Area counties hit new highs on COVID; state doubles down on masks, tests, shots

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Adirondack Health and Wellness RN Tammy Follett of Latham readies a COVID vaccine at the Lexington gymnasium in Gloversville on Nov. 4, 2021.

ALBANY — While state government will kick up the current countermeasures, it currently has no plans for a lockdown as a massive spike in COVID cases rolls into the new year. 

“We’re breaking records every day,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday morning, after announcing that 76,555 new infections were confirmed Thursday and that the COVID-positive patient census in New York hospitals had reached 7,919, a 7.4% increase from Wednesday.

A month earlier, when the fast-spreading omicron variant had just emerged and Hochul discussed preparations for a winter spike, 3,022 people were hospitalized statewide with the virus and the one-day record for new infections stood at 19,942.

With new infections coming at a rate far beyond the expectations of a month ago, Hochul on Friday unveiled Winter Surge 2.0, her updated plan to deal with the virus.

It is, essentially, an expanded and enhanced campaign of vaccination, testing and masking, with no stay-at-home orders for New Yorkers or shutdown orders for businesses and public venues.

A few details:

  • All SUNY and CUNY students must get vaccinated by Jan. 15 if they haven’t already, and those who have must get a booster shot against COVID. They must also test negative when returning to campus after winter break. All SUNY and CUNY faculty must get vaccinated by Jan. 15.
  • The mask-or-vaccinate order she issued in mid-December is extended from Jan. 15 to Jan 31.
  • The state will try to secure and then distribute newly authorized antiviral drug treatments for those infected.
  • The state will open six new test sites statewide (including one in Crossgates Mall) next week, to supplement the overly busy network of test sites now in operation.

FAST-MOVING

State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said Friday the hope remains that the omicron variant blamed for the current surge will peak and subside relatively quickly, with a smaller percentage of infections resulting in hospitalization or death. This is the pattern omicron followed in South Africa, where it was first observed. 

But a small percentage of a big number is still a big number, Bassett said.

Hochul took parents to task on vaccination: Only 28% of New York children ages 5-11 have received at least one shot of COVID vaccine, compared with 95% of adults.

“Parents, I’ve asked you during this [school] break to get them out to one of the many sites,” she said at Friday’s news conference. “Those numbers should be jumping a lot higher.”

State Operations Director Kathryn Garcia joined Hochul Friday to provide an update on at-home test kits.

These kits are an important part of the strategy to keep children in school amid the pandemic surge: If one of their classmates tests positive, a child can be given a test kit to take home, rather than automatically going into quarantine. If they test negative, they can come back to school.

Many school districts say they have seen none of the millions of kits Hochul promised.

Garcia said 5.28 million were delivered to state government this week and 4 million to 8 million more are scheduled to arrive this weekend. They’re being distributed statewide, including 281,000 to Capital Region schools and 135,000 to Mohawk Valley schools, she said.

The Schenectady City School District on its website says it has not received any of the test kits. But Schenectady, most other school districts and Hochul herself, say the plan is for children to be back on-site for class Monday morning.

LOCAL SURGE

The local impact of this latest COVID surge has varied: Some counties in the Capital Region, particularly the larger ones, are near or have exceeded all-time highs for number of infections. Smaller counties, include those in the eastern Mohawk Valley, have been running below their previous peaks.

All are doing better than New York City, where the surge has been concentrated. 

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy and Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen discussed the situation at a news conference Friday morning.

McCoy said 1,003 new infections were confirmed in the county populace Thursday, more than double the one-day record, which was set earlier this week.

“You don’t get numb to it. You start to get shocked and alarmed,” he said.

And 1,003 isn’t even a complete count, McCoy said: “This is not including the COVID test kits, the ones you buy at the supermarket.”

Whelan said: 

“We are starting to see what we had forecasted, which is exponential spread. This is likely due to omicron.”

McCoy and Whelan were joined by Dr. Thea Dalfino, St. Peter’s Health Partners Chief Medical Director of Acute Care.

She asked the public to look elsewhere for tests unless they are seriously ill.

“We’re being overrun right now in our emergency departments with patients coming in with very mild symptoms or some with no symptoms requesting COVID testing,” she said.

“Our emergency departments really are for the sickest patients. … we really want to be able to have that resource available for the patients who absolutely need it.”

STATISTICS

Here are some local statistics as of Thursday, as reported Friday by the state Department of Health:

  • The COVID-positive patient census in Capital Region hospitals hit 271, up from a recent low of 238 on Dec. 24 but still below a recent peak of 306 on Dec. 6.
  • Mohawk Valley hospitals held steady at 130 COVID patients, down from a recent peak of 162 on Dec. 2.
  • Six of the eight Capital Region counties — Albany, Greene, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady and Warren — all reached new one-day highs for lab-confirmed infections by a wide margin Thursday; an unknown additional number of positive self-tests went uncounted.
  • The positive test rate topped 10% in all but one of New York’s 62 counties and exceeded 20% in 18 counties. The number of new infections per 100,000 residents reached triple digits in all but six counties.

As a measure of the pandemic, the rolling seven-day average is considered a better metric than the one-day total because it smooths out anomalies such as the Christmas holiday. 

Here is the daily number of new infections per 100,000 residents and the seven-day average percentage of positive tests in select counties and regions:

Albany 114.6 14.3%
Fulton 64.5 75.7%
Montgomery 75.7 11.1%
Rensselaer 100.3 12.7%
Saratoga 127.5 14.0%
Schenectady 99.2 11.7%
Schoharie 61.6 10.4%
Capital Region 109.3 13.4%
Mohawk Valley 85.3 11.4%
New York City 387.3 18.6%
Statewide 271.6 17.9%
By John Cropley

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