ALBANY — Officials on the state’s Coronavirus Task Force on Monday outlined new microcluster target zones in Western New York to prevent a widespread COVID-19 outbreak as new virus infections increase and global health experts edge closer to developing a successful vaccine.
Parts of Erie, Monroe and Onondaga counties in Western New York entered yellow precautionary COVID-19 zones Monday after days of a prolonged, increasing regional infection rate.
Erie County, which includes the city of Buffalo, has increased from 1.2% to 4.4% positive coronavirus infections over the last seven days.
Monroe County’s seven-day average has increased from 0.8% to 3.6% positive, meeting the metrics for a yellow zone.
“They are yellow zones — they are not red zones,” Cuomo clarified Monday for parts of the region during a conference call with reporters. “We worked over the weekend — our officials with the county executives’ teams and health officials — and we are all in agreement, plus or minus, about these zones and these restrictions.”
Officials place geographic areas in yellow precautionary, orange warning or target red zones with heightened gathering or capacity restrictions after mapping the state’s new COVID-19 infections each day. An area becomes eligible to become a yellow zone with seven-day average positivity rate above 2.5% for 10 days, an average above 3% in an orange zone and higher than 4% to become a red zone.
Each zone has increased coronavirus restrictions. Parts of the state under a yellow precautionary zone require bars and restaurants to close at midnight and establishes a 25-person maximum for mass gatherings, requires schools in that zone to test 20% of students, faculty and staff, and permit a maximum of four people seated at a table while dining.
Cuomo and task force members continue to tackle budding hot spots with targeted testing, contact tracing and enforcement within microclusters.
“The microcluster approach is inarguable,” Cuomo said. “Do more testing, more targeting as soon as you see any increase, be more aggressive. There’s nothing more you can do, but that’s everything that you can do. Watch a small increase, attack a small increase and it works.”
Cuomo argued Monday state data show the microcluster approach works to stamp out infections before a widespread outbreak. Certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, and Orange, Rockland, Broome and Chemung counties continue to have varying red, orange and yellow zone rules in place.
Broome County’s positivity rate hovered around 8% between two and three weeks ago, but several weeks of additional restrictions and enforcement reduced the rate to 3.5%, Cuomo said. Orange County’s infection rate has reduced from about 12% down to 2%, he added, with an improved 3% in Rockland County down from a high of 9%.
“People don’t like the restrictions, I understand that, but it works,” Cuomo said. “I’ll tell you what’s not politically popular: People dying. Better you do enforcement than people get sick and people die.”
Precautionary and target zones are temporary. Officials closely monitor daily infection numbers, deaths and hospitalizations to evaluate when restrictions should be established, changed or reduced.
Brooklyn’s red zone was eliminated Monday after officials announced a 50% reduction of the target area Friday. Another microcluster is threatening parts of Staten Island, but officials did not implement additional restrictions as of Monday afternoon.
Scientists and health experts across the globe forecasted intense COVID-19 surges throughout the fall and winter, as is common with all viral spread as the weather turns colder and people congregate indoors.
“We have definitely entered a new phase with COVID,” Cuomo said. “The rates will all go up. We expect the rates will continue to go up through the fall and into the winter. ... The best you can do is manage the increase.
“The long-term prognosis is get to a vaccine as quickly as possible, administer the vaccine as quickly as possible [and] administer the vaccine fairly and equitably, which is a whole different conversation.”
Drug maker Pfizer World Headquarters, based in Manhattan, announced Monday that early tests on its experimental COVID-19 vaccine were 90% effective, and could be available by year’s-end.
Cuomo commented on what he called “great” news, but continued to ask questions about the federal government’s plan to use private-sector pharmacies as officials plan to approve the immunization and begin to send shipments within a matter of days.
“Ninety percent [efficacy] would be fantastic,” Cuomo said. “I have serious questions about the distribution methodology that the federal government anticipates in terms of the volume necessary to do it operationally.”
The White House Coronavirus Task Force announced plans at the end of October to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to millions of Americans when it is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with a private-public partnership with private-sector pharmacies such as CVS or Walgreens. Vaccines will also be distributed at local hospitals and physician’s offices.
A COVID-19 vaccine — likely to be administered by injection — needs to be refrigerated at minus 80 degrees Celsius, or minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Each patient is expected to need two dosages by the same manufacturer a few weeks apart.
“The fairness, the equity going to just private-market participants, hospitals, clinics, drug stores, compounds the injustice that has been done because that infrastructure doesn’t exist in poorer communities and Black and brown communities,” Cuomo said. “Overall, that is very good news, I just want to make sure the vaccine gets to more people faster and more fairly.”
New York’s focused target areas within state microclusters in Western New York, the Southern Tier, the mid-Hudson Valley and New York City reported 4.3% positive coronavirus cases Monday.
The overall statewide infection rate is 2.8% including hot spots, or 2.6% without the oversample.
Coronavirus cases have largely spiked in more than 45 states and territories with more than 10 million infections nationwide, and more than 1 million new cases in the last 10 days.
New York continues to have the fourth-lowest infection rate of the 50 states at a seven-day average infection rate of about 2%, only higher than Vermont, Alaska and Maine.
The World Health Organization recommends states and localities target COVID-19 infections to remain at or below 5%.
“We’re more aggressive in both our remediation efforts and we’re more aggressive in our goal-setting,” the governor said of other states and the WHO. “From my point of view, [to] be more aggressive just allows you a buffer, but ideally, you’d want to see no one sick, so I think you can’t be aggressive enough.”
The state reported 3,144 new COVID-19 infections Monday of 111,416 diagnostic tests, or 2.82% positive statewide, a continuing increase from 1.99% infection rate Friday.
Hospitalizations increased to 1,444 people Monday, up 48 patients from the day before.
Twenty-six New Yorkers died from COVID-19 on Sunday, up from 18 deaths Friday and Saturday.
“‘We have COVID fatigue and people are tired’ — I know people are tired,” Cuomo said. “The virus isn’t tired, and that’s all that matters.”
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.