Ulster County health infrastructure readies for coronavirus cases

County officials have spent the past six weeks quietly preparing for a local outbreak of Covid 19, the disease caused by the “novel” coronavirus.

Now, as public health officials report the first confirmed cases in New York State, County Executive Pat Ryan said that he and his staff are working to refine plans and coordinate with other local officials to develop a regional response.

“This is not a scenario that anyone is excited to be thinking so much about,” said Ryan. “But we have been planning for months now and I am confident that we are prepared.”

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Ryan’s remarks come as the coronavirus, which has seen major outbreaks in China, Italy and Iran begins to spread in the U.S. As of Wednesday, March 4 there were six confirmed cases of Covid 19 in New York, with additional outbreaks reported around Seattle and Los Angeles.

The disease, which according to medical officials is spread through close contact and respiratory droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes, has been linked to more than 3,000 deaths worldwide, with the majority of the cases concentrated around the Chinese city of Wuhan. On Tuesday, March 3, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a $40 million emergency management appropriations bill to fund the state’s response to the outbreak. The emergency measure also provides job protections for people who are placed in quarantine due to exposure to the virus and expands the governor’s emergency powers to combat a potential outbreak.

Yesterday, Cuomo announced that approximately 300 SUNY and CUNY students in study abroad programs in five countries that have been particularly affected by the Coronavirus – China, Italy, Japan, Iran, South Korea – would be recalled via chartered flight to Stewart Airport and quarantined “in a dormitory setting” for 14 days.

Locally, Ryan said planning began in late January as it become increasingly likely that the coronavirus would spread beyond China. County officials began with an existing emergency response plan for an influenza epidemic, and began making changes to tailor the document for the current situation.

The first official response to the outbreak came last month when the county health department kicked off a monitoring protocol for local residents returning to Ulster County after traveling to regions impacted by the coronavirus. The travelers were flagged by the federal Centers for Disease Control upon their return and asked to self-quarantine in their homes (also for 14 days). County health officials, alerted to their presence by the state Department of Health, dispatched nurses to the quarantined homes twice daily to check for the emergence of flu-like symptoms associated with the virus. Most of the people monitored locally never developed symptoms and none are believed to have contracted the coronavirus. Ryan added that the monitoring program would continue and likely expand after the CDC added Iran and Italy to the list of flagged regions.

Local planning kicked into high gear on Tuesday, March 3 when Ryan convened a “tabletop exercise” at the county emergency management center to test the response plan and run through likely scenarios. On Wednesday, March 4, Ryan said he planned to meet with town supervisors, school superintendents, hospital officials and first responders to go over the plan and coordinate response efforts.

“Our core role at the county level is being that hub of coordination between all of the various components that will play a role in our response,” said Ryan.

What that response will look like will depend on the severity of the outbreak. Ryan said that the county’s plan established “decision points” based on the progress of the outbreak while the actual response would be tailored to the circumstances. One likely scenario would be home quarantine for anyone exposed to the virus. Ryan said that plans were in place to provide food and other essentials to those quarantined. He added that the county had been in touch with several local hotels that could be tapped to provide accommodations for family members of people in home quarantine once it was established that they had not been exposed. School closures will be handled in coordination with local school districts and, in the case of SUNY campuses, state officials. Ryan added that a local outbreak could also lead to the closure of county offices and service reductions in an effort to protect the health of workers and slow the virus’ spread.

While local officials watch and wait, some anti-coronavirus measures are already in place. Ryan said that he had ordered extra cleaning rotations at the County Office Building and on UCAT buses. A webpage, ulstercountyny.gov/coronavirus, has been created to keep residents informed about the virus and the county’s response.

Ryan added that he had asked county budget officials to begin preparing for expenses related to a potential outbreak and had reached out to other county executives to develop a regional response.

Ryan added that one part of the plan that had yet to be finalized involved how the county would cope with an outbreak that overwhelmed local medical facilities. Ryan said in that case the county would work with state and federal officials to set up emergency services locally.

“We have a great team in Ulster County,” said Ryan. “But our capacity could be tested depending on how things play out.”

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