ALBANY — There has been a noticeable shift among lawmakers during the past 10 days that points to a scheme of an eventual reopening plan for New York that may take the shape of a region-by-region easing of restrictions, as opposed to the state reopening in its entirety, all at the same time.
“There are regional economies within the state. Let’s talk about reopening economies in a regional context. Coordinated regionally. And that’s what we’re going to be doing,” state Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week, naming Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul in charge of overseeing the Western New York region public health and reopening strategy, and former Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy as special advisor on public health and reopening in the Finger Lakes region.
Nearly two months since New York registered its first COVID-19 case, and three months since the first case in the U.S. was discovered, Cuomo surveyed the daily charted number of infections, hospitalizations and intubations in New York City - where more than 10,000 residents have died as a result of the virus – and cautiously explained “the numbers would suggest we are seeing a descent…the question is how long and how steep the descent? Nobody knows.” That descent will play a major role into when the state reopens.
Governors in each state will decide when to re-open, and President Donald Trump has recommended in advance of a phased-in approach to reopening there should be, among other things, a decline in COVID-19 cases for 14 days.
Regionally, however, the percentage of the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 has been steady, or rising. A three-day sample in Saratoga County from April 15-17 indicates of 267 people tested, 17 (or about 6.4%) tested positive, while more recent tests of April 19-21 sample shows 13 of 175, or about 7.5% tested positive. Overall, as of April 21 in Saratoga County where about 3,500 people have been tested, 7.6% percent of those tested positive. Albany County shows a 9.8% overall rate, Warren and Washington counties each are over 11%, and Schenectady County is over 12%. And indications are that those percentage numbers have not fallen in any of the counties.
On April 17 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researcher Malik Magdon-Ismail discussed a new model showcasing the pandemic impact in smaller cities. The model indicated that with 75% of the population in the Capital Region in New York remaining at home, the COVID-19 pandemic will peak locally in about four weeks, in late May.
“How do you educate yourself on reopening? Testing,” said Cuomo, who explained he had a “productive” meeting with Trump at the White House April 21, and one of the results of that meeting is the expectation that the number of tests in New York State will as much as double in the near future - from approximately 20,000 to 40,000 per day.
“Make the decisions on the facts, not on political pressure. We make a bad move, it’s going to set us back,” said Cuomo, adding that it is vital to also understand the consequences of opening one region at a time, so as to not flood that region with unanticipated problems, presumably meaning an influx of people coming from areas still on “pause.”
“We can’t make a bad decision and we can’t be stupid about it. This is a marathon, not a sprint. More people will die if we’re not smart,” he said.
As Cuomo spoke inside the State Capitol, a rally organized by the group “ReOpen New York State” was staged outside on Wednesday to protest the New York on Pause coronavirus plan. While protest organizers told people planning to attend the rally to respect social distancing, most were crowded on the sidewalk and in the road, and many were not wearing masks, according to WRGB.
At the same time and of a different view, a letter signed by Saratoga Unites, Saratoga DSA, Saratoga Progressive Action and more than a dozen other area organizations and individuals was issued in support for efforts taken by New York state leadership with the current stay at home orders. The letter states, in part: “It is natural to feel like we need to ‘do something,’ and we encourage people to focus on support for healthcare and essential workers, the unemployed, and the small businesses which are all so vital to the Capital District.”
Cuomo said he anticipates “a rolling curve” of infections. That is, that different test-positive hotspots will flare up at different times. “New York City had the first curve and then they project higher curves in other states and in other parts of our state,” the governor said. “Buffalo will have a later curve, Albany will have a later curve, and we’re watching the curves in different parts of the state. Our strategy is: we deploy to wherever the curve is highest.”
ANTIBODY TESTING UNDERWAY
A weeklong statewide antibody testing survey that will randomly sample 3,000 people began April 19 in a handful of upstate communities, Saratoga and Schenectady among them.
The antibody test – which is different than the tests which currently identify the virus - will tell whether a person had previously had COVID-19. The state is hopeful this large-scale antibody testing will help determine the percentage of the population that is now immune to the virus, allowing more individuals to safely return to work. The finger-stick blood samples will be tested at the Wadsworth Center, which is located in Albany.
The “random” designation is particularly important. The other tests conducted – the ones which tell whether a person currently has the virus - are mostly conducted with people showing symptoms of illness, or those potentially exposed to it.
Preliminary data of the antibody tests - randomly conducted in grocery stores and box stores in 19 counties, 40 localities overall - showed 13.9% overall tested positive for antibodies – that is 13.9% of people randomly tested across the state have, at some point, had the virus.
Upstate New York specifically where one-third of the antibody tests were conducted, only 3.6% of those had tested positive for antibodies.
This is compared to 11.7% in Westchester/Rockland, 16.7% Long Island, and 21.2% NYC.
In Schenectady, where the information regarding the random testing was not made public, those showing up to be tested included “several county legislators” according to the Gazette. In Saratoga County, where the information was made public by Saratoga County on its Facebook page, many more people turned out than were anticipated.
“It should not have been posted on Facebook – both for randomizing purposes, but also a (Price Chopper) manager told me at one point there were nearly 300 people in there just to get tested,” said Saratoga Springs Supervisor Tara Gaston, who visited the Price Chopper store in Malta where the testing took place. “That 300 is in addition to the people who were just shopping. My understanding is those (tests) are going to take place, but not in the same spot and they’re not going to be announced. My hope is no one puts it on the county website or Facebook page. That shouldn’t happen (again). I’m not going to say that it won’t – but, that’s our goal.”
While different parts of the state may open at different times, Cuomo said regardless of where reopenings occur, schools and businesses will be open at the same time in that particular region.
There is no specific committee charged with specifying reopenings. A region-by-region determination will be addressed via discussions in a collaborative effort between state and local governments. Cuomo did not specify whether a “local” government make-up would consist of county, city, town, and/or village officials.