Mental health line to open; county defends withholding positive-cases' locations

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Oneida County is rolling out a mental health help line to help cope with the stresses of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak and the related social isolation and economic disruption.

The hotline is going live Friday, 8:30 a.m: 1-800-678-0888. It provides access to volunteer mental health professionals and is coordinated by Upstate Caring Partners. Other organizations involved include Integrated Community Alternatives Network (ICAN), formerly known as Kids Oneida; Catholic Charities, the Rescue Mission of Utica, the Center for Family Life and Recovery and the Neighborhood Center.

The line was announced Thursday during the daily briefing on the coronavirus in Oneida County. As of noon Thursday one new lab-confirmed case was reported from a day earlier, bringing the county's total so far to 16. Three are in a hospital including two county residents being treated outside the county. The reporting of cases can involve residents who work or attend school in another county, traveled out of the county or live near a health care facility or have a doctor or other care provider outside the county.

Mandatory quarantine, for people with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, was in effect for 437 people and precautionary quarantine, for people who have had close contact with or in the household of those in mandatory quarantine, totaled 119 as of mid-day Thursday. So far, 362 people have been in one level of quarantine or isolation and then discharged. Twenty-five tests came back negative in the prior approximately 24 hours, for 223.

The county is not releasing details of cases, including the age or age range of persons involved, their gender, or their city, town or village, and has no plans to start, County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. said Thursday. He noted there have been questions about that on social media and from media representatives, and that some communities are releasing such details, but he stood firm on sticking with the policy.

"There is no benefit for the public in releasing the locations of positive results. It only provides a false sense of security for some, and it leads to anxiety and panic for others," Picente said. Identifying where they are does not help treat them or help ensure other people stick to social-distancing guidelines, he said.

"This disease knows no boundaries. The disease knows no town, village or city or village. ... It does not know one side of the county or other. It's everywhere."

Picente again urged residents to not call 911 or an ambulance service to report COVID-19-like symptoms or ask to be tested. Instead, contact a health care provider.

Testing is being conducted, but it is prioritized for front-line health care workers and those at highest risk of complications, which is primarily the elderly, the immunocompromised and people with chronic respiratory illnesses.

Picente urged residents to patronize local businesses if possible. The county, the economic development agency Mohawk Valley Edge and the Rome and Utica chambers of commerce developed a survey of businesses in the county to identify needs and ways the county might be able to help.

A special fund established to support human services in Oneida and Herkimer counties now has about a half-million dollars available. The fund is not giving grants to indivduals but to non-profit organizations and related organizations. Details are at https://www.mvcovidfund.com/.

Meanwhile, as the the county is bracing for a substantial loss of revenue, particularly from sales taxes and loss of the county's share of gaming at Oneida Indian Nation properties, it became clear Thursday that aid from New York state will probably be down.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said projections are state revenue will be down anywhere from $10 billion to $15 billion from forecasts used to make his executive budget proposal in January. To respond, Cuomo said the state will make periodic adjustments through the fiscal year, which begins April 1, and notify agencies, school districts and local governments.

Picente said the county has been dealing with an expected drop in revenues for several weeks, ordering a spending reduction among departments. The county has a "healthy fund balance" in its $439 million 2020 budget, but it's clear revenues will be down, he said.
"Sales tax is going to take a huge hit. We know that, across the state as well as across our county," Picente said.

County officials are examining the latest federal aid package for aid that may come to them, Picente added, though Cuomo said Thursday it contains relatively little aid for state government beyond what's needed to cope immediately with the COVID-19 outbreak. Picente said he's notified localities of an up to 10 percent reduction in expected sales tax revenue.

Picente, however, said the priority is on public health. "When things get bad like this, we have to spend more," Picente said. "We're going to see a depletion of our fund balance."
 

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