New York

NY Graduation, Packaging Plant Spark Outbreak Concerns as State Holds Onto Low Virus Rates

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At least three clusters of positive coronavirus cases in New York have health officials watching the state's infection rate carefully as states like Florida, Arizona and Texas struggle to get recent spikes under control.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the State Department of Health is investigating a possible outbreak tied to a high school graduation ceremony in Westchester County. So far, the state believes a student attending the outdoor ceremony on June 20 had recently traveled to Florida. Since then, the student and four others have all tested positive for COVID-19. All five students are self-isolating, Cuomo's office says.

Cuomo previously announced that graduations could be held outdoors starting June 26, but must follow social distancing guidelines and capped at 150 people.

Students who attended the Horace Greeley High School drive-in graduation ceremony or the "Field Night" event have been encouraged by the health department to quarantine through July 5.

Chappaqua Superintendent Dr. Christine Ackerman said in a statement that the high school's graduation was carefully planned according to the state's health guidelines, but acknowledged "numerous individuals failed to follow our protocols."

Florida has seen a huge increase in cases in the past seven days, with more than 38,748 confirmed in that span of time. That's nearly 30% of the state's total tally. Florida and seven other states are the focus of a tri-state quarantine restriction issued by he governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

New York's Contract Tracing System is working to identify all students who attended the events on June 20. They're also tasked with tracking down potential virus spreaders from an apple packing plant and aluminum manufacturer.

According to Cuomo, 82 of 179 employees at an Oswego County apple packaging plant tested positive for COVID-19 in June. The governor says many of the employees live in Onondaga and Oneida counties, which could explain the uptick in positive cases reported in the Central New York and Mohawk Valley regions; both entered Cuomo's fourth and final phase Friday.

The investigation led state and Oswego County health officials to a local onion farm where 4 employees, less than 25% of its staff, tested positive.

In Montgomery County, an aluminum manufacturing plant also sits closed after officials discovered employees tested positive.

"As part of the contract tracing efforts related to the Oswego County apple packing plant, it was revealed that several employees of the apple packaging plant may have contributed to new COVID cases at an aluminum production plant in Montgomery County where several cases amongst employees had been identified," the governor's statement said Friday.

At least 37 positives cases have been connected to the Montogmery County cluster by health officials. They planned to test the remaining employees Friday.

In addition to restrictions on people entering New York from coronavirus hotspots, the governor signed an executive order making New Yorkers ineligible for paid sick leave if they voluntarily travel to hotspot states.

The states at the focus of the governor's order have a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents, or higher than a 10% test positivity rate over a seven-day rolling average.

New York's phased reopenings haven't caused any significant infection spikes to date. The state's COVID hospitalizations fell below 1,000 Thursday for the first time since mid-March and plunged even lower Friday and Saturday, Cuomo said, while the daily death toll hovers in the low double digits.

New York now has the lowest seven-day average positivity rate for daily testing in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins. Even the former epicenter of the national crisis, New York City, boasts one of the lowest COVID transmission rates in the U.S. America's two deadliest COVID counties, Queens and Brooklyn, are seeing daily positivity rates below 1.5 percent on a consistent basis.

New Jersey has also driven its infection rate down significantly, though Murphy has expressed concern about young people's rising share of COVID cases, a trend mirroring what health officials are reporting in many other U.S. states.

On Friday, the number of confirmed new coronavirus cases per day in the U.S. hit an all-time high. The surges in infections have prompted at least one state -- Texas -- to pause its reopening process completely. (Track the spread of COVID throughout the U.S. since March 1 here.)

"There’s now undeniable, irrefutable evidence that the rushed reopening was a mistake. Now states are changing course. The debate is over. There is one right path and there is one wrong path," Cuomo said Friday. "We’re not through the first wave. This is all the first wave. Facts matter." 

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