The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is being felt in Ulster County, where two cases of the illness have been identified since Sunday, March 8.
In response, the county has opened its emergency operations center, barred visitors to the county jail and recommended that nursing homes and assisted living facilities limit visitation. On Wednesday, the Wallkill Central School District announced that it would shut down until at least Monday, March 16 after a family member of a student and a staff member in the district tested positive for the virus.
At a March 8 press conference, County Executive Pat Ryan announced the first case of COVID-19 — the illness caused by the “novel coronavirus” — in Ulster. The patient, a middle-aged man from the Town of Rochester, had recently returned to the area from France where, health officials believe, he contracted the virus. The patient reported flu-like symptoms and was subsequently assessed in a specially equipped isolation room at HealthAlliance Hospital of the Hudson Valley’s Broadway campus. After testing positive for the virus, the patient was ordered to return home and remain in quarantine for 14 days. A relative of the man was also ordered into precautionary home quarantine. County Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith said that the man was recovering from the virus, while the family member remained asymptomatic.
Today, Wednesday, March 11 — the same day the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic — Ryan held another press conference to announce a second case in Ulster County. The second patient, Ryan said, was an elderly male from the Town of Shawangunk. Both cases, said Ryan, are “presumptive” — meaning the patients have had a single positive test result for the virus but not the second test required for confirmation according to official diagnostic guidelines.
Smith said that the Shawangunk patient had been diagnosed at a Crystal Run Healthcare facility in Middletown and ordered into home quarantine. Three members of the man’s household, including two connected to the Wallkill school district, were also ordered into precautionary home quarantine. Smith said public health nurses were in the process of conducting an investigation tracing the man’s movements and contacts. Smith said that as of Wednesday she had no reason to believe the second case was the result of “community transmission,” that is to say, acquired from someone in Ulster County. Ryan has previously said that community transmission would likely trigger additional restrictions and other measures to contain the virus.
“There are no other known cases in the area,” said Smith. “So to say community transmission right now might not be the best way to say it because he may have been infected in New York City or one of the other counties.”
In response to the latest case of the virus, the Wallkill Central School District announced that it would shut down through the weekend to allow for a thorough cleaning and disinfection of all district facilities. Smith noted that the shutdown exceeded state health officials recommendation of a 24-hour shutdown, something she said was done out on an abundance of caution.
Ulster County’s first cases of presumed COVID-19 come 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 in Kingston 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 county Health Department has also been monitoring 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 were 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.
The county’s response also includes activation of the emergency operations center, a purpose built “war room” at the Ulster County Law Enforcement Center that allows key department heads to monitor developments and coordinate response in real time. Ryan said the center was currently manned 12 hours each day, but could be ramped up to around-the-clock operations if the situation warranted. Ryan added that he planned to meet with City of Kingston officials on Thursday, March 12 to discuss whether to go forward with plans for the annual Shamrock Run and St. Patrick’s Day parade on Sunday. Ryan said the county has added a form to its website to communicate with organizers of public events and make individualized assessments of whether they should be cancelled. For now, Ryan said, those decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis using what he called a “data driven” approach.
“We’re trying not to make broad generalizations that might be overreacting,” said Ryan. “But also empower those organizers with a true public health expert’s recommendation.”
While Smith noted that 80 percent of COVID-19 cases were characterized as mild and the vast majority of patients make a full recovery, the virus poses special hazards for the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions. To protect those vulnerable populations, Smith said that her office had recommended all nursing homes and assisted living facilities restrict visitation. Some area hospitals have also placed new limits on visitation.
On Monday, March 9, Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa announced a 30-day ban on visitation at the county jail. Visits by attorneys and clergy will still be permitted, but will take place in non-contact visiting rooms.
Schools, potentially a major source of viral transmission are also preparing for extended shutdowns. Ryan said that Ulster County BOCES, which coordinates educational technology countywide was working with district to implement online learning programs in the event of school closures. On Wednesday, the Saugerties Central School District announced that they were canceling some indoor events, including parent teacher conferences, an elementary school play and a dance and carnival scheduled for the coming weeks.
Smith and Ryan both emphasized the importance of routine measures, like frequent hand washing and staying home when sick to combat the spread of the virus. Officials also recommend anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms contact their medical provider by phone before showing up at a doctor’s office or emergency room. The county has also set up a coronavirus page on its website to provide information and updates and a hotline where people can report symptoms or get information. The hotline can be reached at (845) 443-8888. Ryan expressed confidence in the county’s preparedness plan and urged residents to remain calm while remaining mindful and taking routine precautions.
“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.”