ALBANY — School districts previously forced to close within state microclusters may continue in-person learning for students while COVID-19 spikes within a community by meeting specific state testing criteria, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday.
The governor then slammed the federal government’s plans as too simplistic to successfully administer a coronavirus vaccine.
Earlier this month, Cuomo imposed stricter COVID-19 regulations within a 3.5-mile radius of state hot spots, including closing schools and nonessential businesses and limiting gatherings to 10 people in “red” or “orange” target zones where new coronavirus infections are most prominent. Microclusters, or small hot spots of novel coronavirus infections, have emerged statewide over the past month in Rockland, Orange, Broome, Steuben and Chemung counties, and Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods in New York City.
During a telephone coronavirus briefing Friday afternoon, the governor announced students, teachers and staff may return to school within COVID microclusters after testing negative for the virus. The amended regulations will allow public, private and parochial schools within red and orange zones to safely prevent interruptions with in-person classroom instruction while coronavirus infections spike in an area of the state.
“If somebody’s positive, obviously, they’re not allowed in the school,” Cuomo said Friday. “We’ve been working with them to try to find ways to keep people safe, but allow children to go to school.
“We have an agreement with them that I think keeps people safe and allows children to be educated.”
The state will require random surveillance testing of a minimum of 25% of a school population, including total students, faculty and staff, per week.
New York City school districts, which have a significantly higher population, will be forced to close if the testing sample exceeds 2% positive. School districts outside the city will return to remote learning with 3% new infections or more, said Beth Garvey, the governor’s special counsel.
“All the students, all the teachers who know everyone will also give us an idea of homes and households in that area,” Cuomo said of community COVID-19 infections. “If a child tests positive, then we can contact trace back to the family.”
The state will supply rapid testing kits for school surveillance testing in the red and orange microcluster target zones. Schools in yellow zones, where the threat is less of a risk, are required to test 20% of the school population.
Schools outside microcluster zones do not have further testing requirements outside the district’s reopening plan approved by the state this summer.
The federal government plans to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to millions of Americans, once 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, Cuomo said of a call held earlier Friday with White House Coronavirus Task Force members and the nation’s leading infectious disease experts.
The governor criticized the federal government’s plan that relies on paying private providers, as the plan does not allow states to organize distribution with state personnel.
“That is a very limited distribution mechanism,” Cuomo said. “The adminstration is locked in on this private-sector plan. Their vaccination plan I think it’s deeply flawed. So you have a limited distribution network.”
Federal officials have not discussed providing funding to states for successful vaccine administration, similar to COVID-19 testing earlier this year, Cuomo said. The state could develop its own COVID-19 vaccination centers similar to the diagnostic tests, but New York cannot afford it.
“They learned nothing,” Cuomo said. “Their plan is just fund the private-sector providers to do it. It’s their philosophy and it also, operationally, would be highly inefficient and it’s a direct mirror of the debacle of testing. It is an exact mirror — they learned nothing.”
Tasking private pharmacies with administering the vaccine to millions of Americans may not be sufficient, Cuomo said, as the companies help conduct thousands of daily diagnostic coronavirus tests nationwide.
“You have to sacrifice either one or the other,” he added. “Either the number of COVID tests or the number of vaccinations they could perform. We know the capacity of the network because we now have it engaged.”
A patient is expected to need two dosages of a COVID-19 vaccine three to four weeks apart, or roughly 660 million doses to vaccinate every American.
“It could take one year to vaccinate the population using only a private-sector network — this country can’t afford to take one year to do vaccinations,” Cuomo said.
New York reported an overall 1.5% COVID-19 positivity rate Friday, including microcluster zones, and 1.3% without hot spots of more than 146,000 diagnostic tests conducted Thursday. State microclusters decreased to 2.7% positive new coronavirus infections Friday, down from 3.2% Thursday.
New York has the third-lowest COVID-19 positivity rate in the nation of 50 states. Only Vermont and Maine reported lower new infections Friday.
“We are working very hard in the state of New York,” Cuomo said. “The rate of infection is a direct result of your actions. Your weight tomorrow when you get on the scale is going to be a direct reflection of what you did today and yesterday. How many calories did you intake, and how many calories did you burn? We are on the treadmill. Every day we are running. Every day we’re not having dessert, we are wearing our masks and we are socially distancing.
“Our rate defies the nation and defies our neighbors and it takes a lot of effort, and I just hope we stay there and that’s why I am a constant reminder: Put down the cheesecake, put down the fork.”
Hospitalizations remained flat with no patient change Friday with 1,085 New Yorkers in state hospitals with COVID-19 complications.
Twelve New Yorkers died from COVID-19 on Thursday, down from 19 fatalities Wednesday — the state’s highest daily death count in several months.