 

A bipartisan group of state legislators is pushing for an independent investigation into New York State’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. State of Politics reports that a measure introduced Wednesday with support from both Democrats and Republicans would create a commission in the state Senate and Assembly to investigate the issue, composed of members of both parties, and helmed by an appointee of Attorney General Letitia James. Bill sponsors Jim Tedisco, a Republican state senator, and Ron Kim, a Democratic assemblyman, held press conferences Wednesday to announce the legislation, the Register-Star reports. “I’m not here to demonize or vilify the governor. [Families may] be willing to even forgive him if he was truthful and willing to admit there were mistakes made,” Kim said. “Everyone agrees we’re willing to work with him if we can get to the truth.”

First it was $400, then it was $300, and now it might only last a few weeks—or not arrive at all. A second round of emergency unemployment payments created by President Donald Trump via executive order was announced as a $400 weekly benefit, but $100 of each weekly check was expected to come from states, and after months of fighting the pandemic without much dedicated federal aid, most states are too broke to cover their share. CNBC reports that in some states, payments might only last for three weeks: FEMA, from whose coffers the $300 weekly federal payments will come, is only guaranteeing states who apply for the grants three weeks of funding initially. It also appears that unemployed workers in some states will not get the extra $300 at all: South Dakota has already declined to apply for the funding, with Governor Kristi Noem commenting that the state was “in the fortunate position of not needing to accept it.” Only a handful of states have gone through the application process so far, and New York is not among them.

New York State schools preparing for the most challenging start to the school year in living memory just got dealt another setback: A 20 percent cut in state aid across the board. One superintendent told the Times Union that although she had expected a decrease in regular state aid, cuts to deferred building aid were unexpected, and might wreak havoc on school budgets. “I feel like, personally, we’re being set up for failure,” said Angelina Maloney of the Brunswick Central School District. 

Facing lawsuits from 20 Democratic state Attorneys General over recent policies that have delayed mail delivery across the country, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced Tuesday that he would suspend the policies until after the November election. In a pair of lawsuits filed Tuesday, the states suing DeJoy claim that the sweeping cost-cutting policies were put in place in a deliberate attempt to make mail-in voting more difficult, in an election expected to involve unprecedented numbers of mail-in ballots because of the pandemic. Congressional Democrats are continuing to press for a full restoration of any service that has been cut, along with funding for the USPS, which since 2006 has been required by an act of Congress to pre-fund the expected future cost of all of its employees’ health benefits in retirement.

Guests from high-risk states staying at New York City hotels and Airbnb rentals must now fill out quarantine forms, a measure adopted by city government in an effort to enforce the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement. 

Pooled testing, where multiple samples are combined and processed together, can be a powerful tool for expanding a lab’s testing capacity. With pooled testing, half of each individual sample is saved, so if a positive COVID-19 result is found in the pooled group, the individual samples can be screened one by one. But the strategy breaks down when there are too many cases, The New York Times reports: Nebraska was having great success with pooled testing early on in the pandemic, but had to abandon the strategy when its positivity rate surged past 10 percent. New York State is working on a pooled testing initiative with protocols developed by SUNY researchers, Cuomo announced last week

Announced by New York State on Tuesday and Wednesday:

  • The New York State Department of Health wants county health departments to be prepared to test for COVID-19 and flu simultaneously this fall when flu season ramps up. On Wednesday, state health commissioner Howard Zucker sent a letter to local health departments asking for information about their plans, and any barriers they anticipate to having enough testing capacity. Responses from local health departments are due to by August 26.
  • Enrollment for health insurance through NY State of Health for the uninsured has been extended through September 15.
  • Alaska and Delaware were added back to New York State’s travel quarantine list, after briefly improving enough to be removed from it. No states or other areas were removed this week. The current full list of states and territories from which travelers entering or returning to New York State must quarantine for two weeks: Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Virgin Islands, and Wisconsin.
  • A bit of good news from the state: In 976 inspections of bars and restaurants conducted Monday in New York City and Long Island, the State Liquor Authority and New York Police Department task force did not find any violations
Rate of active cases per 10,000 residents, drawn from the latest county data. Active case data unavailable for Rockland and Orange counties.

Since mid-May, The River has been collecting and charting data on the number of active COVID-19 cases by county in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. Below is a Flourish animation we have compiled that shows the rate of active cases per 10,000 residents for each county over time, from May 12 through the present date.

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

The question of whether or not to reopen schools has put teachers in an anxious position. We already ask educators to take on so many roles in addition to teaching; given the exigencies of the pandemic, will they have to become de facto public health adjuncts as well? A recent piece in The Atlantic, written by a nurse, argues that “teachers should do their jobs” and put their health at risk for the good of a functioning society. But teachers are pushing back, and this past week, the presidents of 50 teacher and staff unions in the mid-Hudson Valley published an open letter addressed to communities in Putnam, Westchester, Orange, and Rockland counties. “We feel compelled to write to you in a shared voice, as there are universal elements to our concerns about re-entry into the schools this September,” the letter begins.

The Westchester County health department will offer free back-to-school vaccines for uninsured children. Visits are by appointment only on August 24 or 31 at the health department clinic at 134 Court Street in White Plains. Call the county health department at (914) 995-5800 to schedule.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day submitted three draft resolutions to the county legislature to help generate additional revenue, help stabilize county finances, and “allow for proper budgetary decision-making” for 2021, according to a press release Tuesday. The most noteworthy item: a proposed one-half of one percent local sales tax hike to take effect December 1, 2020, or as soon thereafter as possible, for a period of three years until November 30, 2023.

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

The Kingston, Saugerties, Onteora, and New Paltz school districts have now all announced that they will begin the school year with remote learning, for at least one month. The reasons cited vary, though safety is a consistent concern. Hudson Valley One has a long feature about how each district arrived at its decision.

Ulster County announced Wednesday that the county Housing Development Corporation held its first meeting to begin the process of creating affordable housing at the former Golden Hill Jail. In a statement, county officials said that creating housing that essential workers can afford is a high priority for the county. “Throughout the pandemic, we have seen our frontline workers work full-time to serve and protect us. We must make sure that they can afford to live in the community that they serve every day,” said county executive Pat Ryan. 

While top county officials and housing advocates say the project is badly needed to address local housing shortages, neighbors of the Golden Hill Jail are skeptical, Hudson Valley One reports. Among them is Ellen DiFalco, who lost her 2019 bid to unseat Kingston Mayor Steve Noble. “I believe the City of Kingston has its fair share of housing complexes, and when there are 20 towns and three villages in the county, it’s time for other communities to be part of the affordable housing equation,” DiFalco said in a virtual public hearing on the issue on August 11. 

Ryan also announced Ulster County’s plan to help gyms and fitness centers prepare for reopening, the guidelines of which Governor Cuomo announced Monday. The plan creates a team of officials from the Ulster County Executive’s Office, the Health Department, and the Office of Economic Development, which will coordinate with local gyms to ensure the state’s guidance is followed and to conduct health and safety inspections.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro held his weekly COVID-19 virtual town hall on Wednesday. Molinaro discussed the new gym guidelines and how the county Department of Behavioral & Community Health is working with schools to ensure a safe reopening, among other updates.

The Newburgh-based Hudson Valley Regional Council has received a $400,000 federal grant from CARES Act funding to update economic development plans and help communities respond to the pandemic, the Highlands Current reports.

Boice Brothers Dairy announced Tuesday on Facebook that it will close its Kingston store for a few days due to a positive COVID-19 test among its work family.

The annual holiday craft fair at Columbia-Greene Community College, originally scheduled for November 16, has been canceled, according to a Facebook post from the college.

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Sullivan County will expand a high-speed wireless broadband initiative, originally approved last year for Monticello, to the rest of the county, the Sullivan County Democrat reports. The expansion will utilize the county’s 12 communications towers to bring broadband service to about 60 percent of the county’s population and businesses.

Sullivan County’s eight school districts are still preparing their reopening plans, with guidance from Sullivan County Public Health Services and the Sullivan County BOCES.

As of Wednesday evening, neither SUNY Cobleskill nor the Schoharie County Department of Health has made any public announcement about a student who tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to campus for the fall semester. An email about the positive test was apparently sent to the campus community, and the news was shared by the Mountain Eagle on Sunday, August 16.

A proposed hotel at the former Quality Inn site near Exit 21 of the New York State Thruway has fallen through, Greene County Industrial Development Authority Executive Director Rene VanSchaack told Hudson Valley 360 in a story about the “positive and negative ways” development in the county has been affected by the pandemic. VanSchaack says that there has been increased investment in “older, more traditional sorts of recreational mom-and-pop-type hotel/motels and turning them into something marketable to this next generation.”

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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.