Ulster County is shaken by new spate of Covid 19 cases

“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”
— Aung San Suu Kyi

It seemed Ulster County was doing well handling the coronavirus outbreak. The proportion of positive cases among those tested had been steadily declining. Between June 5 and July 2, the countywide number had increased by only 50 cases from 1759 to 1809. Positives were under one percent of those tested, and Ulster County executive Pat Ryan celebrated the first day in which there were no positives at all.

In the next three days after July 2, the proverbial roof fell in, with another 50 positives reported from a wide variety of situations in different geographic areas within Ulster County. The unwelcome eruption in positive virus determinations led to swift expressions of concern in the social media. People were scared, and they had every right to be. The virus could easily get out of control. Perhaps it already had. 

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Public confidence in the governmental handling of the situation plummeted. Ryan described himself as very disappointed. He’s been holding live Facebook briefings, the most recent of which was this Tuesday afternoon. The next is scheduled for two o’clock this Thursday.

Daily Ulster County health statistics published July 5 located 39 of the 50 new cases by municipality. In the most recent three days, ten new positives were recorded in Marlborough, nine in Kingston, five each in Ulster and Lloyd, three each in Hurley and in Saugerties, two in Shawangunk, and one each in Esopus and Gardiner. More information will be listed once the data is assembled, and more cases are expected.

Four different clusters of cases were said to be involved, identified initially as a manufacturing plant in the greater Kingston area, an apple farm with migrant workers in the southeastern part of the county, a celebratory post-graduation social occasion in Marlborough, and the prisoners at various correctional facilities in the southwest of Ulster County. At his Tuesday briefing, Ryan didn’t mention the correctional facilities, but instead said that in the last 24 to 48 hours it had been discovered that some players and parents on a local youth softball team that had traveled out of state had come back infected.

Riding the roller-coaster

It’s statistically unlikely that such a cluster of clusters involving a large number of positive cases be discovered in one day’s testing. Was there something unusual about the way the data was gathered or the cases were being traced that might have caused so dramatic an upsurge? 

Ryan said that wasn’t the case. He showed graphs from computer models that had predicted just that kind of back-and-forth roller-coaster resurgence after periods of economic opening. “We’re not through with this yet,” he said. Only a vaccine will end the pattern. Meanwhile, continued vigilance will remain necessary.   

Perhaps it was indeed coincidence that Ryan announced formation of a Covid-19 rapid response team the day before the number of positive cases dramatically increased. It was certainly fortuitous. “The five-step plan works to identify, investigate, isolate, communicate, and enforce in anticipation of potential cases,” he explained, “The plan will focus on identifying cases through robust testing capacity, investigation through contact tracing, isolation through issuing quarantine, communication through keeping the public informed, and continued enforcement of the [state] PAUSE order.”

Avoiding a second wave

It was important to be prepared in order to avoid a second wave of the virus in Ulster County, said Ryan.

The new cases presented a veritable collection of case studies for those organized to respond to them. The county has little control over how the state and federal prison systems — in which about a dozen positive cases have been reported this past week — collect and disseminate data. 

The upstate regions have dealt with a variety of Covid-19 spikes among workers in manufacturing facilities. Testing at the Kingston-area plant found six positive cases, all asymptomatic, among the 66 employees.

The mobility of migrant farm workers and the nature of their employment have disproportionately exposed them to the pandemic. All were tested at the apple orchard and processing plant, and two tests came back positive. 

The face-to-face gathering of people for celebratory occasions continues an important part of American social life, social distancing or no. The 30 or so young people who were tested after the post-graduation party in Marlborough were probably not following the rules for wearing masks and social distancing, Ryan speculated.  

The rapid response team will have plenty of work to do. Concluded the county executive, “We are at that make-or-break moment.”

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