ALBANY — With 190 new COVID cases among residents in the past week and the county Health Department on lockdown, county officials are concerned that too many things are going the wrong way in their fight against the pandemic.
On Thursday alone, there were 53 new confirmed infections, the most since May 20, County Executive Daniel McCoy said Friday. Also, 27 county residents were hospitalized, the most since May 29.
He and county Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen provided an update on the situation Friday, a day after the county Department of Health staff went all-remote because an infection cluster was discovered within its own ranks.
One DOH employee was confirmed infected last week, then three more Thursday, prompting the lockdown. The remaining 67 employees of the department, and Whalen herself, have since tested negative. The second, third and fourth employees infected are believed to have contracted the virus from the first, but it’s unknown where the first got infected.
McCoy and Whalen repeated the now-familiar but not-always-obeyed steps to prevent infection: wear a mask, wash hands, stay 6 feet apart, don’t host or attend gatherings.
They also went further: McCoy announced that county government would go to a contingency plan to maintain services while limiting in-person contact through steps such as staggered and alternating on-site shifts for county employees.
“Stopping this situation from spiraling out of control and preventing local businesses from being shut down will ultimately be determined by the decisions we make right now,” he said. “That’s why I’m implementing our Continuity of Operations Plan to reduce the number of county workers physically coming into the office interacting face-to-face.”
McCoy said some of those who contract COVID are thwarting the county’s attempts to trace the path of infection by lying to contact tracers. There’s no need to do this, he said, whether from fear or shame, but some patients apparently are, and this makes it difficult to prevent spread to more people.
McCoy rebutted some of the frequent points of COVID-deniers, saying the pandemic is neither a hoax nor being goosed up as a pre-election ploy.
Whalen added: “We are concerned that we are starting to see in the last week an uptick in numbers … that could be the start of a second wave.”
She also took time to address some of the social media trolling that exists in the background with the pandemic.
After the infection cluster at the Department of Health was announced, Whalen said, one commenter asked how she could presume to protect the county from COVID if she can’t even protect her own department. (She directed her employees to mask up long before Gov. Andrew Cuomo started urging the general population to wear them.)
“I don’t think you have to be a doctor to know that there are no guarantees in medicine,” Whalen said. “What I’ll tell you is I cannot protect every single resident in Albany County from getting COVID. If I could do that, if my department could do that, we would not still be sitting here 233 days later.”
What she and the Health Department can do, she said, is tap decades of experience and training to provide the best public health practices possible.
“It is important for all of us to do our part,” Whalen said.
She also called out those who harass COVID patients.
“We’ve started to see a really disturbing trend of people vilifying individuals who’ve been diagnosed with COVID. And this is not helpful,” she said.
Whalen said one of her own staff members apologized for getting sick, and said that is simply wrong.
“People get COVID,” she said. “Sometimes if they do all the right things.”
She reminded the public to remain focused on what has worked so far to temper the pandemic and to not give up because the crisis will enter its ninth month in New York on Sunday.
“We all have COVID fatigue, we are all tired,” she said. “We need to help going forward. We don’t need to point fingers, we don’t need to blame individuals for a disease that no one heard about a year ago. We’re all learning about this together and it is the responsibility of all of us to act in each other’s and our own best interests.”