As the nation begins to see a “second wave” of coronavirus infections, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Sunday outlined New York state’s new strategy to address what have been termed “microclusters” of infection.
In the Brooklyn and Queens boroughs, and Orange, Rockland and Broome counties, infection rates have spiked in small localized areas — what the state has termed microclusters, or red zones. In those areas, infection rates stood at 3.19% of the total population. Outside those zones, the statewide infection rate was 1%.
Gov. Cuomo said Sunday that the state will be dealing with the red zones in a much more localized manner than it has in the past.
“Until now, we have been targeting all our actions either on a statewide level, or a regional level,” he said. “That worked fine, and frankly, it was our only option because we didn’t have any more sophistication than that.”
Now, the state will address spikes in infection rates on a block-by-block basis. The state will continue to test for infections on a wide scale, and will track specific cases of coronavirus infection by address. With that address-specific information, the state will implement rules and restrictions directly in those blocks or neighborhoods where significant infection rates are detected, and will scale those restrictions based on how severe the spread is in those regions.
In the most infected regions, dubbed red zones, houses of worship will have their capacity limited to 10 people, or 25% of their normal capacity — whichever is lower. Mass gatherings will be prohibited, and those who host large groups will be fined up to $15,000. Schools will close to in-person learning, and nonessential businesses will close.
Communities surrounding areas with high levels of infection will have less strict restrictions put in place to establish a “buffer zone” around the areas of most concern. In those surrounding communities, designated either warning orange zones or precautionary yellow zones, depending on their proximity to the cluster of infections, restrictions will be pared down.
In orange zones, houses of worship will be limited to 33% capacity or 25 people, gatherings are limited to 10 people, high-risk nonessential businesses will close, schools will move to a remote learning model and restaurants can only serve patrons outside.
In yellow zones, houses of worship will be capped at 50% of their normal capacity, all businesses will be allowed to remain open with the usual restrictions in place, restaurants can serve patrons indoors or out with a maximum of four people per table, schools can open to in-person learning and gatherings can have at most 25 people.
With all of these measures in place, the state will then focus its testing, treatment and mandate enforcement resources on the areas of most concern.
Gov. Cuomo said these address-specific and neighborhood-specific measures are only possible because of the significant state investments and innovations that have been developed over the course of the pandemic.
“We now have more sophistication, because we’ve been at this for seven months,” he said.
Gov. Cuomo also announced the first public draft of the New York State COVID-19 Vaccination Program.
“As you know, we believe there are going to be questions about the safety of the vaccine, so we put together a special New York task force team of experts,” he said. “I’m going to ask them to review any vaccine before I recommend it to the people of the state. I believe that will give people added surety in the vaccine.”
The governor stressed this plan is a draft. Various important questions remain unanswered, he said. It remains unknown whether a vaccine will be ready in the near future, what form it might take and how it would be distributed from the manufacturer to individuals.
“For New York state, the prioritization would be based on risk and essential workers, and people at risk would have a priority,” Gov. Cuomo said.
As it stands now, essential healthcare workers and those at high-risk of severe illness or death from coronavirus infection would be the first to receive the vaccine. Those in areas of the state with high infection rates would receive the first batch, and those in less infected areas would receive the second batch. Low-risk populations and other essential workers outside the medical field in high-infection areas would receive the third batch, and those in low-infection areas would receive the fourth batch.
The general population — anyone left out of the first four batches — would receive the vaccine last. Those in high-infection areas would receive the vaccine before those in low-infection areas.
Gov. Cuomo said the state is working with healthcare facilities in every region to prepare for the eventual distribution of the vaccine, but must work with the federal government to get the vaccines into the state.
“The state will have a statewide vaccination plan, we will do it in concert with the federal government, the federal government is in charge of producing the actual vaccines and distributing those vaccines to the states,” he said.
Gov. Cuomo said the federal government must be a competent ally for each and every state to successfully distribute any vaccines nationwide, and there must be clear communication between state leadership and federal leadership to ensure things go smoothly.
He said the state expects with 20 million New Yorkers, 40 million doses will be needed, and will need to set up a system to administer two doses to each person, likely about a month apart. He also said the state is expecting these vaccines will need to be kept at a temperature of -80 degrees Celsius, or -112 degrees Fahrenheit.
“There’s a question about how many refrigeration units are even capable of doing that,” he said.
Gov. Cuomo said the question of how the state will receive the vaccine, and who will pay for its administration and dissemination, remains unanswered as well.
“New York state is already $50 billion in debt between the state and local governments,” he said. “... (the federal government) has not passed legislation on state and local relief. If the state has a deficit, if the state and local governments have a deficit, we can’t fund essential workers ... now you’re going to have us undertake this vaccination program, which frankly requires more essential workers, not less.”
Gov. Cuomo said the National Governors Association, which he chairs, sent a list of 36 questions regarding the vaccination program and what states should expect to President Donald J. Trump and his administration Sunday.
“We asked to meet with the president to discuss how this is supposed to work, between the federal government and the states,” he said.
He said with rumors that the federal government may have a vaccine ready by December, time is growing short for the states and federal government to work together to establish an effective plan.
“They’re talking about a vaccine in December, we’re here in October,” he said. “That is just a few weeks to plan this massive undertaking. Let’s learn the lessons from the past seven months, otherwise we’re just going to have to relive the nightmares that we already went through.”
Seven New Yorkers died of COVID-19 on Saturday, bringing the statewide total to 25,644 deaths.