NY expands microcluster zones as virus spreads

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a coronavirus briefing in the state Capitol in Albany on Wednesday afternoon. Courtesy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office

Additional coronavirus microcluster zones expanded downstate Thursday, joining a growing list of areas across the state with stricter COVID-19 regulations to prevent significant community spread of the disease.

Rockland, Orange and Westchester counties have new, yellow precautionary zones for health officials to target with thousands of rapid diagnostic coronavirus tests. Zones were expanded to include areas such as New Rochelle, Ossining, Tarrytown, Yonkers and Peekskill in Westchester; Pearl River, West Haverstraw, Stony Point and Suffern in Rockland; and Newburgh, New Windsor, Middletown and Highland Falls in orange.

A yellow precautionary zone 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.

State Coronavirus Task Force members map each new COVID-19 case and study other factors, including the cause of the cluster, before designating a focus zone, said Gareth Rhodes, a leading member of the state task force and deputy superintendent and special counsel with the state Department of Financial Services.

“Look at the areas where cases are coming from,” Rhodes said Thursday afternoon during a conference call with reporters. “If it can be explained by a single institution — by a nursing home or a college — we look at the cases coming from those areas and take into consideration where we draw the boundary.”

Task-force officials study detailed data of each microcluster to determine which hot spots are emerging from general community spread.

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. Hospitalization and fatality trends are also taken into consideration before an area becomes a labeled cautionary risk for contracting COVID-19.

“We work with the Department of Health with prevalent maps where all the cases are and that’s how we draw the zone lines,” Rhodes said.

Officials review detailed COVID-19 data each day and re-evaluate when zones should be upgraded to stricter guidelines under orange or red zones, or reduce restrictions after prolonged, decreasing new infections.

“While some areas have improved over the past week, others have seen a higher positivity rate,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday. “The concept of the microcluster zones is targeted restrictions so you don’t disrupt the economy in areas you don’t need to disrupt the economy. It’s also a warning sign for that community.”

The focus areas are intended to get residents’ attention, the governor said, to remain diligent with remaining socially distanced, or 6 feet, from others, wear face masks in public and other precautionary COVID-19 measures.

“To the people in New Rochelle, I’m not saying there’s a problem in ethics, I’m not saying there’s a problem in Suffolk, I’m saying there’s a problem in your backyard in New Rochelle so I hope that gets your attention because it’s your community, it’s your block, and this is personal to you.” Cuomo said, “When the problem is somewhere else, it’s a lot easier to dismiss.”

Western New York persists with the state’s highest number of new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths at 4.8% positive Thursday as cases continue to spread across the state. The Finger Lakes and Mid-Hudson regions increased to 3.8%, with 3.5% positivity in Central New York, 3.2% on Long Island and 2.5% in New York City. The Mohawk Valley ranks close behind the city with a 2.4% infection rate and 2.3% in the Capital Region on Thursday, as the North Country dipped to 1.7%.

The Southern Tier boasts the state’s lowest new virus infections at 1.1% positive.

“Western New York has been, and continues to be, the problem,” said Cuomo, who urged New Yorkers to put the state’s spikes in context with the double-digit infection rates and spikes seen in more than 30 U.S. states and territories.

State microclusters appear in areas with a steady positivity rate between 2.5% and 4%. Maine, Vermont, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia are the nation’s only states and territories with average statewide infections at or below around 3%.

Cuomo reiterated Thursday the importance of school districts “testing out” of state COVID-19 mandates in orange or red microclusters. A red zone is not in effect in the state.

“Schools are safer than the surrounding community,” he said. “The trigger for the schools in New York City is lower than the trigger [to close] indoor dining. ... That is actually tougher on businesses than it is on schools.”

New York City’s public schools were indefinitely closed Tuesday for remote class instruction as the citywide infection rate fluctuated around 3%.

The state set a 9% COVID-19 infection threshold for a school district to shutter this summer, but each of the state’s 700-plus public school districts established their own, at times decreased, criteria to restrict in-person learning.

Last week, Cuomo declared additional executive mandates imposing a 10 p.m. curfew on statewide gyms, bars and restaurants and limiting private gatherings to 10 people.

Those businesses and what the governor has dubbed “living room spread” with small get-togethers in New York homes mainly drive new COVID-19 community infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have published data showing the virus spreads most rapidly in those industries.

“There is no provision for a business to test out,” Cuomo said of nonessential industries forced to close in yellow, orange or red zones. “Unless the whole zone gets its act together and goes from orange down to yellow, which has happened, but when you localize it, I think it minimizes the economic disruption and it maximizes the need for personal responsibility.”

Cuomo, who chairs the National Governor’s Association, was scheduled to speak with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on Thursday to discuss issues surrounding transition of power from President Donald Trump, who has refused to concede the presidential race, and the current federal administration.

The governor cautioned New Yorkers to avoid unnecessary travel or hosting out-of-state visitors for next week’s Thanksgiving holiday. Significant spikes of the coronavirus largely swept Canada after the nation’s Thanksgiving holiday Oct. 11.

“I will wager you that if people are not extraordinarily diligent and act in a way they’ve never acted before, you’re going to see a very large spike,” Cuomo said. “Travel is a real problem for us. It’s your family, it’s your home, it’s your table — these are all environments where you feel safe and that is the beauty of Thanksgiving. ‘I’m at home with my family, I’m in my safe zone.’ Your safe zone is not a safe zone. Your safe zone is dangerous this year.

“Please, love is sometimes doing what’s hard. This year, if you love someone, it is smarter and better to stay away.”

The state’s infection rate dipped to 2.3% Thursday excluding oversampled microcluster zones, down from 3.1% the day before.

“Which is a big drop,” Cuomo said.

Positivity with microclusters included is 2.7%, down from 3.4% with microclusters testing at 4% positive.

Thirty-one New Yorkers died from coronavirus complications Wednesday, down from 35 Tuesday.

The state reported 2,276 New Yorkers hospitalized Thursday, an increase of 74 patients.

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