Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ulster County climbed to 70 this week as county officials opened a mobile testing site at TechCity in the Town of Ulster. County Executive Pat Ryan said that that count likely significantly underreported the extent of the contagion locally. Ryan gave the latest numbers at a livestreamed town hall event with State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on Wednesday.
“We believe that hundreds of [Ulster County residents] are likely impacted based on the epidemiology and the science,” said Ryan at another town hall event broadcast on Monday.
The testing site was put together in collaboration with local healthcare provider Nuvance, using $100,000 worth of tents and other equipment donated by local party supply company Save-On Rentals. The test site will allow people who may be infected with the coronavirus to be tested without going to a doctor’s office or emergency room where they could pass on the contagion to other patients or healthcare workers. Instead, patients will be assessed on-site by providers outfitted with full personal protective equipment, then be asked to return home and self-quarantine while they await results.
Testing at the mobile site is available by appointment only to people who have obtained prior authorization from their regular healthcare provider. People who cannot reach or do not have a primary care physician can request testing through the Ulster County Health Department’s coronavirus hotline at (845) 443-8888. Because testing capacity remains limited, Ryan said that authorization for the tests would only be granted to people who were displaying symptoms of COVID-19 or who had been exposed to the virus through travel or contact with a confirmed case of the contagion. Current wait times for the mobile test site range from two to six days — a time frame Ryan said he hoped would become shorter as more testing resources come online. The mobile site is open from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and is equipped to test up to 250 people per day. (A second site in Ellenville should be ready by March 31 at the latest, Ryan said.)
Ryan said the mobile test sites will provide critical data as officials work to track and contain the spread of the virus. “Mobile testing and boosting our testing capacity will absolutely save lives,” said Ryan.
But the county executive also said he expects the number of cases in Ulster County to increase dramatically as more people are tested. Currently about 10 percent of those tested came up positive for the coronavirus. Ryan also pointed to a study released this week by researchers at Columbia University which found that in China, where the pandemic began, there were possibly as many as 10 undiagnosed cases of COVID-19 for each confirmed instance. The undetected cases were generally mild and did not require hospital care, but help spread of the virus among the population.
Ryan added that the rate of coronavirus’ spread locally points to an urgent need to quadruple hospital capacity in the coming weeks. Currently, there are just 100 hospital beds, 20 ICU beds and 25 ventilators in the county. On Monday, the same day Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the creation of 1,000 temporary hospital beds at locations downstate, Ryan called for a similar scale-up of hospital resources in the Hudson Valley.
“We don’t have enough of everything,” said Ryan, addressing the public on Facebook Live Monday afternoon. “We don’t have enough beds, we don’t have enough ICU beds, we don’t have enough ventilators.”
Economy under stress
While public health officials grapple with how to contain the virus and care for its victims, virtually every county resident is struggling with harsh new economic realities brought on by the shutdown of hundreds of businesses deemed non-essential under the state’s emergency declaration. On Wednesday, Ryan appeared alongside State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to discuss the economic implications of the crisis.
Ryan offered an update on Project Resilience, a new county run program to provide food and other assistance to county residents in need. The program is funded by more than $2 million in private donations and relies on a network of restaurants, nonprofits and other community groups and the county’s UCAT bus system to deliver meals to those in need. On Wednesday, Ryan reported that in its first week of operation, the program had expanded to include 90 restaurants and 13 local volunteer teams. Altogether, Ryan said, the food program had delivered 2,775 meals to 850 Ulster County households. DiNapoli praised the program as an example for other communities struggling to serve their most vulnerable residents.
“I think that what you’re doing here in Ulster is a model for what needs to be happening across the state,” said DiNapoli.
On the state level, DiNapoli said that said that New York faced an extended period of financial hardship that would trickle down to municipal governments as sales tax revenue dropped precipitously. DiNapoli said he concurs with state budget officials who project a budget shortfall of between $9 billion and $15 billion going into 2021.
“There is no doubt that in the short run we are going to see severe economic damage and a hit to the state on our revenue,” DiNapoli said.
Despite the grim economic news, DiNapoli said that the state pension fund, which covers 1.1 million state and local government employees, remains strong. DiNapoli said the economic damage wrought by the virus had wiped out what had been a double-digit increase in returns of the fund’s investments going into 2020. But, he added, much of the fund was invested in bonds and other products that were likely to remain stable, or at least solvent, through the downturn.
“Your pension benefit is safe,” DiNapoli said.