Region has highest COVID positive-test rate in state

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The Mohawk Valley continues to have some of the highest indicators of COVID-19 in New York state but so far has avoided further restrictions on the economy.

The six-county region, which includes Oneida County, had a positive test rate of 10.4%, according to the state COVID monitoring dashboard. Second highest was in the Rochester-based Finger Lakes at 10.2%

“If you are in those areas of the state, take it seriously, and you should be using more precautions than people in other parts of the state,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a Monday briefing.

Also Monday, Cuomo announced that the state-run Wadsworth Lab detected the New York’s first case involving the COVID-19 variant first identified in Britain that is believed to be more contagious than the original. It was found in a 60-year-old man in Saratoga County. While not believed to be more dangerous than the original version of the coronavirus and preventable with the existing vaccines, the variant, also found in several states and 33 countries, may be more contagious and may lead to more hospitalizations, Cuomo said.

“The increased hospitalization rate is a game changer, because if hospital capacity is threatened in a region then that region would have to close down,” Cuomo said.

The governor noted that net daily growth in cases across New York state went from 135 the week of Thanksgiving to 699 last week.

“We are seeing the spike … that experts have talked about all across the country.”

Averaged over the previous seven days, Herkimer County had the region’s highest positive rate, at 12.2%. Oneida County’s rate was 10.6%. Others: Fulton, 7.2%; Montgomery, 11.8%, Otsego, 6.3%; Schoharie, 11.7%.

Madison County is in the Central New York region and had a rate of 9.5%. The region’s rate was 8.9%.

While more testing is likely to produce more positive cases, Oneida County’s number of tests administered on a weekly basis has been steady at about 2,600 since late October.

Oneida County reported 173 new cases Monday along with six COVID-related deaths, for 243 since the pandemic began. As of Monday, 187 county residents were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 30 in intensive care.

Despite the increases in cases, no new economic restrictions appear imminent. Cuomo noted that hospitals in the region are, at least for now, below the level of hospital-bed surge capacity that would trigger further restrictions, which is 15% of beds available.

The figure is what hospitals can add if needed by, for example, using space differently and calling on extra care personnel. The Mohawk Valley’s surge capacity rating stood at 32.6% as of Monday, according to Cuomo.

Cuomo announced state personnel will be sent to nursing homes in the state over the next two weeks to try to vaccinate all residents and most staff. Of the 611 nursing homes in the state, 288 have completed the first dose of a vaccine for residents, with 234 more expected to do so this week.

Also, Cuomo said hospitals that do not use their vaccine allocations within seven days will risk losing future allocations. Providers who do not use their vaccine inventory this week face fines up to $100,000. Use rates so far range from 15% to 99%, according to Cuomo.

“I want to get needles in arms and I want to do that as quickly as possible,” Cuomo said.

About 10 percent of nursing home residents and 15% of staff have declined vaccinations, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said during the briefing. Percentages among hospital staff have not been compiled, but it’s known that some workers have concerns about allergic reactions.

In addition, the state will establish drive-through vaccine distribution locations using public facilities, public housing, churches and community centers, with a focus on serving poor and non-white areas, Cuomo said, citing reports that hospital COVID fatality rates for black people twice that of whites and 1.5 times for Hispanic people.

Cuomo said he will ask the Legislature for a law criminalizing falsifying one’s eligibility for a vaccine and subjecting physicians or other care providers with loss of license for doing so. “This vaccine can be like gold to some people.”

Cuomo said that in counties where the state-calculated positive-test rate is more than 9%, school districts may decide to keep schools open if testing in schools show a positive rate lower than the community, Cuomo said.

“If the children are safer in the school than they are on the streets in the community, then children should be in school.”

No Rome-area school districts are near that percentage, according to the state’s schools COVID dashboard. Rome schools reopened after the holidays on Monday but remain in a virtual-only instruction through this week. The most recently reported data, for the period ending Dec. 18, showed no on-site students testing positive.

Test site added

The Masonic Medical Research Institute in Utica has begun offering rapid drive-through COVID-19 tests by appointment only after receiving state approval, the organization announced.

Results will be available within 30 minutes, the MMRI said. Tests cost $115 each. Insurance will cover the costs of some tests, but the Masonic Medical Research institute will  no be handling the claims. The patient is more than welcome to process it themselves. Appointments may be made at mmricovid19.com. Testing will be available from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. seven days a week.

Free non-rapid-result testing at Griffiss International Airport continues. Appointments are required by calling 1-888-364-3065.

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