BUFFALO — Western New York was cleared to start reopening its economy Tuesday and the Capital Region was not, though with almost all the metrics met, the green light could come shortly.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the news Monday during his daily COVID-19 briefing in Buffalo. He said Western New York needs 521 infection tracers under the population-based formula the state has devised; it has 525, the last of whom will complete training Tuesday.
“So, that’s exciting. It’s been a long painful period but we start to reopen tomorrow,” Cuomo said.
The Capital Region apparently is in the same situation, but is not quite as far along in addressing it. It currently meets the other six metrics — all of which measure infection activity and regional ability to respond to it — and is listed on the state’s online dashboard as “expected” to meet the tracer requirement.
The Capital Region needs 387 contact tracers in place before it can start reopening, said Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, who sits on the Capital Region “control room,” a panel that monitors the pandemic and the reopening. He said Monday that he expected the tracers’ ranks to rise to between 400 and 500 once new tracers completed a four-hour training course later that day.
“They will be getting trained, and I hope we can announce we will reopen tomorrow,” McCoy said.
When a region meets all seven metrics, it can start Phase 1 of reversing the economic shutdown Cuomo imposed in March to slow the spread of the pandemic. Phases 2, 3 and 4 each come at least two weeks after the preceding phase, and the progression through phases can be slowed down or halted if the region’s COVID-19 infection or death rate ticks up. Western New York is the sixth of the state’s 10 economic regions to be cleared to reopen.
Complying with those metrics can be a tenuous thing. The Capital Region reached and then fell out of compliance with one of the metrics last week. And on Monday, it lost four more residents to COVID, one each in Albany, Columbia, Greene and Saratoga counties. Where these deaths occur makes all the difference — if they aren’t in a hospital they don’t count toward the total.
Statistics in a single county and even individual nursing homes can skew the numbers for an entire multicounty region.
In the Capital Region, Saratoga County has more than three times the population of Warren County but Warren County has had nearly twice as many COVID deaths as Saratoga County. And 27 of the 29 COVID patients who died in Warren County were residents of a nursing home or adult-care facility.
The state lists 47 nursing home deaths in Albany County, 17 of them at Teresian House.
Albany Medical Center said Monday that it is down to 47 COVID patients, 37 of whom are residents of nursing homes or other group facilities.
Cuomo has said from early on in the pandemic that nursing homes are the most vulnerable places for the virus to strike. He and his administration have had steadily evolving policies on how to deal with this; some of the earlier iterations have drawn criticism as having set the stage for the waves of deaths now sweeping through these facilities, such as Cuomo’s order in March that nursing homes must take back COVID-positive patients after discharge from a hospital.
Cuomo said Monday the state is providing materials for the thousands of tests it will require the state’s nursing homes to perform on employees each week. But he acknowledged more residents will die.
“We still can’t save every life but we can do everything in our power that we can do to try to save every life,” he said. “And that’s why I’m comfortable with what we’re doing on nursing homes.”
Across the Capital Region, 110 people were hospitalized with COVID on Sunday, 20 of those in an intensive care unit. This is down from a peak of 205 with 96 in ICU on April 10.
Statewide, 5,840 people were hospitalized as of Sunday, ranging regionally from six hospitalized in the sprawling North Country region to 3,385 hospitalized in New York City. This is down from a statewide peak of 18,825 on April 12.
Meanwhile, Schenectady leaders said during their meeting Monday that questions are filtering in from the public seeking guidance on reopening, including directives on hair salons and religious observations.
Hair salons are included in Phase 2 and religious gatherings are in Phase 4.
Mayor Gary McCarthy asked council members to direct specific inquiries to the officials serving on the control room panel, including county Manager Rory Fluman.
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield said religious congregations are considering “park and prays” in which people can gather outside to worship while practicing proper social distancing protocols.
McCarthy said it’s unlikely permission from the city would be needed, but asked religious leaders to notify the city Police Department beforehand so they can monitor any traffic concerns.
And while city-owned pools will likely remain closed for the summer, the city is discussing with service providers what summer programming may look like.
“It’s a dynamic process that we’re going through and we appreciate everyone’s patience as we try to reposition this community for what’s generally a difficult situation,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy also asked residents and city lawmakers to call the Mayor’s Office to report any congregate gatherings, including the pop-up basketball courts that Porterfield said have emerged after the city removed all hoops from city-owned basketball courts at the onset of the crisis.