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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
“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.”
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.”
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