ALBANY — The Capital Region economy got one step closer to reopening Tuesday, as COVID-19 hospitalizations dropped below the state benchmark.
The eight-county region now has just one metric left out of the seven established by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as pre-conditions for reopening — number of hospital deaths.
Cuomo on Monday announced the rating system by which the state’s 10 economic development regions would be able to reopen after the New York on Pause order expires Friday. Initially, the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley and Southern Tier regions met all seven criteria. Central New York and the North Country were close behind with six of seven. The Capital Region and three others met five conditions. New York City was last with four.
The two metrics the Capital Region didn’t immediately meet were 1) a 14-day decline in net hospitalizations or fewer than 15 new hospitalizations on a three-day average and 2) a 14-day decline in hospital deaths or fewer than five deaths a day on a three-day average.
These two metrics are at once the best measures of the pandemic’s severity in a given region and the hardest to fix — if the thousands of government and health professionals fighting the pandemic had a way to keep people from dying, they would have long since used it.
The importance of meeting the last two metrics and the difficulty of making that happen was not lost on the Capital Region leaders who sit on the regional “Control Room” that will monitor COVID-19 activity here so officials can take steps to increase countermeasures and/or slow down the economy’s reopening if more people start getting sick.
“There is a piece to it that is a waiting game,” said Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman, a Control Room member.
The best strategy to keep the virus at bay is the one that’s been used so far: Keep people distant from each other and practicing good sanitation.
“It falls back on our normal mission of public health,” he said.
To varying degrees, the strategy has worked in individual counties. Schenectady County saw a surge of infections and death in April, for example, reaching 506 confirmed positive cases and 28 deaths by May 2. But since then the number of infections is up only about 10 percent and there have been no additional deaths.
Rensselaer County Executive Steven McLaughlin, also a member of the Control Room, said he’s had some frustrations with the entire shutdown and while it’s good to gain a measure of regional control over the reopening, some of the resources to implement it have been lacking. For example, all the testing that Cuomo is ordering will exceed the number of test kits available and laboratory capacity for processing, he said.
The two metrics that stalled the Capital Region — hospitalization and death — are the hardest to influence, McLaughlin said.
“A lot of this is out of our hands — how do we control who winds up in a hospital?”
Like Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy, he thinks nursing home resident hospitalizations and deaths should not be counted toward the total, as the residents are not free-roaming members of society at this point.
“Just a bad day or two at Diamond Hill or Teresian House can throw off the entire region,” McLaughlin said, naming two facilities where a combined 30 residents have died.
“At the very very peak of this mess, Rensselaer County had 20 people in the hospital. We now have four, three of whom are nursing home residents,” McLaughlin said.
In a county of 160,000 people, he added, “four are in the hospital and our economy is at a standstill.”
Nonetheless, he’s optimistic about the region meeting that last metric.
“Our numbers are trending down. I feel great except that every county has a major problem with one nursing home each,” McLaughlin said. “But yeah, I’m hopeful.”
Saratoga County Administrator Spencer Hellwig, another member of the Control Room, said the region has to remain closed, stay the course and continue its efforts until the daily death toll drops below the benchmark.
“Fortunately we’ve got six of the seven checked off,” he said. “I would expect that the remaining one would be checked off in the near future.”
He said the work of public health nurses in tracing contacts of infected people has been invaluable in controlling the spread of COVID in Saratoga County.
“Once those positives have been confirmed, having them go out and track down everyone they’ve been in touch with … that is probably a big reason why it’s been manageable for the most part,” Hellwig said. “In some cases it could be dozens of people.”
Since the pandemic reached the area, 2,040 people have been instructed to go into quarantine or isolation in Saratoga County, nearly 1 in 100 residents.
When the Capital Region meets the seventh metric and begins to reopen, Saratoga County officials will add a new role: Helping businesses get back on their feet. The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday announced its new reopening advisory group, a group of government and business leaders chaired by Waterford Supervisor Jack Lawler.
The county will become a sort of clearinghouse, Hellwig said.
“There’s been a lot of interest and questions from the business community. Part of the county’s role here is to provide as much assistance it can,” he said.
For purposes of reopening, the Capital Region is defined as Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Warren and Washington counties.
The Mohawk Valley is defined as Fulton, Herkimer, Montgomery, Oneida, Otsego and Schoharie counties.
The seven metrics that a region must meet to reopen are:
- A 14-day decline in net COVID hospitalizations or fewer than 15 new hospitalizations per day on a three-day average;
- A 14-day decline in hospital deaths or fewer than five deaths per day on a three day average;
- Fewer than two new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents per day;
- At least 30% of hospital beds must be vacant;
- At least 30% of ICU beds must be vacant;
- At least 30 out of each 1,000 residents must be tested each month;
- At least 30 infection contract tracers must be hired per 100,000 residents.
The Capital Region and four other regions are given conditional approval on this last metric — they are labeled “expected” because they have personnel in place or in training and are expected to meet the minimum number of tracers shortly.
Statewide, 1,225,113 people had been tested for COVID-19 infections as of Tuesday morning; 338,485 of them have been confirmed positive and 21,845 have died. An additional number of New Yorkers has died but not been included in the death toll because of reporting errors and limitations.
In the Capital Region, two new deaths were reported Tuesday, both in Columbia County.