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Coronavirus Roundup: Cuomo’s Plan for Fans in Stands Panned

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Tuesday, December 22 and Wednesday, December 23.

An experiment using rapid tests to allow venues to reopen will begin at when the Buffalo Bills host a playoff game in early January.
Buffalo Bills
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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, December 22 and Wednesday, December 23.

Note: Tonight’s coronavirus news roundup is the last one for 2020. We are taking off the rest of this long, hard year, though we’ll be publishing a special environmental series next week. We’ll be back with the next roundup on Monday, January 4.

11,937 new cases yesterday
204,361 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 5.84%
164 deaths yesterday
6,864 hospitalizations
1,166 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

With hospitalizations and deaths still climbing, New York State is still in the teeth of the pandemic. But Governor Andrew Cuomo is already looking ahead: In Wednesday’s briefing, Cuomo said that state officials are cautiously beginning to hammer out plans for a 2021 reopening of the myriad things in New York that have been canceled, shuttered, or reduced in the age of COVID-19. Testing and vaccination will guide the process, Cuomo said, and we can expect more details in the governor’s State of the State address at the beginning of the year. “You can’t wait for the vaccine to hit critical mass. Seventy-five to 85 percent of the population, that is months and months away,” he said. “We can’t go through nine months with restaurants shut. We have to come up with a smarter way to do this, and this is going to be a different period in history.”

Cuomo and state health officials want to experiment with using rapid tests to allow venues to reopen—starting with a pilot project to be held at the Buffalo Bills’ first playoff game, slated to be played in early January. Plans are underway to allow about 6,700 fans in the stands at the game, which will be the Bills’ first home playoff game in more than 20 years. The details are still being worked out, but the plan is for state health officials to roll out increased rapid testing before the game, require proof of a negative rapid test at the door, and do contact tracing after the event. Fans will be required to mask and distance in the outdoor stadium. “This would be the beginning to start to show how you could start events with testing and all of the other mitigation factors we have. This would be the first in the nation and the first in the Northeast,” said state budget director Robert Mujica at Wednesday’s briefing.

A return to fans in stands might be welcome news to many cooped-up New Yorkers, but the Bills plan is already getting some pushback—notably from Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who apparently wasn’t consulted by state officials before the governor’s announcement. In a statement released Wednesday, Poloncarz said that the state would have to provide its own rapid testing and contact tracing, and that a plan needed to be in place by the middle of next week in order to leave enough time to prepare. “Erie County does not have the capacity to do rapid testing on 6,700 individuals in either a pre-game or prior day setting,” he wrote. “While we will work with NYS if needed on this proposal, Erie County has not been a part of its formulation and we have no details on how or if it will occur.” Erie County has seen a steep rise in cases in the fall, and is currently home to both an orange zone and a yellow zone in the greater Buffalo area.

The region of the state with the greatest proportion of its residents hospitalized for COVID-19 continues to be the Finger Lakes, and Cuomo and state officials are weighing action. “I’m going to be speaking to the elected officials in the Finger Lakes and to the hospitals, and we’re considering several options, because that is a serious and deadly situation. And it’s not getting better,” Cuomo said Wednesday.

Maybe we don’t have a deal? After signaling last week that he would sign the $900 billion relief package passed by Congress on Monday, President Trump turned around and called the bill a “disgrace” on Tuesday. In a video posted to Twitter, Trump lambasted Congress’s decision to combine the relief package with a broader spending bill to fund the government. He also asked legislators to “increase the ridiculously low $600 [direct-aid checks] to $2,000,” which was music to the ears of some Democrats (not Senator Amy Klobuchar) and at least one Republican, who have been calling for more direct aid to Americans. House speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted “Let’s do it!” in response to the president’s directive, and reporting on Wednesday indicated that Democrats in the House will try to pass a bill increasing the checks to $2,000 on Thursday, and they’ll try to do it by unanimous consent to expedite proceedings. That also means the measure can be blocked by just one member in opposition. Pelosi may be banking on Republicans’ unwillingness to put up a fight on Christmas Eve against a bill that would put much more money in the pockets of poor and working Americans, especially after the party’s figurehead made his wishes clear.

New York State is losing population faster than any other state in the nation, according to figures released Tuesday by the US Census Bureau. Between July of 2019 and July of 2020, the state’s population fell by 126,355, leaving New York’s population at roughly 19.3 million. For comparison: By July, about 25,000 New Yorkers had died of confirmed COVID-19. The CDC estimates that between March and early May, New York City had roughly another 5,000 probable COVID-19 deaths, and about 5,300 more “excess deaths” compared to deaths in the same time period in a typical year.

New York State’s rental eviction moratorium, declared by an executive order from Governor Cuomo and slated to come to an end on January 1, will be extended, the governor said Wednesday. State officials have not released an end date for the extension. Meanwhile, state legislators are working on a bigger fix for the issue, and seeking to protect landlords from foreclosure and tax liens as well as helping renters who are facing eviction.

While cases have been on a steady rise throughout the fall and winter, New York has not seen the same dreaded Thanksgiving case spike some other states have, Cuomo said Wednesday. “We did not have that same post-Thanksgiving spike because we were more cautioned and more intelligent about it,” he said. “The question is what happens through Christmas and Kwanzaa and Christmas week and New Year’s. Do we stay as diligent?”

The vaccination rollout picked up steam this week in New York State with the arrival of Moderna vaccines on the front lines. About 89,000 healthcare workers, nursing home residents, and nursing home staff have been vaccinated statewide, Cuomo said Wednesday. A bit of good news on the vaccine front: Pharmacists are finding that they are able to get 11 doses out of a 10-dose Moderna vial, and 6 or 7 doses out of a 5-dose Pfizer vial. The overfill is typical manufacturing practice in case of spillage or variation in syringe sizes, but with vaccines in very short supply so far, it’s very welcome to public health officials. 

The US government has inked a new deal with Pfizer to acquire another 100 million doses, doubling the nation’s supply of Pfizer’s vaccine. Operation Warp Speed and the Department of Health and Human Services are using the Defense Production Act to help Pfizer obtain raw materials, the Associated Press reports.  

Members of Congress were among the first in the US to be vaccinated for COVID-19, along with frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents and staff. Republican Assemblyman Colin Schmidt of New York’s 99th district doesn’t want to see New York State politicians get ahead of other priority groups, and plans to introduce legislation to prevent that from happening. “It’s not right for elected officials and politicians to put themselves ahead of first responders, frontline medical workers, teachers and vulnerable seniors in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine,” Schmidt told WAMC. It’s a sentiment with bipartisan support in the state: Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, said recently that he was not in any special priority group to be vaccinated. 

As if one faster strain of COVID-19 weren’t enough: In the wake of reports that British scientists have found a more transmissible strain of COVID-19 rapidly gaining a foothold in the UK, South African scientists have found another local variant that is also spreading faster. The Guardian reports that at least five countries have halted travel from South Africa in response.

It’s possible that mutations that affect how contagious COVID-19 is, or how it behaves in the body, are already arising in the US. The higher the infection rate, the more opportunities the virus has to change. And unlike the UK, we don’t have very good genomic surveillance of COVID-19 in the US—since December 1, about 3,700 cases have been sequenced by scientists in the UK, compared to just 40 cases in the US. The editorial board of The New York Times weighed in this week on the problem, and on what we might be missing by not conducting more genomic surveillance of the pandemic. “So far [the US] data is far more paltry than it needs to be,” they write. “It’s like a giant canvas where one corner has been painted in extraordinary detail but the rest is blank.”

Hot scoop from the Times Union: County health officials are worried about the state’s apparent decision to bypass existing mass vaccination plans that they’ve spent years training for, in favor of a more hospital-based approach. “Public health departments should be distributing the #COVID-19 vaccine, not hospitals. It has always been their role,” Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. wrote, in a tweet quoted in the article. Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi was quick to fire back at the story on Wednesday. “This story is disingenuous and the reporter did not bother to reach out to my office,” he tweeted. “Right now we are vaccinating healthcare workers and it makes sense to go where they work (the hospitals) & nursing homes which the feds & pharmacies are doing. Of course county depts will be used.”

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.

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

Welcome news for the hard-hit region: Total active case counts in the region are beginning to decline.

Christmas came early for your humble coronavirus correspondents at The River: Westchester County, at long last, has launched a COVID-19 dashboard. It includes data on active and cumulative cases, active cases by municipality, and testing, presented per day and charted over time. The dashboard also geographic information system (GIS) maps of cases in every municipality and the designated cluster zones in the county. Finally, there is a test locator, where residents can find the nearest test site to their location. Most other counties in our coverage area launched COVID-19 dashboards early in the pandemic; while Westchester County took a while to create its own, county officials have at least created one of the more robust local dashboards we’ve seen.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer touted the new dashboard in his Wednesday coronavirus briefing. Latimer said the dashboard will automatically update with data from the state. Latimer also noted that the county has 8,188 active cases, up 76 from yesterday, which is the first time in a week that active cases have increased. That still compares favorably to a week ago, Latimer said, when there were 8,750 active cases in the county. Actives increased every day for nine straight weeks, then until yesterday declined for six days, which “appeared to be a function of slightly less people testing positive over the last week,” Latimer said.

Rockland County’s active cases declined slightly in Wednesday’s data. The state COVID-19 dashboard reported 260 new positive cases, but active infections in the county were down by 127, according to the county’s dashboard, indicating that fewer people have tested positive than two weeks ago.

The Putnam County Economic Development Corporation and County Tourism issued a press release touting the ways that local businesses are fighting the spread of the coronavirus. Among the creative initiatives heralded by the departments is a device that visitors to Magazzino Italian Art, in Cold Spring, can carry with them as they move about the museum, which uses radio waves to measure and maintain safe distances between visitors. The museum is the first in the county to utilize this “active tag.”

Westchester County has moved its COVID-19 memorial, Ribbons of Remembrance, inside for the winter. The memorial, which had been set up at Lenoir Preserve in Yonkers, is now at the main floor of the Michaelian Office Building in White Plains.

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Total active case counts are still rising, fueled lately by rapid growth in Ulster County’s active cases and by a “data dump” from Middletown Medical, where a software glitch delayed several weeks of results from being uploaded to the state database.

Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus revealed Wednesday that he recently tested positive for the antibodies to COVID-19, meaning that at some point he was infected and has recovered. “Over this duration of the COVID pandemic, I have personally fought and beat the COVID virus, and was probably relatively asymptomatic,” Neuhaus said. “I’m sure this is going to be in the newspaper tomorrow, because this is the first time I’m publicly talking about it.” False positives on antibody tests are a possibility, and in areas with very low incidence of COVID-19, an antibody test may return more false positives than real ones. But in an area where local infection rates are as high as they have been in Orange County, a positive result on an antibody test is likely to be a true positive. 

Bad news in Orange County’s nursing homes: Five of the county’s 17 nursing homes currently have at least one resident with an active case of COVID-19. Better news: Four of the five have seen decreases in their active cases this week. Neuhaus said in his Wednesday briefing that the average number of daily new cases in the county this week is 208, up from 193 last week. The test positivity rate in the county was 8.7 percent in Wednesday’s update of the state dashboard.

Is water pollution exacerbating COVID-19 in Newburgh? In our latest reported feature, regular contributor Arvind Dilawar looks at a recent study linking exposure to the industrial chemicals known as PFAS to more severe cases of COVID-19. An industrial accident at Stewart Air National Guard Base in 1990 resulted in some 4,000 gallons of liquid firefighting foam leaching into the groundwater around Newburgh—an incident which has left a long stain of environmental injustice in the region.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro took part in December 23’s greatest tradition: Festivus. In a bit of comedy, the county executive set up a booth charging residents 5 cents for his airing of grievances. (He also posted them on Twitter, if you’re curious.) Molinaro joked that the move was a “government relief program of my own,” since the new federal pandemic relief bill contains no aid for state and local governments. Somewhat more charitably, Molinaro’s office on Tuesday announced that it will divert $2.3 million in CARES Act funds to low- and moderate-income residents and small businesses struggling from the pandemic, and will create two new countywide initiatives: an eviction prevention program and local municipal projects for senior citizens.

Molinaro announced the new initiatives in a Tuesday virtual town hall, his 50th of the pandemic. He also provided an update on vaccine distribution, saying that nursing home residents and staff are being vaccinated throughout the county beginning this week.

Ulster County recorded its worst single-day test positivity rate of the pandemic’s second wave on Tuesday, when 9.2 percent of those tested over the past 24 hours were positive. Active cases increased slightly in Wednesday’s dashboard update, from 2,052 to 2,056.

The test data was better in Columbia County, where just 14 people tested positive in Wednesday’s state dashboard update. The county’s test positivity rate of 3.2 percent was one of the lowest figures in the state over the last 24 hours. There are 118 active cases in the county, according to a Wednesday press release from health director Jack Mabb.

The Columbia County Department of Social Services will reduce staffing to 25 percent for at least two weeks in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Ulster County will serve 17,000 meals to seniors this winter through an extension of Project Resilience, the countywide suite of initiatives to fight the pandemic’s effects. County Executive Pat Ryan said in a press release that the expansion was made possible in part by a $50,000 donation to the county’s Office for the Aging made by an anonymous New Paltz resident. Meal delivery began Monday and will run for at least 12 weeks.

Testing sites throughout Ulster County have extended their hours. You can find more information, including hours and locations, on the county’s COVID-19 testing website.

The Columbia County Department of Health will hold its next drive-thru testing clinic on Tuesday, January 5 from 9am-11am at the Firefighter Training Center in Ghent (50 Grandinetti Drive). Residents can register online here.

Ryan met with US congressman Antonio Delgado on Wednesday in Kingston to discuss the county’s plan to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine. The meeting also included a discussion of the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress this week, and the need to ensure state and local funding in a future stimulus, according to a press release.

The stop was part of a five-county tour Delgado made across the 19th congressional district on Wednesday, dropping off holiday cards with healthcare workers at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, Cobleskill Regional Hospital, A. O. Fox Hospital in Oneonta, Bassett Health Center Canajoharie, and Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck. “This year has presented a myriad challenges and I am so grateful to the healthcare professionals all across NY-19 who are working around the clock to protect our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Delgado said.

The Saugerties Central School District announced Wednesday that it is extending remote learning for two more weeks. The current plan is to return to hybrid learning on Tuesday, January 19, after Martin Luther King Day.

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Active case counts in the Catskills tend to fluctuate more than data in the Hudson Valley, but lately, the trend is a rise in active cases. This week, cases have declined in Delaware County and risen slightly in Schoharie, Greene, and Sullivan, resulting in a leveling off for the region as a whole.

Margaretville Hospital, a small rural hospital in Delaware County run by Westchester Medical Center, got a shipment of Moderna vaccines this week and began vaccinating front-line workers at the hospital on Wednesday. Bassett Healthcare, a network that runs hospitals in Delaware and Schoharie counties in the Catskills, also received Moderna vaccines at all five of its facilities, and has begun vaccinating workers. The arrival of Moderna vaccines at small hospitals is a major boost to the effort to vaccinate healthcare workers in the rural Catskills, who may otherwise have had to travel long distances to regional hubs to get vaccinated. Moderna’s vaccine is more easily distributed in rural areas than Pfizer’s because it does not need to be kept at an ultra-cold temperature and can be stored in a regular freezer.

Schoharie County health officials hailed the local arrival of the Moderna vaccine in a Tuesday Facebook post. “The current priority group includes: Hospital High Risk Staff; active EMS; Medical Examiners, coroners, and funeral workers (only those who have direct contact with the deceased); OPWDD staff and residents; OMH staff and residents; OASAS staff,” they wrote. “We are in the process of obtaining lists of eligible individuals from agencies. If you believe that you fall into one of these categories, please speak to your work supervisor.”

Sullivan County health officials are distributing 1,500 free masks through local food pantries, according to a county press release. The county also reminded residents this week that applications for a state emergency heating benefit will open up on January 4. Residents facing heat-related emergencies can call the county’s HEAP office at (845) 807-0142.

Greene County health officials are participating in the Capital Region COVID-19 Vaccine Regional Advisory Task Force with Albany Medical Center, county officials posted on Facebook on Wednesday. Details on when and where vaccination will happen in the next phase are yet to come, but the county says they’ll keep residents informed.

Greene County surpassed 1,000 total cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, when 17 people were reported to have tested positive over the prior 24 hours. More than 10 percent of the county’s total infections are active, according to the county coronavirus dashboard

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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.

To read more of our coronavirus coverage, visit our coronavirus page.