Contact tracing begun among greenhouse workers

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The number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases in Oneida County is holding relatively steady each day, and the first major work-site hot spot has contributed to the total, but officials remain guardedly optimistic the region may be able to take part in the first phase of reopening in less than two weeks.

On Tuesday, the Oneida County Health Department reported 21 new cases, of which two were among employees at the Green Empire Farms greenhouse complex in Oneida. Though the 300-employee complex is in Madison County, many of the seasonal migrant workers there are being housed in Oneida County, including 51 who are in quarantine at the La Quinta Inn in Verona, County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. said in the daily coronavirus briefing Tuesday afternoon.

The workers are in a separate part of the hotel, which remains open and has other guests, Picente said. In addition to the 52 the county learned about on Monday -- the number was revised down by one on Tuesday -- another 11 workers at the greenhouses have been identified as COVID-positive over the past couple of weeks.

Oneida County has maintained a policy of not identifying cases by location unless a concentration developed at a particular site, but the greenhouse situation qualifies, Picente said. Madison County had already been investigating it and testing employees, but notification Monday of the large number of people with the infection staying in the county triggered direct involvement.

"Clearly there's a hot spot that exists with this employer Green Empire Farms in Madison County that does have an effect in Oneida County.”

Health Director Phyllis Ellis said the Health Department has begun tracing contacts of the employees as is done with other people confirmed to have COVID-19. Management of the greenhouse and the hotel and the personnel agency that arranges migrant employment are cooperating, Ellis said.

"We speak directly to each individual person," Ellis said. "We've also worked with the hiring agency so that they know which employees are positive and who can’t go to work and when an how tong they’re in quarantine.”

The hydroponic facility is owned by Kingsville, Ontario-based Mastronardi Produce and grows fruit and vegetables, such as strawberries and cucumbers. It opened last summer.

So far, Oneida County has had 550 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 18 fatalities. In all, 3,834 tests have been conducted, with 3,127 negative, and 157 pending results as of Tuesday.

A bright spot continues to be the number of hospitalizations, which was 21 in county hospitals Tuesday and three at hospitals outside the county. One of the criteria Gov Andrew Cuomo announced Monday for regions to reopen is 14 days of decline in hospitalizations on a three-day rolling average.

Other criteria include keeping occupied hospital capacity at 70 percent, adequate testing capacity and sufficient tracing of the contacts of people confirmed to have the infection. If all are met, a region can have restrictions on low-risk businesses lifted, with social-distancing rules still in place, with further lifting considered in another two weeks. The final phase of opening would include large attractions like theaters and sports events. The earliest the first lifting of restrictions can come is May 15.

While the Mohawk Valley region of which Oneida County is a part appears to be at or close to meeting all the measures, hospitalizations appears key, Picente said.

"If hospitalizations take a big spike, and people in ICUs and we're adding five to 10 people a day in our hospitals because of the severity, that can change the whole dynamics," Picente said.

Ellis said it's important that even if some restrictions are lifted, precautions cannot stop. "Continue social distancing, hygiene, washing in homes, washing hands. We're never going to have 100 percent of people tested and 100 percent of people quarantined."

The county reported no public exposure incidents on Tuesday and announced that one reported Monday did not actually occur. Upon further investigation, it was determined that the potential public exposure at the Wal-Mart at 710 Horatio St. in Utica that was reported to the public Monday involved an employee who did not actually work during the time in question, Ellis explained.

Picente announced he will host a Facebook Live COVID-19 town hall at 6 p.m. Monday.

The county executive also addressed many calls and emails he said the county has received recently pleading for lifting of restrictions, in particular on campgrounds. He acknowledged residents want businesses and recreational facilities open, and that the county has its greatest number of unemployed people in 30 years but said openings are largely limited by state orders, and that they are all intended to prevent growth of the epidemic. Exceptions that have allowed some businesses and golf courses to open were made at the state level, he noted.

"My goal has been to keep those numbers low so when May 15 comes we can start making those changes and move this community forward and then things can open up, things can get better, people can do the things they want to do recreation wise, and most important, get people back to work."
 

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