Coronavirus Roundup Quantifying the Fall Surge in the Hudson Valley and Catskills | Health | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Tuesday, November 17 and Wednesday, November 18. Published in collaboration with The Other Hudson Valley.

5,294 new cases yesterday
154,434 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 3.43%
36 deaths yesterday
2,202 hospitalizations
423 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

In tonight’s edition of our COVID-19 news roundup, we take a look at the fall surge across our 11-county Hudson Valley and Catskills region. For weeks, on the local as well as the national level, news headlines have been warning with increasing urgency of spikes, surges, upticks, and waves. It’s clear that the fall has brought rising infections to the nation, the state, and our region—but under a constant barrage of information about worsening pandemic numbers, how should we make sense of the increased risk? 

One number we have focused on in our roundups: Active case counts, an estimate provided by county health departments of how many known active cases there are in the county at any given time. It’s not available from New York State data, and it’s not always an easy number to keep track of; some counties only rarely publish updates on it, include it in video briefings, or have only recently started tracking it publicly. The River has been tracking the rise and fall of active cases in the region since May, although it’s only been within the last couple of months that all 11 counties in our coverage area have made that info publicly available. Tracking active cases has allowed us to graph the shape of the fall surge in different parts of our territory lower Hudson Valley, mid-Hudson Valley, and rural Catskills—and to calculate how much cases have risen in recent months.

Infection is still higher in the more downstate parts of the Hudson Valley, but cases have risen faster in the more rural areas. Since early October, cases have roughly tripled in the lower Hudson Valley. In mid-Hudson counties, cases are up about 3.7 times in the same time period, and in the rural Catskills, cases are up 4.1 times. For charts of the fall surge in each region, see our regional sections below.

Planning to gather with friends or family for the holiday? Here’s a tool you can use to estimate the risk that someone at the table will have a case of the novel coronavirus: the COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool, created by Georgia Institute of Technology researchers and kept up-to-date with data from the COVID Tracking Project and The New York Times. The tool allows you to select the county where an event will be held and the number of participants, and will roughly calculate the risk that someone present will be infected based on local case counts. For instance: As of Wednesday, the tool estimates about an 8 percent chance that a 15-person gathering in Ulster County has at least one positive, assuming there are five times as many actual cases as are tested and reported.

How long does immunity to COVID-19 last? We are learning more with each new case, and this week, a new study brought hope that people who have been sickened by COVID-19 might retain immunity for years, even decades. Reports of people who have gotten COVID-19 twice have been published in scientific literature, and made news headlines around the world, but so far, those cases appear to be rare.

Governor Andrew Cuomo lashed out angrily at reporters in a press conference on Wednesday, snapping at The Wall Street Journal’s Jimmy Vielkind, “let’s try not to be obnoxious and offensive in your tone,” after the longtime Albany reporter asked whether schools would close in New York City. The televised press conference was another highwater mark of confusion and tension between New York State and New York City, as Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed his own scheduled press conference by hours, and city officials deliberated over whether to close schools in response to rising case numbers.

New York City schools did indeed close, effective Thursday. State law gives Cuomo authority over the decision, but the governor has backed off from interfering with an agreement between de Blasio and the United Federation of Teachers to close city schools if the local positivity rate rises above 3 percent on a seven-day rolling average, a metric the city reached on Wednesday. Adding to the confusion: The city and state calculate case numbers through slightly different methods, with the city tracking cases by the date the test was performed, not the day the results come in, a method that results in some updating of older data and small differences between state and city numbers.

New York State still hasn’t released data on how many nursing home residents have died in hospitals, a number many local reporters as well as the Empire Center have been seeking fruitlessly for months. State Department of Health officials have been saying for more than three months that they need time to validate the accuracy of the data before releasing it. One enterprising reporter at WRGB News 6 in Albany took it upon himself to call hospitals and county health departments in an effort to find numbers, and reports that it didn’t take long to get some data, even if it isn’t the whole statewide picture. The numbers he dug up—for instance, four deaths at the Pine Haven nursing home in Columbia County, and eight of nursing home residents in the hospital—point toward a far larger number of nursing home deaths in New York than the figures the state has reported, unsurprisingly. 

The nation hit a grim milestone this week: 250,000 dead of COVID-19. The pandemic is accelerating, but in many places, not much has changed, The Washington Post reports in a bleak feature story. The White House’s most recent report to state governments paints a pretty bleak picture, too: “There is now aggressive, unrelenting, expanding broad community spread across the country, reaching most counties, without evidence of improvement but rather, further deterioration,” the White House COVID-19 task force wrote on November 15, in a recurring report to state governments that the task force is not making available to the public, but that the Center for Public Integrity is collecting and publishing.

It’s been a good week for news on the medical front. Late on Tuesday, the FDA issued its first emergency use authorization for a rapid at-home COVID test. The test costs about $50 and requires a prescription, hurdles that will limit its use. Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina called it a “baby step” toward cheap, prescription-free, rapid at-home paper strip-based tests, a technology that exists but has not yet been approved by the FDA. There’s lively debate about the issue in the scientific community, but some, like Mina, think the FDA has been unnecessarily standing in the way of rapid at-home tests.

In April, country singer and American hero Dolly Parton donated $1 million to coronavirus research at Vanderbilt University in honor of her friend, Vanderbilt professor of surgery Dr. Naji Abumrad. It turns out that donation helped fund Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, which showed 94.5 percent effectiveness in early data released this week. In the preliminary report for the vaccine, Parton is listed as a sponsor among actual institutions like the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Emory University. (Editor’s note: To the tune of “Jolene”: vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vacc-IIIINNEE.)

Microcluster Focus Zone Update

New York State’s current strategy for curbing infection involves assigning neighborhoods with outbreaks to “microcluster focus zones” that are coded red, orange, or yellow depending on severity. A guide to the restrictions on business, school, worship, and gatherings that apply to each zone color is posted on the NY Forward website. High-resolution maps of focus zones in the microclusters are also available on NY Forward. 

New zones: New yellow zone has been declared in Niagara County and the Bronx, Cuomo announced Monday.

Better: Focus zones in Broome and Orange counties will be removed. Brooklyn’s orange zone will become a yellow zone. 

Worse: Part of Erie County’s yellow zone will become an orange zone, while the yellow zone will be expanded. The yellow zone in Queens will be expanded. 

No change: Rockland, Chemung, Westchester, Monroe, Onondaga, Tioga, and Staten Island focus zones remained unchanged in Monday’s update.

Positivity rate for New York State’s focus zones on Tuesday was 4.73 percent. Statewide positivity rate with the focus zones excluded was 3.1 percent. Detailed data on positivity rate in each focus zone was published in a Monday release on the state website. Governor Cuomo discussed the changes to the focus zones in a Wednesday press conference.

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam
University coronavirus pages: Sarah Lawrence, Iona, SUNY Purchase, Manhattanville, Westchester Community College, Rockland Community College, Dominican, Mercy

Total active case counts in Rockland, Westchester, and Putnam counties from early October through November 18. Note: Putnam County has not updated its active case count since November 6.

Westchester County Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler joined County Executive George Latimer’s latest virtual coronavirus briefing to discuss how families can celebrate Thanksgiving safely. A county press release issued after the briefing includes a long list of tips to reduce exposure, including holiday-specific advice such as do not wash your turkey after thawing it, which can spread pathogens onto kitchen surfaces.

During the briefing, Dr. Amler also said that COVID-19 was not spreading throughout Westchester schools. “Most of the cases of COVID in our schools, the children, or the teachers, or the staff didn’t get exposed in school, they didn’t get COVID from being in school,” she said. Westchester County recorded another 360 new cases Tuesday, with a test positivity rate of 4.91 percent.

That said: Valhalla Middle School moved to fully remote learning on Tuesday after an individual tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing several staff members to quarantine and making it impossible for Valhalla to adequately staff the school. School administrators plan to reopen the building for in-person instruction on November 30, according to a letter sent by Principal Jason Schrammel to the community.

The Rockland County health department issued a public health alert after a staffer at St. Francis of Assisi in West Nyack (128 Parrott Road) tested positive for COVID-19. The person was at the 10:15am and noon masses on Sunday, November 8, during their infectious period. Anyone who attended those services is encouraged to call the department’s COVID hotline at (845) 238-1956 to determine if they should quarantine.

With numbers rising in Rockland, the county will shift additional employees to remote work effective this Friday, County Executive Ed Day said in a press release.

Over the weekend, Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano said in a symposium with other Westchester leaders that at least one of the city’s zip codes could cross the yellow-zone threshold “very, very soon,” reports Spano was particularly concerned about two zip codes on the city’s westside, 10705 and 10703, which are densely populated and primarily communities of color. Active cases in Yonkers jumped from 389 on Friday to 503 by Tuesday, Spano said on Twitter.

Putnam County, which usually puts out a weekly town-by-town dashboard of COVID-19 numbers, has not issued a case dashboard or an update on active case counts since November 6. Last week, county officials said in a release that the regular dashboard would be delayed because of changes to the reporting system.

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia
University coronavirus page: Bard, Vassar, Marist, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Ulster, Columbia-Greene Community College, SUNY Orange

Total active case counts in Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, and Columbia counties from early October through November 18.

Local leaders are sounding the alarm about the spread of COVID-19 at small gatherings in homes. Dutchess County Health Commissioner Dr. Anil Vaidian said Monday the county had learned to trace and contain clusters in public places like restaurants, but the majority of cases now spring from casual gatherings out of public view. Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro listed three ways the coronavirus was spreading during a live Q&A Thursday: when one member of a household gets COVID-19 elsewhere and infects their family; travel, including internationally; and through the small household gatherings. Molinaro, Vaidian, and their counterparts in Ulster, Orange, and Putnam counties will hold a joint press conference this Thursday at noon to discuss the issue, and the necessity of mask-wearing and social distancing around anyone not in one’s immediate household, according to a press release.

Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus said Tuesday he expects several yellow zones to be declared in the county by the end of Thursday. “I’m talking City of Newburgh, Town of New Windsor, City of Middletown. Those municipalities. I’ve talked to them. They kind of know this is coming,” Neuhaus said during his Tuesday COVID-19 update.

Neuhaus reported two additional deaths in the county during Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing.

Dutchess County reported 576 active cases as of Wednesday, the most since May 28. One additional person has died from COVID-19 since our last update. Cases in Ulster County have reached a five-month high at 441.

Active cases have come down slightly in Columbia County, falling from 120 on Friday to 92 on Wednesday. In a news release, county health director Jack Mabb said the outbreak “continues to be a community spread,” and that the number of people in mandatory quarantine in the county has shot up to 369. County officials are considering opening more testing sites in different locations around the county.

The City of Middletown closed City Hall and all other public buildings indefinitely on Wednesday, with cases surging in Orange County. A press release announcing the decision includes phone numbers for each municipal department, which residents are encouraged to call with any needs.

On-site staff staff members at Lenape Elementary School and Onteora Middle School have tested positive for COVID-19.

Students in grades 7-12 in the Germantown Central School District will be on a remote learning model until at least November 30, after a secondary-school student tested positive, the district announced Tuesday. The infected student came into contact with at least eight other students and 12 staff members, all of whom are in quarantine, making staffing difficult for the next two weeks.

An anonymous faculty member at Dutchess Community College tells The River that the school, which is part of the SUNY network, is planning to dramatically cut services at its on-campus counseling center at the end of the year. The center offers one-on-one counseling services and runs groups, and is highly reliant on its part-time staff, who have reportedly been told they will be let go on December 31—leaving the center with just two full-time employees. An advocacy campaign to save the counseling center has emerged on campus. The college did not return a request for comment. We will provide more info as the story develops.

Thanks, COVID: Santa won’t visit local children’s houses in Valatie this year, Hudson Valley 360 reports. To be fair: He’s probably in an elevated risk group. 

Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck announced Wednesday it was barring visitors other than those visiting patients under 21 or those in the maternity unit.

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie
University coronavirus pages: SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Delhi, SUNY Sullivan

Total active case counts in Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, and Schoharie counties from early October through November 18.

Sullivan County officials issued a press release Wednesday evening warning of possible exposures at the Government Center building in Monticello on Monday and Tuesday, during ballot-counting by the local Board of Elections. Anyone who was in the building at the following times may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19: 

  • Monday, November 16 between 3pm and 4:45pm
  • Tuesday, November 17 between 9am and 10am

With cases surging in Sullivan County, health officials also recently issued a reminder urging Sullivan residents who have been in contact with a positive case to quarantine. Citing “an increase in communitywide transmission,” health director Nancy McGraw said that the best tools for stopping the spread are “consistent mask wearing, hand-washing or hand sanitizer use, limiting time in groups, and that people understand the importance of quarantine and isolation.”

Sullivan Democrat, are you guys okay over there? A story in this Monday’s paper starts off with a really dramatic lede: “Sometimes there are no words, no way to frame reassurance and consolation about a loss.” True, but let’s keep things in perspective: we’re talking about winter school sports being canceled. We’ll have basketball again. And in the wise words of Helen Keller, quoted in the last line of the story: “What we once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

Delaware County active case counts have subsided a bit recently, falling to 53 from a high of 74 in recent weeks. Bassett Healthcare, which runs the O’Connor Hospital in Delhi as well as healthcare facilities in neighboring Schoharie and Otsego counties, is restricting visitors at all of its facilities to those “considered essential to the medical care of the patient,” effective Monday, November 23. 

As cases have surged in Schoharie County, the Middleburgh Central School District has moved to online instruction through December 1, and the Cobleskill-Richmond Central School District is contemplating doing the same, the Times-Journal reports. The Mohawk Valley Regional Control Room, one of the 10 regional groups set up by Governor Cuomo in the spring to oversee phased reopening and possible rollback in New York, is now meeting three times a week, up from twice a week when numbers were lower.

The Cobleskill Rotary Club is looking for donations to the Backpack Program, which provides food for local families in need. Those looking to help out can mail a check to Cobleskill Rotary, PO Box 596, Cobleskill, NY 12043.

On-the-ground local reporting and analysis has never been more important, and that’s what The River aims to provide. But we need your help to continue the work we’re doing. Will you support our journalism today?

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.

Lissa Harris

Lissa Harris is a staff writer at The River and a volunteer firefighter. She was the founding editor of the Watershed Post, a site that covered local news in the rural Catskills from 2010 to 2017.
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