TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—New York State laid out its most specific plans to date concerning the handling of the coronavirus pandemic’s newest wave on Monday, preparing people statewide for what could be a brutal winter of infections and hospitalizations even as the arrival of a vaccine looms.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the five tenets of his winter plan during a press conference held in New York City on Monday morning. They include addressing hospital space, testing, school stability and continuing to address small private gatherings, which are proving to be a driving force behind continued infections.

Taking inspiration from Sun Tzu, Cuomo began his press conference by laying out a 37 day period from Nov. 26 to Jan. 2 in which the state believes there will be increased social activity due to the holiday season, despite governmental urging that people refrain. That will lead to more coronavirus infections and higher positive test rates, Cuomo theorized, leading the state to unveil the new strategies.

“When the attack changes, change your situation, your defense or offense,” Cuomo said. “COVID is shifting the battlefield dramatically, and we have entered a new phase.”

Speaking over a fairly bizarre background accompaniment of “Sleigh Ride” by The Ronettes, Cuomo called COVID “the Grinch” and “opportunistic.” He additionally showed the infection rate curves of each of the state’s nine previously determined regions over the last three days—comparatively, the Southern Tier region, which includes Tompkins County, is actually one of the best in the state, despite the recent spike in cases over the last few weeks—more so a reflection of how bad the pandemic has returned to some other parts of the state.

Hospital Capacity

Cuomo dove into the five strategies, the lengthiest being hospital capacity expansion measures. To further alleviate space concerns on hospitals, Cuomo said he might enact a ban on elective surgeries, something that was previously implemented in parts of the state to help with hospital load. Erie County, for example, is under an elective surgery ban starting Friday because of the strain being placed on hospitals there.

This also included additional criteria for the yellow, orange and red zone designations that the state implemented earlier in the fall, which will now include consideration of hospitalization rate, death rate, case rate, available hospital beds and available ICU beds in a given place. Specific metrics were not immediately set for those criteria and what would trigger a zone designation, but Cuomo said those metrics would likely be clarified once the impact of the Thanksgiving holiday on infection rates statewide is recognized.

“We are now worried about overwhelming the hospital system,” Cuomo said. “We lived this nightmare, we learned from this nightmare, and we are going to correct for the lessons we learned during this nightmare.”

Hospitals will have to prepare emergency field hospital plans and prepare to add 50 percent bed capacity, Cuomo said, the specifics of which will likely be ironed out in upcoming conversations he plans to have with hospital administrators around the state. New York will be ordering a new wave of PPE stockpiles in order to avoid shortages as were seen in the early stages of the pandemic in the spring.

Testing

As for testing expansion, Cuomo named a goal of hitting a balanced distribution of accessible testing among healthcare workers, nursing home workers, those involved in schools, essential workers, business professionals, personal service workers and the general population of people returning from travel, students returning to campuses, etc. There was not much detail presented on this point except that efforts are ongoing to expand testing access

“You can’t do enough testing,” Cuomo said. “The more you test, the more you know, and the more you know, the better you do. (…) The localities have to distribute the testing equally or fairly among these groups (…) There’s not enough tests to go around, I get it. But we have to be fair in the distribution, and local governments have to work on coordinating that.”

Keeping Schools Open

The third strategy is to emphasize keeping schools open, particularly those that serve special education students and kindergarten through eighth graders, through the establishment of long-term sustainable testing protocols. The Ithaca City School District has not had an ongoing testing program, but did have entry testing supplied by Cornell University in the days before it opened its doors for in-person learning. Weekly testing should be implemented in orange and red zones to hopefully reopen schools open despite those designations, but Cuomo again reiterated that even with a focus on schools, that cannot take precedent over other aforementioned groups.

“Local districts can close at levels under state mandatory closure rule, but state advice is: Keep K-8 open whenever safe,” stated one of Cuomo’s slides. “We believe in keeping K-8 open. The schools are safer than the outside community.”

Small Gatherings

Small gatherings were once again a target of the state on Monday, as they have been for much of the last several weeks, as Cuomo deemed them the single largest threat for widespread infection—causing 65 percent of all COVID-19 cases now. The 10-person rule is still in effect, the governor said, blaming holiday events and a lack of other social options on the prevalence of in-person private gatherings.

“We have to communicate this now to people the way we communicated masks,” Cuomo said, introducing a new public information campaign. “Seemingly the safest place, my home, my table, my family, yeah, even that’s not safe.”

The government’s ability to monitor said gatherings is limited, Cuomo acknowledged, which is why the burden will largely rest on personal responsibility.

Vaccination Distribution

Finally, the governor touched on the vaccination distribution strategy. He called the vaccination “the weapon that will end the war,” calling it a matter of when, not if, it is approved and distributed. Delivery could start in the next few weeks, with the governor touting pillars of “fairness, equity and safety,” with an inclusive process that will feature “outreach to Black, Brown and poor communities.”

He also warned, though, that it could be months before the vaccine is widely available enough for a return to some semblance of normalcy.

Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa has previously stated that, as far as the county is allowed jurisdiction over the vaccine’s distribution locally, priority will be given to healthcare workers and those working in nursing homes during the early stages of delivery.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com