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Coronavirus Roundup: State Expands Novel Virus Detection and Testing Strategies

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Thursday, August 13 and Friday, August 14.

Clarifier tanks at the Metropolitan Syracuse Wastewater Treatment Plant in Onondaga County.
Onondaga County Department of Water Environment Protection
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This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Thursday, August 13 and Friday, August 14. 

424,167 cases confirmed (727 new)
6,901,836 tests performed (85,455 new)
Positive test rate: 0.85%
25,232 deaths (4 new)
554 hospitalizations
127 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

New York State has a few new weapons in the arsenal for fighting COVID-19 transmission: Testing strategies that will allow the state to detect and respond to new infections faster on a community level. A program to test sewage flowing through wastewater treatment plants for COVID-19, currently underway in Onondaga County, will be expanded to Albany, Newburgh, and Buffalo, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Friday. New York State has also approved a pooled testing methodology developed by SUNY Upstate Medical University that allows for the testing of groups of up to 25 samples at a time, a strategy that dramatically increases a lab’s capacity to process results. Also debuting in New York: New mobile testing teams that will be dispatched to farms and agricultural facilities, and will assist with housing for workers so they can isolate if they test positive. 

Positive test rates were below one percent in New York State for the seventh straight day on Thursday. Despite steep jumps in cases and positivity rates in much of the rest of the US this summer, New York has so far managed to keep community transmission relatively low. On Twitter, former CDC chair Tom Frieden wrote on Friday that “NY has the same level of risk [as] Germany.” Frieden estimates that risk in hotspot states like Texas and Alabama is currently about 40 times the risk in New York.

Large increases in the amount of available testing have been key to New York’s success in keeping outbreaks at a low level, although delayed test results continue to make problems for contact tracing. But in some of the worst US hotspots, testing has declined recently rather than increased, causing some epidemiologists to question the accuracy of the nation’s COVID-19 data. Texas, which is now fourth in the nation for cumulative COVID-19 deaths after New York, New Jersey, and California, has a worrying problem with testing declines: The number of new tests being conducted daily in Texas has dropped sharply in the past two weeks, while the percentage of results coming back positive has grown dramatically. 

The New York State Department of Financial Services announced health insurance rates for 2021, and it wasn’t what insurance companies wanted to hear. Premiums will increase by an average of 1.8 percent next year, the lowest annual hike in a decade and far below the 11.7 percent average increase requested by health insurers looking to make up for huge cost increases because of the pandemic.

The Atlantic has a feature this week on “The Plan That Could Give Us Our Lives Back,” even before a vaccine is available. Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina thinks we could stop the deaths, the lockdowns, and the disruption of just about every facet of life, if every American could be tested for COVID-19 once a week with cheap paper-strip-based antigen tests. The tests Mina has in mind are less accurate than the PCR-based tests widely used for diagnosis, but give results in 15 minutes, making them a potent tool for catching infections before they transmit. The catch: Making such a thing happen would require intense investment and leadership at the federal level. “There is no technical obstacle to that vision. There is only a dearth of political will,” Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal write.

Mail-in voting for this November’s elections figures to be at record highs in states across the US. According to a New York Times analysis earlier this week, some 76 percent of American voters are eligible to vote by mail this year—the highest total in US history. But with the US Postal Service in dire financial straits, and economic relief for the agency being used as a political football by Republicans, there’s an increasingly likely possibility of many voters not receiving ballots in time. According to the Washington Post, the USPS recently sent letters to 46 states and Washington, DC warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail in November will arrive in time to be counted, raising the grim scenario of widespread disenfranchisement of otherwise eligible voters because of the pace of Postal Service delivery.

Some five months into the pandemic here in the US, scientists now have a much better idea of how transmission and infection works among children. That’s due, in part, to states releasing coronavirus case data broken down by age. Forty-nine states, anyway: New York remains the only state that is not releasing coronavirus case data with an age breakdown. Patch Long Island asks, why?

In a call with reporters on Friday, Governor Cuomo again blasted the federal government for failing to develop a coherent response to the pandemic. “This has been a total disgrace,” Cuomo said. “This is an historic crisis. People are afraid. You name the last time you had a situation controlled by government that had this impact on every American’s life.” 

Newly updated quarantine guidelines from the CDC state that people who have recovered from COVID-19 may have immunity for at least three months after recovery, and do not need to quarantine if they come into contact with a known COVID-19 patient during that time. Little is known about whether those infected with COVID-19 retain long-term immunity, although scientists have reason to hope that immunity might last longer

The CDC warned this week against wearing a common type of vented mask, which offers some protection to the wearer but allows potentially virus-laden respiratory droplets to escape through the vent. 

Also released by the CDC this week: A sobering study of the pandemic’s impact on American mental health. A survey conducted by CDC researchers found that one in four Americans between 18 and 24 have considered suicide in the past month because of the pandemic, along with one in five essential workers and almost one in three people who are serving as unpaid caregivers.  

The deadliest pandemic in modern history killed 50 million people, including at least 675,000 Americans, in 1918. But the overall death rate in New York City this spring reached near those levels, according to a new study from JAMA Open Network. Between March 11 and May 11 this year in New York City, there were 202.08 deaths per 100,000 “person-months”—a standard metric for denoting deaths over time. That figure was more than four times higher than the same time period over the past three years, according to The New York Times, and 70 percent of the 1918 death rate in the city, when there 287.17 deaths per 100,000 person-months.

Rather than talking about “lockdown,” experts should focus on teaching people how to socialize safely, says STAT News opinion writer Jason Bae, a doctor in northern California and the medical director of Prealize Health. We’ve learned from sex education that giving people safer alternatives to risky behavior is more effective than pushing total abstinence, Bae writes, echoing the argument of an Atlantic essay written by a Harvard epidemiologist in May. Rather than telling people not to leave their homes or see their friends, messages should focus on risk-reduction actions like mask-wearing, outdoor socialization, and reducing the size of social circles and gatherings. 

Governor Cuomo scored two legal victories this week related to lawsuits brought concerning the pandemic. On Thursday, a federal judge dismissed a suit brought by an Arizona woman that challenged New York’s quarantine rule, while on Friday, a different federal judge ruled against the National Rifle Association in a lawsuit the organization brought against the Cuomo administration for closing gun stores earlier this year because of the pandemic.

Volunteer trail stewards are a common sight at trailheads throughout the Hudson Valley and Catskills, in place to help hikers with maps, route planning, and water. But in recent months, with outdoor recreation one of the only safe leisure activities during the pandemic, the job has gotten busier. The Highlands Current has a colorful feature on life as a trail steward during COVID-19, when more inexperienced hikers are showing up ill-prepared.

Announced by New York State on Thursday and Friday:

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

New Rochelle announced Thursday that it will begin the school year holding classes entirely online, before reevaluating to decide if a hybrid opening is feasible at the end of September, reports.

The Westchester County School Reopening Work Group, created last month by County Executive George Latimer and Director of Operations Joan McDonald, on Friday released four webinars to assist county school districts with health and facilities elements of their reopening plans.

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Known active COVID-19 cases in Ulster County fell below 100 this week for the first time since March. As of Thursday, August 13, there were 96 confirmed active cases in the county.

Meanwhile, across the river, Dutchess County has 235 confirmed active cases, but just two hospitalizations, according to County Executive Marc Molinaro’s Wednesday briefing.

Saugerties and New Paltz school districts revised their 2020-21 academic year reopening plans on Thursday. Both districts will now start school with a month of classes held entirely online before bringing students into classrooms. The revision came after too much uncertainty about having precautions in place for students to come back to buildings, Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt told the Daily Freeman.

In Columbia County, the Department of Health has been helping schools prepare for reopening by working with school officials and nurses on how to recognize and treat COVID-19 symptoms in kids.

Kingston councilmembers discussed the parameters of short-term rental regulations for the city during a meeting of the council’s housing committee on Thursday. Ideas discussed include limiting regulations to owner-occupied homes or requiring the owners to live nearby to help address any quality-of-life issues. The meeting can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.

Ulster County Comptroller March Gallagher recommended that staffing at the Ulster County Jail be reduced and portions of the jail be shuttered, according to the Daily Freeman. Gallagher’s audit found that the 277,000 square-foot facility is larger than the county needs and is costing taxpayers more than it should, though Sheriff Juan Figueroa disagrees. “I find the timing absolutely ridiculous that an audit would be held in the middle of a pandemic,” he said Thursday.

The Woodstock Film Festival will operate at area drive-ins and stream other offerings online this year. Individual tickets for films and events will be made available in early September, while passes for either the full online film portion of the festival, the full online panel series, or both, are available now.

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Sullivan County legislators have taken the first step toward leasing the Care Center at Sunset Lake to a private operator: Transferring the nursing home to a nonprofit local development corporation (LDC). The Sunset Lake LDC will be tasked with finding a company to manage the facility. Legislators have backed away from an earlier plan to sell the money-losing Sunset Lake facility after intense public outcry; the vote to transfer the facility to the LDC was eight to one, with Luis Alvarez the lone holdout.

The annual Greene County firefighters’ convention, originally scheduled for September 7, has been canceled because of pandemic concerns. Patrick Linger, chair of the Greene County legislature and a volunteer firefighter with Cornell Hook and Ladder in New Baltimore, told the Catskill Daily Mail that he thought it was the right decision, given the increasing age of the average local volunteer firefighter.

In July, Delaware County health officials reported a possible COVID-19 exposure at the Walton First Baptist Church. After observing a two-week break from in-person services, the church is now holding services outdoors under a tent, a strategy public health experts say is safer than holding indoor events

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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.