Ulster County is ramping up efforts to combat the coronavirus after the first case of COVID-19 was reported on Sunday, March 8 in a local man who had recently returned from travel abroad. In response, the county has opened up its emergency operations center while public health officials begin the process of tracking the patient’s movements and determining who he may have come into contact with locally.
“I feel that we are prepared and continue to be prepared,” said Ryan at a press conference Sunday afternoon in the lobby of the County Office Building in Kingston. “Ultimately I am confident in our collective team and our ability to respond quickly and comprehensively to protect public health and welfare.”
According to Ryan, Ulster County’s first COVID-19 patient is a middle-aged man from the Town of Rochester who recently returned from France. Upon reporting flu-like symptoms consistent with coronavirus, Ryan said, the man was directed by public health officials to go to HealthAlliance’s Broadway campus for testing. HealthAlliance Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Doyle said that the man was met in the hospital’s parking lot by a staff member in protective gear and escorted through a separate entrance to a specially equipped isolation room where he was evaluated and tested for coronavirus. Following the evaluation, the patient was directed to return home and remain under quarantine for the next two weeks. Officials said the patient’s symptoms were not severe enough to warrant hospitalization and that he had already begun to recover from the illness.
While the patient recovers at home, workers at the Ulster County Health Department are working to trace his contacts since returning to Ulster County. Officials said that the patient lived alone and had no connections to local schools. So far, one family member has been placed in home quarantine but has not exhibited any symptoms.
On Tuesday, March 10, Deputy County Executive Dan Torres reported that the backtracing investigation by county public health officials was complete. According to Torres, the investigation resulted in several Dutchess County residents who had contact with the patient going into quarantine. The investigation did not reveal any additional contacts in Ulster County that warranted quarantine precautions, Torres said. Torres added that as of Tuesday, Kingston’s annual Shamrock Run and St. Patrick’s Day parade were still set to go forward on Sunday, March 15. But, he cautioned, the event could be canceled if further developments warranted it. Torres said a form posted on Ulster County’s website would allow organizers of large public gatherings to consult with health officials to determine whether they should be canceled.
“Right now it is a day-to-day situation,” said Torres. “But people who are holding events should know that we are willing to work with them.”
“That would be a joint decision between the city and the event organizers after consulting with the department of health’s latest recommendations,” said Kingston city spokesperson Summer Smith on Tuesday. “No events have been cancelled as of yet, with no plans to cancel the festivities this weekend.”
Ulster County’s first case of presumed COVID-19 comes as local officials have spent weeks preparing for a local outbreak. On March 3, Ryan convened a tabletop exercise at Ulster’s emergency operations hub located in the Ulster County Law Enforcement Center to run through county officials’ responses to various scenarios involving the virus. The next day, Ryan met with dozens of local elected leaders and other stakeholders including school officials and representatives from area hospitals and nursing homes. The Ulster County Health Department has also been monitoring about 14 individuals flagged by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control because they had traveled through regions hit hard by the virus, including China, Italy and Iran. Those individuals have been asked to voluntarily quarantine themselves for 14 days and receive twice daily visits from public health nurses to monitor them for symptoms. So far, none of the recently returned travelers has developed COVID-19 symptoms.
At Sunday’s press conference, Ryan said the situation is evolving rapidly and that the county had plans in place to deal with a worsening outbreak. Ryan added that the county would take a “data-driven” approach to decisions, including whether to close schools or cancel public gatherings. One key decision point, Ryan said, would be if and when there were confirmed cases of coronavirus “community transmission” — when the virus spreads locally rather than after being brought back to the county by travelers.
Ryan said while the county was prepared for major disruptions caused by coronavirus, for now county residents should follow basic protocols to minimize their risk of infection, including frequent hand-washing and staying home when they are sick. People who do develop flu-like symptoms are asked to contact their family doctor or the county’s health department before traveling to a physician’s office or emergency room.
“We have thought through those worst-case scenarios,” said Ryan. “It is important for people to recognize that we are ready for that, but we are very far from being in that type of situation. People have what they need to do the basic preventive things at home.”
Jail visits banned
On Monday, March 9, Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa announced that because of virus concerns, visitors and programs have been banned from the Ulster County Jail for 30 days effective March 10.
“All legal and clergy visits will occur in the non-contact visiting rooms. All requests for emergency visits will be granted on a case by case basis, and will also take place in the non-contact visiting rooms. These requests will be by approval and appointment,” Figueroa stated.
At a press conference Sunday on Long Island, Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked residents to avoid crowds. “[W]e want to avoid large gatherings, we want to avoid density. That’s why I’m reaching out to the private sector companies. By the way, local governments, I’m asking them to stagger their workforce. I’m asking citizens to stay home, telecommute.”
In a statement Sunday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-Rhinebeck) said he was in touch with Ryan and “closely monitoring” the situation and thanked public health workers and first responders. “As testing occurs we are likely to see the number of cases significantly increase. Now is the time to prepare: not panic.”