32 new COVID cases in Oneida County

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Oneida County reported 32 new lab-confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and one death related to the disease.

The person who died was a nursing home resident. The number of county residents whose deaths involved the disease is now 92.

Two of the newly confirmed cases involved the Key Manufacturing aluminum plant in Fonda, Montgomery County. After a cluster of cases there was discovered late last week, Oneida County health authorities learned more than 50 employees who tested positive live in the Utica area. Cases are normally assigned to counties where people live, not where they work.

Apart from the cluster in Montgomery County, the 32 new cases reported Wednesday was the largest one-day increase in Oneida County since May 16. Diagnostic testing increased dramatically in early May.

Last week, County Executive Anthony Picente and Health Director Phyllis Ellis called on county residents to maintain practices linked to bringing down the rate of spread of COVID-19, particularly wearing masks or other face coverings when in public and to avoid large gatherings.

Until recently, two-thirds of the county’s confirmed cases have consistently been linked to facilities, primarily nursing homes but also health care facilities, group homes, state prisons and to Empire Farms’ Oneida greenhouses, where an outbreak among seasonal employees housed in Oneida County was the previous cluster during the pandemic so far. But as of Thursday, non-facility-related cases amounted to nearly 40 percent of the county’s confirmed cases so far.

The recent uptick also contributed to the Mohawk Valley having by far the state’s largest rate of new cases per 100,000 people as measured on a seven-day rolling basis, 7.06 percent as of Thursday, more than double the next highest region’s rate, New York City’s 3.75 percent.

Other metrics remained below state-set thresholds, including positive-test rate (2 percent) and hospital beds available (44 percent) and intensive-care beds availability (58 percent). The target for both type of hospital bed capacity is to have at least 30 percent of each available.

Meanwhile, the county has added a panel on its online COVID-19 dashboard for the race and ethnicity of people confirmed to have the disease. Rates generally follow that of the nation. African-American people are overrepresented, with about 10.8 percent of confirmed cases in the county compared to 6.8 percent of the county’s residents. That largely follows the national picture though not as strongly. The age-adjusted hospitalization rate for non-Hispanic African-American persons is approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 85 percent of county residents are white, according to the county, while about 57 percent of the county’s COVID-19 cases so far are among white residents.

The largest disparity in Oneida County is among people identified as Asian or Pacific Islanders. The category accounts for about 4.3 percent of the county’s approximately 228,000 residents yet so far has had 15 percent of the COVID-19 cases.

While people of Asian descent may be life-long county residents, The Center in Utica, formerly the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, has helped resettle many refugees in the past 10 years from Asian countries such as Myanmar, or Burma, and Bhutan.

Center Executive Director Shelley Callahan said that anecdotally, refugees and other immigrants are disproportionately represented among workers deemed essential. In addition, they may live in multi-generation households and in dense housing settings, both out of custom and to save money.

“They're really, really good at pulling their resources as immigrants have in generations before,” Callahan said. “A real strength of an immigrant community is how well they work together and how well they pool their resources. In a pandemic situation that strength is almost flipped to really in some ways make them more vulnerable.”

Since the pandemic arrived, The Center has been providing written and audio-video messaging about COVID-19 and how to stay safe for immigrants and refugees, and helping employers, as well. Some of it has been produced in 15 languages, Callahan said. It has helped with contact tracing at the Oneida County Health Department, which has at least one staff member who speaks Karen, a main language of Myanmar refugees. Messages in many languages have been on an LED billboard in Utica, as well.

In addition, The Center has worked with ethnic-based community and religious organizations to deliver health and safety messages through a trusted source. One issue is fighting mixed messages both nationally and locally, such as when people at night spots are going bar to bar without masks.

“When English is your second language it can have all these conflicting messages,” Callahan said. “It’s even more confusing than it is for the rest of us.”

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