ALBANY — On the day it was cleared to begin restarting its economy because of the diminishing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Capital Region continued a series of slight daily upticks in the number of people hospitalized with the virus.
The increase has been greater in some of the other regions cleared to reopen: Central New York recorded its highest-ever daily COVID hospital patient count Tuesday, while the Mohawk Valley and Finger Lakes regions each had their second-highest.
The upstate numbers are still tiny relative to New York City, where 3,204 people were hospitalized with COVID on Tuesday — there were 203 in Western New York, 114 in the Capital Region, and just three in the North Country.
But in some cases, the upstate numbers are large relative to each other. The Central New York region had 84 COVID patients hospitalized Tuesday, up from 31 on May 1.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and top aides addressed this at his daily briefing Wednesday.
Hospitalization, Cuomo noted, can lag 14 days or more behind infection. So a jump in hospitalization now indicates the virus was spreading some time ago, not that it is spreading now.
Nonetheless, it is an important barometer for the status of the pandemic, which is why it and other infection, illness and death metrics are monitored daily, Cuomo said.
If one of these metrics starts ticking upward, closer investigation and more testing are called for in that particular region, he said. The regional "control rooms," one for each of the 10 economic development regions in the state, will monitor progress.
The Capital Region and six other regions are in Phase 1 of reopening. If the situation worsens, their progression through Phases 2, 3 and 4 will be slowed or halted.
Albany Medical Center officials noted Wednesday that an increasing number of COVID-19 patients are well enough to be discharged but can't be because they are nursing home residents — Cuomo recently barred nursing homes from readmitting COVID-positive residents.
Three new COVID-19 deaths were reported Wednesday in the eight-county Capital Region — two in Albany County and one in Columbia County.
Statewide, 1.51 million people had been tested for the virus as of Wednesday morning; 354,370 were positive. The state's official death toll, which is incomplete, stood at 22,976.
In another sign of progress controlling the pandemic, Cuomo announced Wednesday that small religious services — with no more than 10 people present — can resume Thursday.
He said the state is convening an Interfaith Advisory Council to look at proposals to safely resume services, which are at once some of the most cherished rituals of society and, as mass gatherings, some of the best potential venues for spread of a disease.
Cuomo said the limit is 10 for all faiths, regardless of whether that's an inconvenient number for particular religious traditions or practices.
"We need to find out how to do it, and do it safely, and do it smartly. The last thing we want to do is have a religious ceremony that winds up having more people infected," Cuomo said.
"We know from New Rochelle, Westchester, the first hot spot, that religious ceremonies can be very dangerous. So, we all want to do the same thing, the question is how do we do it, and how do we do it smartly and efficiently."
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany is among the members of the Interfaith Council. In a prepared statement Wednesday, the diocese said:
“We are glad to hear that Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports the resumption of church gatherings on a limited basis. Our people are hungry for a return to their parish communities and this is a first step. Although the Diocese is not yet ready to open parishes for Sunday worship, we do believe this easing of restrictions will allow for baptisms, funerals and weddings to proceed, all while respecting social distancing requirements. The Diocese is moving forward with caution to ensure the safety of our parishioners and has asked parishes to submit reopening plans. Once we are confident that we are in a position to reopen in a safe and responsible manner, we will announce a date for the resumption of regular Masses.”
In other COVID-19 related developments Wednesday:
- Cuomo again found himself fending off rapid-fire critical questions from reporters about his continually evolving policies regarding New York nursing homes, where thousands of residents have died of COVID-19. He said he had no regrets about early decisions, including an order that nursing homes take infected residents back upon discharge from the hospital. This was based on federal guidance, he said, and a nursing home needed only to say it couldn't take the resident back to be free of the matter. Cuomo's hands-off stance toward nursing homes has been in stark contrast to such assertive moves as shutting down much of the state economy, banning religious services and threatening to send National Guardsmen to move critical medical gear from upstate hospitals to downstate hospitals.
- Cuomo said he has made no decision on whether county fairs can process this year. The first fair of the summer in the Capital Region, the Saratoga County Fair, already has decided on its own to cancel.
- Asked by a reporter about his plan to "reimagine" education in New York state, and whether that means a permanent shift to remote learning via computer, Cuomo said it does not. There is no substitute for classroom learning and the teacher-student relationship it develops, he said. But he added that this pandemic has shown the limits of current distance-learning capabilities and the state education system needs to be better prepared when a future crisis requires pupils to stay at home, for there inevitably will be one.
- For perhaps the hundredth time, Cuomo reiterated a message that some New Yorkers still aren't heeding: masks prevent the spread of infection. He cited statistics showing that front line workers wearing masks while exposed to sick people at close quarters -- doctors, nurses and paramedics -- have lower rates of infection than the general population. His daughter Mariah Kennedy Cuomo reported that a competition for videos sharing this message drew 600 entries and that the public can vote online for the five finalists at wearamask.ny.gov. The winner will be announced May 26.
- A bipartisan quartet of upstate legislators proposed legislation to limit the duration of a governor's emergency declaration to 30 days and require the governor to send the Legislature a weekly report during the emergency. One of the four, Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said in a news release: "With the reopening process now being discussed, this legislation seeks to re-establish the state Legislature as a co-equal branch of government, as it should be. During the COVID-19 shutdown, the governor has suspended hundreds of laws through executive orders and much of the reopening plans have gone forward without enough input from the local families and businesses we represent.”