COVID-19

Cuomo Clamps Down on Hotspot Enforcement as Hospitalizations Hit Highest Total Since June

New York state and city are seeing their highest COVID hospitalization totals since June; Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the cluster areas have driven about 70% of the increase since September

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What to Know

  • It's been nearly a week since the COVID rules Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed on parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Rockland, Orange and Broome counties were reimposed; fines come with noncompliance
  • Cuomo said Wednesday he's cracking down more on red zone enforcement, notifying schools in violation that state funding is being withheld and threatening to do the same for local governments
  • The harshest restrictions apply to just 2.8% of New York's population, where positivity rates have soared; that same percentage of the population has accounted for nearly a fifth of new cases statewide

Even as officials tout hesitant signs of progress in New York's COVID cluster battle, new data shows the alarming impact the hotspots have had already. And the cluster effect will likely be an issue for months to come, the governor says.

Statewide hospitalizations hit 938 Wednesday, the highest total since June 25; they've more than doubled in the last month, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo says cluster areas have driven about 70 percent of the increase in admissions. Of the new hospitalizations since Tuesday, nearly half (47 percent) were from counties battling clusters. The state is averaging 123 new hospital admissions each day this month, up from 94 in July and as low as 69 in August.

Cuomo is oversampling the cluster areas in an effort to stamp them out, which has prompted higher daily case totals as well in recent weeks. The governor warned in a telebriefing with reporters Wednesday that flare-ups will be the norm for a year or longer -- until an effective vaccine is widely available and administered.

The city had 442 COVID hospitalizations Monday, its highest total since July 8, while statewide hospitalizations hit their highest total Monday (878) since July 1. They've more than doubled in the last month. NBC New York's Katherine Creag reports.

Enforcement has to be executed more efficiently until that happens, Cuomo said. He sent local governments in New York City, Rockland and Orange counties a letter warning the state would withhold funding if enforcement of state limits on gatherings didn't improve. He also said he was sending a letter to red zone schools notifying them in writing of the school closure order -- and another one to a number of schools already in violation. They lose funding immediately.

"This is a last and final warning," Cuomo said.

Some community leaders in red zone areas said that certain schools need to stay open to give children of essential workers a place to go while their parents work. Cuomo wasn't buying that reasoning.

"A school is not a child care facility, and you fool no one saying they're walking into a child care facility," Cuomo said.

In Brooklyn, NBC New York sought to get reaction of the news from places like Borough Park — but were told to leave, with cameras blocked by plywood and hats, and gates closed.

"His comments about I'm going to close all the synagogues, who does he think he is? King Cuomo?" said Dov Hikind, of Americans Against Anti-Semitism.

"We know that public and private schools in the red zones are supposed to be closed. We know that there were violations where yeshivas were operating. We know there were violations where religious gatherings were happening that exceeded the guidelines," Cuomo said, saying the problem was particularly bad in Brooklyn, as well as Orange and Rockland counties. Specifically, the town of Ramapo — and village of Spring Valley within the town — were put on notice by the governor, receiving letters of their own.

In response to the governor's letter, Ramapo Town Supervisor Michael Specht said they are "ready, willing, and able" to help with enforcement efforts, and noted that "collaboration is critical as we contend with a public health crisis."

Cuomo also sanctioned Suffolk County's Miller Place Inn, which hosted a Sweet 16 party that led to more than three dozen new COVID cases. The Suffolk County executive said Tuesday the restaurant had been fined $12,000 for violations.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day said shortly after Cuomo's briefing Wednesday that he had spoken with the governor the night before and developed a more targeted enforcement plan. Day specifically called out Ramapo and Spring Valley, saying they "have outright refused to step up and protect their residents and the residents of our county" and added 10 personnel to the state enforcement team.

New York City's sheriff's office has issued nearly $200,000 in fines over COVID rule violations since Friday, but just 19 of the 60 summonses doled out were in red zone areas. Cuomo says that's where more focus needs to be, given reports that some schools are staying open in defiance of the closure orders.

Red zone areas are the highest risk spots under the color-coded cluster map Cuomo used to apply restrictions to parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Rockland, Orange and Broome counties last week. Along with mandatory school closures, which also apply in orange zones, mass gatherings are banned, nonessential businesses closed and capacity caps reinstated on houses of worship.

Those red zone areas affect just 2.8 percent of the state's population, Cuomo has said. Yet that same 2.8 percent of the population accounted for 15.6 percent of all positive tests statewide Tuesday and 12.2 percent of all positive cases this week.

The positivity rates in those red zones increased Wednesday to 6.29 percent from 4.13 percent Tuesday, a slight uptick from their 6.13 percent average last week. The week before that, it was 6.91 percent. They are higher in Orange County hotspots (7.4 percent) than Rockland County (7.2 percent) or Brooklyn (6.4 percent), though the overall positivity rates in those three counties are substantially lower than their red zone numbers. The statewide positivity rate excluding those red zones is 0.95 percent (1.1 percent including them).

While high for New York, those hotspot rates are still lower than many U.S. states are reporting on a daily basis. The 38 U.S. territories and states on the tri-state quarantine list have had positivity rates of at least 10 percent over a seven-day rolling period or at least 10 cases per 100,000 residents for the same timeframe.

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. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here

Source: ny.gov

New York City's seven-day rolling average remains similarly low -- 1.46 percent by Mayor Bill de Blasio's data -- but has ticked up lately. The five boroughs are also seeing their highest COVID hospitalizations in months, with state data confirming 451 in the five boroughs as of Wednesday, the highest number since June 29.

Both Cuomo and de Blasio have indicated small measures of progress -- the hotspots' positivity rate in the city isn't increasing as consistently as it was and the citywide rolling infection rate isn't either, nor is the statewide one. But lower numbers Monday could hinge on weekend reporting, which tends to see lower testing numbers overall. They've increased since -- and it may take a few more days to confidently say the numbers are trending in one direction or another.

Andrew Siff, Greg Cergol and Marc Santia report on a busy day in the fight agsint COVID-19.

As the mayor has said, this week will be telling. He expects to have a fairly solid idea by Friday if the new measures are helping. Any potential relaxing of restrictions would be coordinated with the state when the timing is right, de Blasio said.

"I believe we can contain the situation, and even if we see it crop up in some other neighborhoods, we have the pieces in place to contain it," the mayor said on CNN late Tuesday. "But this is the week we have to do it. This is the week where we have to turn the tide and make sure there is not a second wave, because, Lord knows, this city was the epicenter and we will not let that happen again."

Even without the clusters, Cuomo had warned it may be impossible for New York state to sustain its low infection rates through fall. Fall means chillier weather, which means more indoor activities. It means flu season. It means schools -- if they can manage to safely stay open.

Public schools across the state have reported more than 2,200 teacher and student positives since Sept. 8, which was well before in-person learning returned in New York City. Since Sept. 1, state labs have reported more than 4,000 positives among children ages 5 to 17, though there may be some duplication between lab reports and the data reported by schools.

New York City public schools have reported nearly 400 cases from on-site transmission in schools, though Friday's first day of mandatory testing in yellow zones yielded just one, at a high school in the Bronx. De Blasio described those results, which came of more than 1,750 tests across 50-plus schools, as highly encouraging.

"It did take us a few weeks to get the school year going, but now it's going full bore all over the city. You know, we have 1,600 schools and except for some temporarily closed in those particular zones, the vast majority are up and running, and running well," the mayor said. "So, the schools have been a positive point ... We're getting overwhelmingly good results from testing in schools."

New Jersey has confirmed at least 16 separate public school outbreaks and nearly 60 cases as of Gov. Phil Murphy's last report. The school district in Paterson, the state's third-largest city, voted Wednesday to extend remote learning all the way until January 19, 2021, with another assessment coming in mid-December. The district said that with more COVID cases expected during the winter holiday season, and the state's transmission rate above the threshold of 1 (indicating the outbreak is still growing) for more than five weeks, the decision was made to delay in-person learning.

Asked last week about whether recent upticks could prompt new restrictions on indoor gatherings as they have in New York, Murphy said that "everything is on the table."

The surge in cases is hitting places like the Motor Vehicle Commission offices hard, as the state has had to close seven branches so far this week. Eight employees have tested positive thus far. The closures have triggered hours-long lines at other locations, with some setting up chairs as they wait up to seven hours in a parking lot — reminiscent of the summer, when the offices were just starting to reopen and dealt with long lines.

Like New York, New Jersey has seen some of its highest new daily case totals and hospital admissions in months in recent days. On Wednesday, it reported 699 COVID hospitalizations, the highest total since Aug. 5. Connecticut is also facing its highest COVID hospitalizations since June, though the 172 as of the state's last report is much lower than the neighboring tri-states' totals. As of late, Fairfield County has consistently had one of the state's highest hospitalization levels.

At the same time the tri-state governors combat new upticks at home, they face the ongoing threat from out-of-state travel. The COVID numbers are once again increasing nationally and globally. America reported its highest daily case number in nearly two months on Friday, which was the same day the World Health Organization reported a new daily case record worldwide.

Seven states have set new single day records for confirmed cases, and the U.S. is now averaging 50,000 new cases per day.

Echoing the words of Cuomo and de Blasio, U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci urged Americans Tuesday to return to focusing on the "fundamentals" in order to stem the tide: mask up, wash hands, socially distance.

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