New COVID-19 cases continue to climb, reaching levels not seen since spring

Testing at SUNY Schenectady campus lot in Schenectady last week. Credit: Erica Miller/Staff Photographer

Testing at SUNY Schenectady campus lot in Schenectady last week. Credit: Erica Miller/Staff Photographer

Categories: News, Schenectady County

The public COVID-19 testing sites in Schenectady County will be closed Thursday and Monday after a public health employee tested positive for COVID-19, forcing some staff to work remotely.

Closure of the testing sites comes as new COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Schenectady and across the Capital Region, the predictions of health experts realized sooner than many had hoped.

There were nearly 4,000 new cases reported Tuesday across the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced, with over 3 percent of all tests coming back positive. Test positive rates in the Captial Region also stood around 3 percent.

With over 1,500 total COVID-19 hospitalizations and 32 deaths statewide on Monday, the state’s numbers are higher than they have been since late-spring and early-summer, the state’s first waves of cases.

Schenectady County on Tuesday reported 25 new cases, up from 17 new cases Monday, bringing the total number of active cases in the county to 125, with 760 people in quarantine.

Schenectady County has also seen four new resident deaths in the past week, bringing the total number of residents who have died in the pandemic to 52, according to state numbers.

In the Capital Region, the rising caseload has started to creep into schools, college campuses and the county health agencies charged with tracking cases and overseeing much of the community testing.

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The University at Albany shifted to all-virtual instruction Tuesday, which will last until February for most students, and at least 10 public school districts across the region on Monday reported at least one new case among students and staff, causing some schools to shift students to remote instruction or ask entire classrooms to quarantine.

Health officials have said many new cases are linked to family and social connections as well as small indoor gatherings. They have also cited people’s “fatigue” with health precautions as the reason gains over controlling the virus are slipping and they urged people to continue distancing and mask-wearing.

“The recent increase is directly linked to community members failing to follow basic COVID-19 precautions, including wearing a mask, physically distancing from others, and avoiding gatherings,” Schenectady County health officials said in a Tuesday statement, noting some Halloween parties may have contributed to a rise in local cases. “Several clusters in our county are linked to Halloween parties and other gatherings.”

Free community testing – accessible both by appointment and drop in – scheduled Thursday at SUNY Schenectady and Monday at the Boys and Girls Club in Schenectady were both canceled, so was testing that had been scheduled for this Monday.

Schenectady County health officials hope to restart the community testing sites by Nov. 19, but precautions to isolate staff who may have come in contact with the infected worker constrained the county’s ability to manage the testing sites this week and Monday.

“(The county health department) is implementing a long-term remote working strategy to protect staff and maintain the capacity to respond to the pandemic moving forward,” according to a statement provided by Erin Roberts, a Schenectady County spokesperson.

Albany County officials on Tuesday raised concerns about rising COVID-19 infections as well.

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“We are seeing a spike in numbers that we haven’t seen since this first hit,” Albany County Executive Dan McCoy said during a COVID-19 update Tuesday.

McCoy said cases continued to rise, with the largest share of positive cases emerging among 20-somethings, and also pointed to Halloween parties and other gatherings as possible sources of infection.

Albany County Public Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen during the same update said the county’s current caseload matches the peak reached in April.

“Our numbers are going in the wrong direction, and I’m very concerned,” she said bluntly.

In light of the rising number of cases, Albany Medical Center on Tuesday announced plans to restrict visitation beginning Wednesday. Visitors will be limited to those with loved ones near end of life, parents or guardians with hospitalized children and birthing partners, according to an Albany Med statement.

“We remain vigilant to the threat COVID-19 presents to all of us,” Albany Med President and CEO Dennis McKenna said in the statement. “But we must not allow fear of the virus to deter us from necessary care.”

While the fall uptick in cases is occurring earlier than health officials had hoped, there are reasons to be hopeful compared to the surge in cases during the spring.

Claire Proffitt, a supervising public health nurse in Schenectady County, on Tuesday said access to testing resources is much greater than it was, enabling people with symptoms, possible exposure or other risk of infection to get tested – in some cases multiple times.

She identified three groups of people who should be tested: people showing symptoms; people who have had close contact with a known positive case, and; people who have traveled to the area from high-infection states or countries. But other people will likely be able to access testing as well.

Tests can be arranged through primary care physicians, conducted at many urgent care sites or facilitated at free public sites. UAlbany hosts a major testing site, and Schenectady County hopes to resume testing at its site by the end of next week. The sites accept appointments and walk-ins.

“We have not had an issue accommodating walk-ins as well,” Proffitt said of the Schenectady sites, which have processed around 50 tests and as many as 80 or 90 when open. People with no insurance can receive no-cost tests at the public sites. “We make sure our sites are as accessible as possible to anyone who needs it.”

While cases have appeared in most school districts across the region by now, large cluster don’t appear to have materialized in places as schools and health departments work quickly to respond once positive cases are identified. Proffitt, who coordinates directly with Schenectady County school districts, said she thinks cases identified within schools are likely an example of community-spread infections rather than infections spreading inside school buildings.

“What we are seeing is a lot of people doing a lot of things right for students,” she said. “I think what we are seeing definitely has to do with community spread.”

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