New COVID clusters threaten Western NY

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a pandemic briefing in Manhattan on Sept. 9. Courtesy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo raised the possibility Saturday of implementing additional heightened COVID-19 restrictions in New York as new cases, hospitalizations and deaths steadily increase as the pandemic rages with double-digit infection rates in more than 25 U.S. states and territories.

The state Coronavirus Task Force and Cuomo’s top aides consider science and COVID-19 data when establishing new pandemic rules to help curb the expected spread of the virus through the fall and winter.

“If the numbers go up, and they’re increasing, then you have to restrict activity,” Cuomo said Saturday afternoon during a conference call with reporters. “... It’s human behavior, and if those numbers go up, we stand ready to tighten the valve.”

New York and New Jersey restricted bars, restaurants, gyms and other liquor-licensed establishments to indefinitely shutter at 10 p.m. each night, except for curbside food pick-up customers.

Private gatherings are also restricted to 10 people in the state, including in private residences. The new rules went into effect Friday night.

“It’s a pure consequence of actions,” Cuomo said. “Some people offer a false choice — I want no restrictions, but I want to take no precautions. That is not an option in life.”

Cuomo is continuing talks with five governors of neighboring Northeastern states this weekend on the heels of the new controversial mandates to implement symmetrical COVID-19 guidelines to discourage residents from traveling across state lines for different restrictions. The conversations will continue all weekend, Cuomo said.

“There’s numerous topics that we’re dealing with,” he said. “Part of it is looking at the information and the data, we have an issue of airports and travel, and what can I do legally and constitutionally and what can we enforce practically.”

The governor is expected to announce more updates Sunday.

Out-of-state and international visitors from states and nations with surging COVID-19 infection rates continue to land in New York, increasing the chance for community spread across the state, Cuomo said.

Neighboring Pennsylvania’s coronavirus infection rate increased to about 9.6% Saturday, with 6.8% positive in New Jersey and 4.8% in Connecticut — three states thousands of people commute to and from into New York each day.

“People go back and forth all day long within the metropolitan area, and that is a problem,” Cuomo said. “If you have infection all around you, the probability is you are going to get infected, and we have infection all around us.”

New York’s pandemic regulations threaten to be more restrictive than other states, but the governor said the stricter rules have prevented higher infections to date.

“Their infection rate is double, triple, quadruple what our infection rate is,” Cuomo said. “If anything, we’re erring on the side of more aggressive.”

Cuomo suggested school districts in the downstate metropolitan area remain open, and that a region consider the specific positivity rate of each district before a widespread shutdown — especially if a school’s infection rate remains low, or below the state’s microcluster red zone threshold of 4%.

New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio has suggested all city school districts will close within the coming days as the city’s coronavirus infection rate nears 3%. City districts set the threshold with the state before classes resumed in September.

“Since the 3% was set, we have become more sophisticated and have more capacity than we had at that time,” Cuomo said. “If the school is not spreading the virus or if the school was a much lower positivity rate than the surrounding area, then the school is not part of the problem.”

Schools within a virus microcluster, across the state have the testing capacity to “test out” of mandated closure within a red zone to allow the school to continue to operate. Closing schools makes it more difficult for parents and caregivers to go to work and the delivering of free meals to children.

“Closing the schools has ancillary consequences that people don’t often think of,” the governor added.

The governor also further responded to President Donald Trump’s comments late Friday afternoon that New York would not be receiving a coronavirus vaccine once it becomes available. A COVID vaccine is on the horizon after private drugmaker Pfizer World Headquarters, based in Manhattan, announced Nov. 9 that early tests on its experimental COVID vaccine were 90% effective and could be available by year’s end.

The president’s threat is further retaliation against his home state, Cuomo said.

“He was rejected by New York — he bet a few weeks ago he was going to win the state of New York in this last election; he lost by a huge margin,” Cuomo said. “He’s unhappy that the prosecutors in New York are investigating him and there’s a chance he could be indicted for tax fraud by New York prosecutors. That makes him unhappy.”

In late September, Cuomo announced the state’s Clinical Advisory Task force, comprised of scientists and global health experts, would independently review the safety and efficacy of any FDA-approved vaccine to build confidence in New Yorkers to get the two-dose immunization. Seven other states, including Connecticut, California, West Virginia and Oregon, set up similar independent vaccine panels to review the FDA’s approval process.

The reviews do not include testing the immunization, and will not delay the administration process.

The vaccine could be available to the public by April, Trump also said Friday.

“That’s four months,” Cuomo responded Saturday. “We can’t have the numbers increasing for four months ... We’ve only been at this for eight months.”

The statewide infection rate, including microclusters, increased to 2.9% on Saturday of more than 184,000 conducted diagnostic tests. New York microclusters that persist with precautionary or target yellow, orange and red zones throughout Broome, Onondoga, Erie, Monroe, Chemung, Rockland and Orange counties and parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island in New York City, reported 4.8% positivity rate, up from 4.6% on Friday.

Twenty-four New Yorkers died from the virus Friday. Hospitalizations increased 51 virus patients Saturday to 1,788 people.

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