Outbreak at Fonda aluminum plant blamed for region's COVID-case uptick

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Local and New York state public health authorities blame a recent uptick in the number of COVID-19 positive tests in the Mohawk Valley and Oneida County on an outbreak at an aluminum products factory in Fonda, Montgomery County, where many employees live in the Utica area.

Thirty-seven cases of COVID-19 were found among employees at the plant last week, the governor’s staff announced. The cases were found by health authorities who were tracing an outbreak at an apple processing plant in Oswego County.

Montgomery County identified the facility as that of Keymark Corporation in Fonda.

Montgomery County government posted on Facebook Monday that 573 of the factory’s 681 employees have been tested, with 77 positive cases found so far and 108 awaiting results. Eight of the people with positive tests are Montgomery County residents.

Twenty-five employees live in Oneida County, and their cases were among 36 identified Sunday in Oneida County, according to County Executive Anthony Picente Jr.

On Monday, Picente said in all, 53 plant employees who live in Oneida County have tested positive, and that more may be added to the county’s COVID case totals in coming days. Those who test positive must remain in quarantine, usually at home, for 14 days or until they test negative.

Oneida County’s Health Department began tracking cases from the site and, with the state and Montgomery County health departments, began targeting testing of the plant’s employees. All the plant’s employees, about 500 people in all, have now been tested, Picente said.

The plant has been closed, Picente added.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week mentioned a possible outbreak in the Mohawk Valley but at the time did not identify the site. On Monday, he mentioned it, along with a similar outbreak at an apple-processing facility in Oswego County, and an outbreak linked to a high school graduation party in Westchester County.

The Mongtomery County outbreak is apparently behind a recent uptick in the Mohawk Valley region’s rate of newly identified cases and diagnostic tests that turn out positive for COVID-19.

After updating Monday, the state’s early-warning COVID-19 metrics online dashboard put the region’s rate at 7.24 per 100,000 in population, by far the state’s highest, after weeks remaining much more typical of the rest of upstate New York. The next highest as of Monday was New York City’s 3.74. 

In addition, the Mohawk Valley’s positive-test rate on a three-day rolling average as of Monday was 2.0 percent, compared to the next-highest regions, Central New York and New York City, both at 1.2 percent. 

However, the region still appeared within the boundaries allowing more pandemic restrictions to be lifted in coming weeks. Those data points include a hospitalization rate of 0.65 percent as of Monday afternoon, and ample availability of general and intensive-care hospital beds, as well as steady diagnostic testing and tracing the contacts of those who test positive.

In a briefing to the local media Monday afternoon, Picente and Health Director Phyllis Ellis said that while the outbreak drove up the Mohawk Valley region and Oneida County’s pandemic-monitoring metrics, the incident shows how the system of testing and contact tracing is supposed to work. It is similar to an outbreak in late May at the greenhouse complex of Empire Farms in Oneida, where many seasonal workers were housed across the Oneida-Madison county line.

“That’s a great indication of a system that comes together very quickly when there is an outbreak to ramp up testing and get it shut down,” Picente said.

As of noon Monday, Oneida County had 319 active positive cases of COVID-19, including 20 new cases identified and reported in the previous 24 hours. Of those, 13 involved residents of nursing homes. Twenty-two patients were hospitalized in the county, including three at Rome Memorial Hospital, 19 at hospitals of the Mohawk Valley Health System, and five admitted outside of Oneida County.

Some of the new hospitalizations were previously diagnosed residents of nursing homes who were transferred to hospitals. Ellis said the county was contacting state authorities who regulate nursing homes and the homes themselves, but it may be that employees who tested positive were out, leaving too few staff to care adequately for residents.

With the Montgomery County cluster identified and separated out, the region and county’s early-warning metrics appear at worst steady and perhaps slowly declining. However, Picente and Ellis warned that any backsliding in observing mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings could have negative consequences for residents, business and schools.

Picente noted that the average age of those confirmed to have COVID-19 in the county has declined recently to 43, and that the largest age group affected now is those aged 18-44. While that cohort might generally be healthier than older people, they are probably more active and thus susceptible to being unwitting spreaders.

“We know the aged are the most vulnerable in getting it but we know the younger gorup is the most vulnerable in carrying it and passing it around,” Picente said.

While high school graduation ceremonies in the past week were conducted with social distancing in mind, many private parties may not have been, Picente said. In addition, with restaurants and bars now able to use up to half their indoor and outdoor seating capacities, and the heart of summer’s arrival with the July Fourth holiday coming, more people are likely to be out and active and increasing the likelihood of inadvertently spreading hte coronavirus.

While it seems unlikely that the region is at risk of moving backwards as has happened in some southern and western states, an uptick in cases could endanger more openings, including allowing business to use more of their capacity, as well as the return recreation and entertainment sectors like theaters and spector sports.

And an uptick in cases could also endanger a return to school for children in the fall, Picente warned. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state education officials have not made a decision on opening schools in person for the coming year. Picente said he sees the odds as 50-50, though he believes it can be done relatively safely.

In addition, the stakes are high for individual businesses, Picente noted, with those who do not require customers to wear masks risking fines.

“I don’t want this community to let its guard down. The virus is still there. The virus is still dangerous,” Picente said. “We can't put our businesses in jeopardy of closing again and our businesses can’t put people in jeopardy by not enforcing the mask law. So both sides have to work together.” 

“Masks are going to be the norm for a while, a long while. Social distancing. Large groups are not going to be permitted for a while regardless of the circumstances. I don't like it. I know you don’t like it. No one does. But it’s a matter of public health and safet now.”

Meanwhile, Cuomo said Monday the state will require large malls to install air filters in their air conditioning systems capable of removing particles as small as the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Cuomo said the COVID-10 coronavirus is about .125 microns, or thousandths of an inch, in diameter, while HEPA filters are shown to contain particles .01 microns and above.

installing such filters will also be a recommendation for office buildings and other businesses, Cuomo said.

Cuomo called on President Donald Trump to issue an executive order requiring mask wearing in public. Cuomo offered no more information on what states may be added next to a quarantine requirement on travelers to New York, which issued the directive last week in conjunction with New Jersey and Connecticut.

The county identified the following incidents of possible public exposure to people confirmed to have COVID-19 and recommended anyone at these locations at the 

respective times to self-monitor for symptoms:

Hannaford on Mohawk Street in Utica, noon to 12:30 p.m. June 19. Self-monitor through July 3.

Price Rite on Bleecker Street in Utica, 2-3 p.m. June 27. Self-monitor through July 11.

Golden Burma Asian Market, South Street in Utica, 2-3 p.m. June 27. Self-monitor through July 11.

Nguyen Phat Oriental Store, Bleecker Street in Utica, 2-3 p.m. June 27. Self-monitor through July 11.

Cafe Domenico, 2011 Genesee St., Utica, involving an employee who worked each day from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily June 15-19. The self-monitoring period lasts up to two weeks from the date of potential exposure.

Cafe Florentine, 11 Ellinwood Drive, New Hartford, 7-8 p.m. June 19. Self-monitor through July 3.

Lucky Mey’s Market, 1633 Oneida St., Utica, 4-5:30 p.m. June 21. Self-monitor through July 5.

Centro Clinton bus from the Utica Hub at 15 Elizabeth St. to Lutheran Care at 110 Utica St. in Clinton, 6:30-7 a.m. and 6:30-7 p.m. June 15. Self-monitor through June 29.

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