What to Know
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo lowered the threshold for re-closing NY colleges; COVID positivity rates must stay below 5 percent as opposed to 9, though that applies only to on-site students/staff, not the district's region
- Cuomo also talked NYC indoor dining and movie theaters; he said decisions will be made at the appropriate times but noted compliance had improved in NYC, which may indicate sooner rather than later
- New York state saw its 20th straight day with a daily COVID test positivity rate below 1 percent on Thursday
Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweaked the standards for college re-closings across New York, announcing Thursday he lowered the threshold for re-closing facilities to 5 percent COVID test positivity rates or 100 cases. Previously, that threshold had been at 9 percent. National outbreaks at universities prompted the change.
That percent positivity threshold applies only to students and faculty on campus, not to the overall population in the New York region within which the college operates. Cuomo said he'd also re-close a college if there are 100 cases, if that number is lower than the 5 percent threshold for the school community.
If the positivity rate inches above those marks, the school must go to remote learning immediately for two weeks. The same goes if clusters emerge on certain campus even if the positivity rate stays below the new thresholds. After those two virtual-only weeks, the college will reassess in consultation with the local health department, Cuomo said. During that time, athletic activities and other extracurriculars must be suspended, and dining hall options must move to take-out only. If two weeks remote don't address the problem, remote learning may continue or other mitigation measures may be required.
"We should anticipate clusters," the governor told reporters on a conference call Thursday. "When you have large congregations of people, anticipate a cluster. Be prepared for it. Get ahead of it."
There have already been reports of large gatherings on college campuses in the area, some of which have led to suspensions at Marist College, Montclair State University, SUNY Plattsburgh and Syracuse.
At Purchase College in Westchester County, an extra layer of protection has been added to keep everyone in the community safe: pool testing of students and faculty, using saliva, done three times before Thanksgiving break.
"You take multiple samples and you test them all as one. And if you find any positive cases, then you do individual diagnostic testing," said SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras.
That's what he's trying to do in Western New York, which has seen heightened positivity rates as of late. It reported more than 100 positive cases in a day for the first time since May, Cuomo said Thursday.
He said he'd deploy a "SWAT" team to the region to open up eight additional testing sites featuring rapid testing -- with same-day results available and some in just 15 minutes -- in an effort to try to clamp down on the spread before it turns into a more widespread outbreak.
The administration said dozens of cases have been linked to a food processing plant in Chautauqua County. Cuomo said there would be eight temporary rapid-test sites opening in Buffalo and western New York on Saturday.
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
Meanwhile, the state as a whole continues to see low infection rates. New York reached 20 straight days with a daily COVID test positivity rate below 1 percent Thursday, one of the lowest rates in the nation.
The low infection rates have allowed phased reopening to continue. Gyms were allowed to reopen earlier this week, leaving only indoor dining the main business that remains off the table. Cuomo addressed indoor dining in his conference call Thursday, saying his team is reviewing and monitoring the data on a daily basis and will make reopening determinations "at the appropriate time." He did note that restaurant compliance had been improving in New York City, which may indicate it's not far out.
The same applies to casinos and movie theaters, Cuomo said.
'Alarming, Indefensible:' Cuomo, NY Health Chief Blast CDC Over Guidelines Change
Joining health experts in slamming the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new guidance on COVID-19 testing, Cuomo says it's "alarming" to not test people who don't show any symptoms and his state won't be following the new guideline.
In an interview with MSNBC's Katy Tur late Wednesday, Cuomo says CDC officials suggested to New York Health Commission Howard Zucker that the change in testing guidelines was a "political position" and not a scientific one. The new guidance, which says it's not necessary for people who have been in close contact with infected people, but don't feel sick, to get tested is "confusing" because people who are asymptomatic can still spread the disease, Cuomo said.
"If you don't take your temperature, you don't know if you have a fever," the governor said. "Not knowing you're sick doesn't mean you're not sick."
The CDC previously had advised local health departments to test people who have been within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.
“Why would you reverse yourself on the quarantine order?" Cuomo told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “Because they don’t want publicity that there is a COVID problem. Because the president’s politics are, ‘COVID isn’t a problem. We’re past COVID.’”
Health Commissioner Zucker echoed the governor's sentiments, saying the new guidance is "indefensible from a public health point of view." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials said the decision came out of meetings of the White House coronavirus task force.
The following day, Thursday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy joined the chorus condemning the sudden change in guidelines as "reckless" and "unsupported by the facts." He issued a joint statement with Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont.
In a call with reporters, Dr. Brett Giroir, the HHS assistant secretary for health, said guidance language originated at the CDC. But he also said many federal leaders outside the agency were involved in “lots of editing, lots of input." He said federal officials achieved consensus but it was difficult to attribute the final language to any one source.
Cuomo placed the blame on the president, who he says has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the disease that has now killed more than 180,000 Americans.
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
"President Trump has been saying we only know that we have cases because we test. If we don't test, then we won't know that we have the cases, which is obviously absurd and more of his denial strategy. If you don't screen for cancer, then you won't know that you have cancer," Cuomo said.
Similarly, if you don't inspect a school, you won't know if it's safe. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has set a 3 percent daily COVID test positivity threshold as the mark for re-closure.
Right now, his focus is prioritizing school inspections so the city's 1,800 buildings are ready to welcome back hundreds of thousands of students for at least some in-person learning next month. The largest school district in the nation with more than 1.1 million students, New York City is the only one of the 10 biggest U.S. districts to incorporate a blended approach to start.
However, some pieces are not entirely complete yet. Parents only this week have received their schedules — known as "cohorts" — telling them which days their kids go to school. The rest of the time, it's remote learning with a different teacher. Critics have also worried about that the lack of WiFi or quick tech support will hurt students.
"We have to ensure students not only have a right to education, but actual tools to be educated," said NYC Councilman Richie Torres.
The city's largest teachers' union has threatened to strike if schools reopen under the mayor's current plan, which it says lacks transparency and falls short on testing, Sept. 10. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joined principals and teachers who have called for delaying the start of school, calling the recent inspection efforts worthwhile, but also too late.
"You could throw some pixie dust in the air, but is it worth the risk to our children and the entire city?" Williams asked.
De Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have repeatedly said they would not allow any school or classroom to open unsafely. School officials say of the hundreds of schools inspected to date, 92 percent are in good shape for next month. Some had issues that will need to be addressed, including a school in Brooklyn where the windows were found nailed shut.
The mayor and Carranza said that two weeks is plenty of time to fix the issues that have come up, and de Blasio rejected the idea that the ventilation inspection blitz started too late.
"It's not just the last few days. Throughout June, July, August — what's happening now is a final run through. A final set of inspections." the mayor said.
Of those more than 600 buildings, there is a final report for about 100 of them. De Blasio said the city will soon post a list of where every school stands on inspections, including potential problems, online for transparency purposes.
"We are focusing on everything we can do to get this right," de Blasio said Thursday. "And we will do everything in our power. We're making sure everything is right and anything that needs work, it will get that work."
Districts from Chicago to Los Angeles and Houston have opted to start the 2020-21 academic year all virtual as they work to rebound from recent COVID spikes.