Capital Region

COVID crisis hits six-month mark in N.Y.; coming months threaten new challenges

A drive-through COVID-19 test site is shown in April in Schenectady. Photo by Marc Schultz/Staff

A drive-through COVID-19 test site is shown in April in Schenectady. Photo by Marc Schultz/Staff

Categories: Fulton | Montgomery | Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County, The Daily Gazette

ALBANY — Tuesday will be the six-month mark in the state’s struggle with a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of New Yorkers, sickened hundreds of thousands and fundamentally changed everyday life.

After an intense period of suffering, the state has knocked down COVID-19; New Yorkers are now being tested at a rate of a half-million per week, and fewer than 1 percent have been confirmed infected daily through most of August.

The daily death toll is usually in the low single digits.

Several local and state health officials this past week offered their thoughts on New York’s six months of crisis response and sounded a common theme: The pandemic is at a low point but shouldn’t be considered done.

HOSPITAL CARE

Schenectady County, for example, has had to ratchet its response back up as its infection rate ticked upward in recent weeks, apparently due to careless behavior by infected people and those near them.

The county reported its 45th COVID-related death on Friday.

The only facility in the county admitting people infected with the virus —  Ellis Hospital — was down to zero COVID patients in early August but up to 10 at one point this past week.

Dr. David Liebers, chief medical officer of Ellis and an infectious disease specialist, said in a video message this week that some of the newly sick patients at Ellis came from nursing homes in other counties, but others were county residents.

Also online: Summer tourism not dead but far from healthy, Capital Region hotel operators say

“We do think there’s an increased prevalence, though small, particularly in Schenectady County,” he said.

The impending start of the school year presents risk for another uptick in infections, he added, though not to the same degree as the height of the pandemic in March and April.

The rapidly approaching flu season presents another significant risk — the flu has symptoms similar to COVID, spreads easily, poses a similar threat to the elderly, and consumes the same medical resources. But the infection-control measures so familiar after six months of COVID — face covering, hand-washing, social-distancing — could limit the severity of this flu season, Liebers said.

Also, if the feared second wave of COVID does happen, hospitals are much better prepared and their staffs are experienced, Liebers said. Ellis has stockpiled supplies and has areas that can be converted to COVID isolation units at a moment’s notice, he added.

Ellis has admitted 180 COVID patients since March.

PUBLIC HEALTH

The pandemic has boosted the size and profile of New York’s public health professionals, if not their importance.

Leaders of Saratoga County Public Health Services discussed their work Friday.

The county has fared relatively well, with fewer COVID deaths and a lower rate of confirmed infections than any neighboring county except Hamilton County, which has so few residents and infections that it can’t be compared statistically.

Cathy Medick, interim director of Public Health Services, said the response to the pandemic started with preparation as COVID spread in China. This was in January, well before March 7, when the first Saratoga County case was confirmed.

The response actually had its roots in 2002, a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. Public Health and other public and private agencies and organizations countywide began meeting regularly to plan how they’d work together in future crises.

“For years we’ve been doing this with the community partners, and we knew each other on a first-name basis,” Medick said. When COVID arrived, “we were able to just pick up the phone and say this is what we need, this is what is happening.

“I can’t even express how valuable this was.”

The county’s Health Emergency Operations Center was set up quickly; elementary school nurses, the Sheriff’s Department, Skidmore College, county social services, mental health, and senior citizens services personnel, nursing homes, the Kesselring Site and of course Saratoga Hospital all played a role in its operation.

Erin Murray, supervising public health nurse and clinical manager of the HEOC, said diligent contact tracing and the reverse 911 phone system helped contain the virus in Saratoga County, as did presumptive treatment — in the early days, if testing was unavailable for people displaying symptoms, they were presumed infected and treated as such.

Finally, Public Health got a new and improved computer system in January, Medick said — without it, they would have been hard-pressed to mount the response they did.

The county still has a minimum of 10 people working solely on COVID each day, and the HEOC remains in operation seven days a week, Medick and Murray said.

They’d like to transition the HEOC from response mode to sustainability mode. “The last six months have been all response” to the crisis, Medick said.

But it needs to remain ready for further response.

“I can’t say what’s going to happen once schools open,” Medick said

LARGER PICTURE

Albany County, with the largest population in the Capital Region, has had the largest number of COVID infections and deaths in the region.

The daily numbers are far below their peak but Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen said the threat remains and the response is unrelenting.

“After six months, we continue to see cases in Albany County, and continue with extensive case investigation, contact tracing, and public health education to keep our numbers low,” she said Friday via email. “We are focused on the fall and the challenges that will come with flu season, and will work with our providers to promote flu vaccine and availability of rapid flu testing.”

Collaboration with educators also continues, as a small army of students begins a new season of study, some of them in-person at school buildings that have been shut down since the earliest days of the crisis.

The county also deals with pushback, and with irresponsible behavior such as a Fourth of July party that eventually resulted in dozens of confirmed infections.

“The politicization of COVID and occasional rejection of science has presented unanticipated challenges, but most of the residents we reach out to understand the importance of individual and group behavior in reducing the spread of COVID,” Whalen said.

She added:

“The important messages to the public at this time include the fact that COVID remains in our community. It is more important than ever to continue practices of mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing. Avoidance of large gatherings, particularly for our 20-somethings, remains essential to controlling spread.

“And I would urge all to get your flu shot.”

Also online: Summer tourism not dead but far from healthy, Capital Region hotel operators say

The state Department of Health on Friday hailed New Yorkers for their efforts these past months and cautioned them about the coming months.

Spokesman Gary Holmes said via email:

“New Yorkers’ enormous sacrifices over the past six months are paying dividends as our current infection rate remains below 1 percent for 21 consecutive days. Our progress comes as a direct result of measures put in place early on requiring social distancing and diligent hand hygiene, wearing masks in public, and building the most robust testing and contact tracing programs in the nation. New Yorkers know we cannot rest on these achievements and that we must remain vigilant as we prepare for the inevitable second wave of the virus.”

TIMELINE

In the six months since the first COVID case was confirmed in New York, more than 25,000 New Yorkers have died and more than 400,000 infected. Here are some details and dates that show the progression of the virus and its impact on New York state and its people:

March 1: First case is confirmed in New York state; the nationwide total stands at 30

March 2: Gov. Andrew Cuomo sets a goal of 1,000 tests a day to contain the outbreak; early efforts are hampered by short supplies but boosted by FDA approval of New York’s state and private labs to do test analysis

March 7: Two people in Saratoga County become the state’s first COVID patients outside the New York City area; Cuomo declares a state of emergency

March 11: Albany Medical Center admits its first COVID patient; it will admit 406 more through the end of August, the most of any Capital Region hospital; 66 will not survive to be discharged

March 12: The list of event cancellations and facility closures grows by the hour; Cuomo orders shutdown of large gathering venues and limits smaller sites to 50 percent capacity

March 13: An 82-year-old Brooklyn woman becomes the first New Yorker known to have succumbed to COVID

Mid-March: Retail shelves go bare as Capital Region residents hoard essential goods

March 16: The state continues its rapid move toward unprecedented shutdown, keeping people apart and limiting their movement to slow transmission of virus

March 18: Capital Region hospitals begin to limit testing of the public due to shortage of test kits

March 20: Cuomo issues his New York State on Pause order, bringing maximum shutdown in the next two days: Public places are closed, non-essential businesses shut down, non-essential gatherings of two or more people for any reason banned

March 23: GE research pioneer Walter Robb, 91, becomes apparently the first Capital Region casualty of COVID

March 31: Capital Region hospitals begin accepting COVID-19 patients from overwhelmed hospitals in New York City, the national epicenter of the pandemic

April 1: Cumulative case total hits 92,381 in New York state

April 1: Yates County records its first positive test; COVID has now reached all counties in New York state

April 1: A new fiscal year begins for New York, which was looking at a multibillion-dollar budget gap before the pandemic reduced tax revenue by billions and increased expenses by billions

April 8: New York’s single-day COVID death toll peaks at 799

April 12: Statewide hospital census reaches a single-day peak of 18,825 COVID patients, 5,156 of them in intensive care; by some metrics, the crisis has peaked in New York state

April 13: New York surpasses 10,000 COVID deaths

April 14: 500,000th COVID test is completed

April 28: Non-urgent surgical procedures, banned in March to conserve medical supplies and hospital space, are allowed to resume under limited circumstances in certain locations

May 1: Cumulative case count hits 312,977

May 3: 1 millionth test completed

May 15: Regions of state with lowest level of COVID activity are allowed to start reopening their economies

June 1: Cumulative case count hits 371,711

June 19: With the virus on the wane in New York for two months, Cuomo delivers the last of the daily crisis briefings that drew a national audience

June 24: Travelers arriving in New York from states with high levels of COVID activity are ordered to self-quarantine for 14 days

June 27: 2.93 million claims for unemployment insurance have been submitted statewide since mid-March

July 1: Cumulative case count hits 394,079

July 2: 4 millionth test completed

July 20: New York City, final area of the state under partial shutdown, enters full reopening, though some restrictions remain, there and statewide

July: Unemployment is estimated at 16 percent statewide, ranging from 10 percent in the Ithaca region to 20 percent in New York City; Capital Region stands at 11.5 percent

Aug. 1: Cumulative case count hits 415,767; 6 millionth test completed; positive test rate drops to 1 percent

Mid-August: State health officials conduct daily testing on a massive scale but more than 99 percent of tests come back negative; pandemic is believed to be at a lull in the state amid continued preventative efforts and quick response to scattered infection clusters

Aug. 27: The 8 millionth COVID test is administered in New York state; 432,767 of them have come back positive

Aug. 28: The official state death toll — which Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said probably undercounts the true total — stands at 25,312 lives lost; the federal Centers for Disease Control, which includes probable COVID deaths, places the total at 32,619

Aug. 28: Nationwide, by CDC count, 180,165 people are dead and 5,845,876 have been confirmed infected with COVID

INFECTION RATES

The federal Centers for Disease Control has calculated the number of infections per 100,000 residents for each of New York’s counties.

The highest level is in Rockland County — 4,347 per 100,000. The lowest is in Hamilton County, but there are too few infections and residents to calculate a meaningful rate.

Queens, the county with the highest death toll, has had 3,100 cases per 100,000 residents. New York City as a whole has had 2,786. The 57 counties outside New York City have had 1,781.

Here are the case rates per 100,000 residents for counties in and near the Capital Region:

  • Columbia: 949
  • Albany: 890
  • Schenectady: 780
  • Greene: 648
  • Fulton: 579
  • Rensselaer: 518
  • Warren: 494
  • Herkimer: 476
  • Washington: 435
  • Montgomery: 400
  • Saratoga: 358
  • Schoharie: 223
  • Otsego: 208

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