Ulster County responds to COVID-19

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On Sunday, March 15, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan and Ulster County Commissioner of Health Dr. Carol Smith hosted a Telephone Town Hall on COVID-19, the disease caused by a strain of the novel coronavirus, to answer questions and address concerns from residents. From former legislators concerned with school closures to senior citizens concerned with self-isolation, residents across the county phoned in. 

In his opening remarks, Ryan addressed the rapidly evolving issue. “A week ago today, we were here in the Ulster County Office Building announcing the first positive case of COVID-19 in Ulster County. We had been preparing for the pandemic to potentially reach Ulster County for several weeks … We had conducted a series of exercises across county government, including school districts, first responders, our health professionals and hospitals.” 

However, Ryan noted that “We were taken aback by the seriousness of the issue and stepped up our response. Over the last week we have now had five confirmed cases in the county. We anticipate that we will likely see those numbers go up.”

Ryan shared that a COVID-19 hotline had been established to support residents. Operated by Ulster County staffers trained by Smith, the number is (845) 438-8888. He encouraged locals who have questions, believe they may have come into contact with COVID-19 or will be affected by the State of Emergency declared on March 12 to dial in. Smith added, “[The State of Emergency] underscores the importance of what we as individuals can do to help reduce the spread of this disease.”

Regarding the decision to close schools around the county on March 13, Ryan stated: “We understand all of [our decisions], in particular school closings, will have a significant impact and create challenges for many people, many families in our county. I just want everyone to know that Dr. Smith and I made those decisions based on her expert medical advice and how this has unfolded in other places.” This includes the districts of Kingston, New Paltz and Ellenville.

The public health community still has much to learn about transmission of the virus. One observation of the viral strain from previous cases is that 80 percent of cases display mild to moderate symptoms, such as a cough or fever. The remaining 20 percent—overwhelmingly older individuals or people with chronic medical conditions—will express more severe symptoms. Both Smith and Ryan encouraged individuals to help reduce the spread of the virus through hygienic practices and social distancing, consequently flattening the distribution curve among the total population and reducing the burden on the health care system. The attention then turned to the audience. 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Will public transportation be shut down and what will happen to programs such as Meals on Wheels?

Ulster County decided on March 12 to limit all non-essential county services, including closing most  public buildings. Each department will individually deliver more information to the public. Public transportation, however, will continue to operate and be disinfected with EPA-registered disinfectants. 

Meals on Wheels, which serves over 90,000 meals across the county to seniors per year, will ramp up delivery services, but close congregate meal sites for seniors. This system might later be used for children and families reliant on free and reduced lunch. The Ulster County Office for the Aging will continue to deliver meals. 

Where should one go if they think they have COVID-19 and will there be adequate testing?

The lack of testing remains one of Ulster County’s and the United States’ greatest challenges. This is something Ulster County officials and Governor Cuomo have raised consistently to the federal government. The situation, however, in terms of testing, is starting to see some improvement. Ryan credited the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in New York State to more people being tested. He confirmed that Ulster county had just received additional tests.

Ryan and Smith urged residents to social distance and self-isolate from family members once they begin to display symptoms. “Once you’re safe and sound, call the coronavirus hotline from Ulster county. Call your health care provider, we are regularly coordinating with them,” said Ryan.

Smith stated that if individuals’ symptoms become more severe, like shortness of breath or a temperature greater than 101 degrees, they may need medical attention: “If you need medical assistance, please call ahead to give the medical professionals who will be receiving you the opportunity to get protective equipment … As we get more test kits available, we will notify the community. But the test kits we have, we must ration and make sure that those who are most at risk for severe symptoms get tested.”

How will students reliant on free and reduced lunch get the food they need?

Some districts have as many as 70 percent of students who rely on free and reduced lunch in schools. Though there is no concrete program yet in Ulster County, county officials are working towards a system. Still, one district will prepare the meals and use the contracted bus routes to distribute meals. Ryan encouraged residents to call the COVID-19 hotline if they know someone in need, and to volunteer if possible. He also referenced Ulster Corps, a volunteer group helping to staff the hotline, and local organizations preparing food for their communities.

What child care will be available to families with working parents?

Priority will be given to health care professionals’ children for when and if professionals are needed. However, the impact of schools closing is significant and the county is working with schools and not-for-profit organizations to create programs where children will be safely looked after.

Ryan again urged community members to take initiative: “I urge neighbors to look out for neighbors and feel free to call that line if you know people that do need assistance.”

What financial support will be available to relieve the loss in financial income long-term for self-employed individuals cooperating with the recommendation to social distance?

Ulster County is working with state officials and Congressman Antonio Delgado to seek long-term solutions to the problem, and there is going to be a significant economic impact on businesses because folks are staying home. Though the county does not have the resources to address this issue directly, it will continue to raise attention at the state and federal level. Federal legislation took its first stab at fair family leave, food stamp benefits and Medicare, but the response is not sufficient. Ulster County will reach out to philanthropic partners to help those whose income and financial well-being will be affected by this situation.

Are there cases of people who have recovered from the coronavirus?

Smith stated that substantial numbers of people around the world have recovered. She referred residents to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard for the statistics of individuals who have tested positive, fatalities and recoveries around the United States. The five people who had tested positive in Ulster County at the time of the telephone town hall are doing well and are expected to make full recoveries. 

Will restaurants and other establishments be closed in Ulster County? 

Steps of isolation considered in the planning process initiated before the first positive case will go into effect this week. Ryan and Smith strongly discouraged public gatherings of over 50 people. For gatherings under that, they encouraged social distancing. Smith cited Governor Andrew Cuomo’s request that establishments reduce their seating capacity to follow the 50-person maximum.

What should be done to help prevent seniors from feeling isolated?

Because of isolation, many seniors are at major risk for anxiety and depression. The caller encouraged individuals to stay in contact with seniors in their community via phone and FaceTime to reduce feelings of isolation. Ryan referred callers to the Office for the Aging, which offers a year-round program to call seniors who are home-bound and is increasing activity for those who are interested in volunteering. Visitation to facilities for senior citizens have been restricted. This is necessary to prevent exposure, in particular because there is no vaccine for COVID-19.

Who constitutes an “essential” person?

One man returned from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and South Korea after 42 days. He was diagnosed in Thailand and put on a plane to Seoul. He self-isolated for 14 days upon returning and requested a test. He was told he was non-essential so he could not be tested, since there is a limited supply of tests available in Ulster County. The man, a father and grandfather, as well as a community organizer and activist, was simply told to stay home. 

Ryan apologized for the way in which the man has been treated, saying that “every single one of us is essential, important, and a human being.” He requested the man stay on the line for further assistance from Ryan’s Office. Ryan reiterated, “Now that we have additional testing capacity, we will make sure that you and others in need get access to them.”

What masks should first-responders use?

Per the CDC, Smith recommended that first-responders continue to use masks even if it is past the expiration date until new materials could be acquired.

Is there a criteria for imposing self-quarantine? 

Smith said, “Ultimately that decision is yours.” She recommended that anyone over the age of 60 stay home to avoid contact with people who are potentially sick. 

Are masks effective? Can contagions be passed from fruits and vegetables previously handled at the supermarket?

There are different types of masks. The N-95 mask is used by health professionals to prevent respiratory illness. The other is a general surgical mask that is good for people who are actively coughing and sneezing.

Smith encouraged older citizen callers to use the hotline and contact the Office for the Aging for help with obtaining resources and any assistance. Washing vegetables with white vinegar and water and wiping down surfaces at home with disinfectants may help. Contagions may be on some of those items.

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