ALBANY, N.Y. (WROC) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a briefing Friday to update New Yorkers on the coronavirus pandemic.

New numbers

On day 356 of the pandemic in New York state, the governor provided the following data:

  • 239,248 COVID-19 tests reported statewide Thursday
  • 3.4% positivity rate overall
  • 116 new COVID-19 deaths
  • 6,155 hospitalized
  • 1,199 in ICU
  • 834 intubated

“7.4% [positivity rate] down to 3.6%,” Gov. Cuomo said. “We had the holiday surge, people socialized in the holiday season, get a little careless, but down to 3.6%. Hospitalizations is also down, not from day-to-day, but the overall trend is in the right direction.”

Vaccine delays

The governor said severe winter weather across the nation has delayed COVID-19 vaccine shipments.

“The snow has had an effect on the distribution of vaccines across the country,” Gov. Cuomo said. “It’s a nationwide snowstorm, certain areas are hurting more than others, but it has slowed down deliveries from the federal government.”

The governor said as of Friday afternoon, 3.5 million New Yorkers had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“12.1% of New Yorkers have received the first dose that’s really good news, and frankly I was surprised by that,” Gov. Cuomo said. “I know it’s hard, I know it’s cumbersome, federal government has a number of programs. Yes, it’s very hard to navigate. It’s true all across the nation, but 12% have received the first dose.

Earlier this week, during a conference call with the media, the governor announced new mass vaccination sites coming to Upstate New York — including here in Rochester, along with pop-up vaccination clinics for underserved communities. The mass vaccination sites are scheduled to come online in early March and will be able to administer approximately 1,000 vaccine doses per day.

The governor said local governments have received an increase in COVID-19 doses in recent weeks.

“Over four weeks, local governments have gotten 28% more vaccine doses,” Gov. Cuomo said. “We then added, on top of that, an 11% increase because we reallocated from the hospital worker allocation because the hospitals had eight weeks now to do their staff, and we reduced the hospital allocation for their workers, and we gave it to the local governments so they could focus on comorbidities.”

The governor urged local governments to focus on the vaccinating needs in their specific communities.

“The local government knows where all these distribution sites are,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Look at your county, look at your city and make sure the coverage and the actual vaccinations are fair by geography and by race. How many is the City of Buffalo getting vs. Cheektowaga vs. the northern part of the county or southern? How many vaccines have been given to the white community vs. the Black community vs. the Hispanic community — and we’re going to have to constantly adjust. I am telling you as a fact you’re going to see a lower vaccination rate in the Black community. There is a higher hesitancy issue and a high accessibility issue in those communities.”

Reopening schools

The governor said he wanted educators to get vaccinated so schools could reopen for full in-person instruction.

“Vaccinate the teachers. The teachers want to be safe — yes I understand that, I’ve spoken to dozens of teachers,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Vaccinate the teachers. They are in the eligible class, local government can vaccinate the teachers, but the students deserve in-class teaching. This remote learning is a poor substitute for in-class teaching, and when they do the studies it will show discrimination in remote learning.”

The governor said so far schools have been a very small source of viral spread, and unless there’s a community with a high infection rate, he says schools should reopen.

“Unless there is a community or school that has an infection spike that is different, but If the school is safer than the surrounding community, then why isn’t the school open five days a week?” Gov. Cuomo said. “Vaccinate the teachers, reopen the schools.”

Reopening colleges

The governor said rapid testing is the key to reopening society and said the model could be used to resume on-campus instruction for colleges.

“Testing is also an opportunity to reopen colleges, and we’re going to be doing that,” Gov. Cuomo said. “They have to test at least 25% of total on-campus students, faculty and staff, weekly and will not be required to go on pause unless positivity rate exceeds 5% during a 14-day period.”

Nursing home visitation

The governor said the New York State Department of Health will provide guidance in resuming visitation at nursing homes.

“The DOH is going to put on guidance, but they recommend reopening visitation for nursing homes,” Gov. Cuomo said. “The guidance is going to be in accordance with the CDC on visitation. With residents in nursing homes, they have very specific guidelines. DOH is going to recommend that visitors take a rapid test before entry and DOH will provide those rapid tests to nursing homes, cost-free.”

The governor and his administration are facing scrutiny over possibly withholding information about the nursing home death toll from COVID-19.

According to a Times Union report, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus task force is under investigation by the FBI, as well as the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn.

The governor addressed the complaints regarding the state’s handling of nursing homes during Friday’s briefing.

“For the families of nursing home residents: We created a void,” Gov. Cuomo said. “By not producing enough public information fast enough. People wanted information. What happens in a void — especially today, in this environment, in this toxic political environment — something fills the void and conspiracy theories and politics and rumors fill the void, and you can’t allow inaccurate information to go unanswered.

“Twitter and bogus reports become a reality at one point,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Social media, 24-hour news stations … If you don’t correct it, it gets repeated and repeated and then people think it’s true. It’s a very difficult environment to operate it. We created the void by not producing enough public information quickly enough, I get that, but then it was exploited with misinformation. People playing politics, personal attacks, personal agendas, and now this continues and people get confused and people who lost family members in nursing homes start to say ‘I wonder if this is true. I wonder if my father died because somebody made a mistake.’

“Those false statements must be countered or else people get confused,” Gov. Cuomo said. “No one has a right to spread lies or misinformation that causes pain to families. I understand politics is a nasty business to this environment. I get it, I live it every day, but this is different. This is causing pain to families who lost a loved one. ‘That’s what they did and they didn’t,’ because I hear it from the family.

“Not only did we create a void, we didn’t fight back against the lies and politics of distortion,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Aggressive enough in retrospect that is true, it is whack a mole. It is Twitter 24 hours a day, it is politicians making stuff up to get their face on TV. I get it, but you have to knock it down and counter it and counter it aggressively. Otherwise, people will believe it and hear it. The people who are listening to it were people in pain looking for answers. I should have been more aggressive in calling it out because it wasn’t hurting me — it hurt the families who had questions about loved ones,” Gov. Cuomo said. “That was a mistake and I make no excuses for those mistakes.”

The governor said he would no longer let “misinformation” be spread without being addressed.

“If you’re lying to the people of the state of New York, I’m going to call it out,” Gov. Cuomo said. “If you are lying in a report, I’m going to call it out. If you’re lying in a newspaper because you have your own partisan agenda, I’m going to call it out.

The governor defended the state’s handling of nursing homes.

“It is a lie to say any numbers were inaccurate, that is a lie,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Total deaths were always reported to nursing homes and hospitals. New York State Legislature requested information, yes they did. We said we would pause the state legislature request because we gave DOJ precedence. True. We paused the state request and we told them that we paused the state request. They were told and they knew and we gave DOJ precedence — yes, because that’s how it works, federal DOJ gets precedence.”

The governor also defended the state’s health officials.

“We have public health officials here who could be making millions of dollars in the private sector — millions,” Gov. Cuomo said. “These are some of the best professionals that we can find in this country, they are working seven days a week, 24 hours a day. They don’t deserve political attacks and unfounded unscrupulous attacks. It was untrue it was unfair.

“New York follows the science and the data,” Gov. Cuomo said. “New York has the best health minds in the country who are doing this and they talk and advise with the best health minds in the world. We are lucky to have him [New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker] and I’m sorry for the abuse that he’s had to subject himself to do good things for the people of this state.”

“As a doctor, it’s in my DNA to always ask myself whether a decision was correct,” Dr. Zucker said. “You play it over and over again in their head, but you can only review the decision with the facts that you had at that time, and with the facts we had at that moment in time, it was the correct decision from a public health point of view.

“The modeling said there was going to be 140,000 COVID patients, including 37,000 in ICU here in New York,” Dr. Zucker said. “When we looked at those numbers. Every three days they were going up and up and we were running out of ICU capacity. New York has 50,000 beds total in all the state, just 30,000 downstate. We had 84,474 New Yorkers who went through the hospitals with COVID from March 25 to May 10.

“I’m telling you from experience, for anyone who thinks these models were an exaggeration, I suggest you go back and look at the influenza of 1918, or better still, we could just look at Italy during that time,” Dr. Zucker said. “The question is, what does one do? You protect the entire health care delivery system to save lives and flatten the curve. Remember what the goal was, and still is, to flatten the curve so you can accommodate the influx of patients in hospitals and lower the number of cases. People die if you cannot get them into the hospital, or staff is overstretched as a result of those numbers.

“The CDC guidance that was a March 13 guidance said: ‘Nursing homes should admit any individuals that they would normally admit to their facility, including individuals from the hospital. In the case COVID-19 is present, a nursing home can admit a patient with COVID-19 as long as they follow transport guidance,'” Dr. Zucker said. “Now New York state has mandated infection controls like PPE and many other things to care for the nursing home residents. As always, if they could not accept a patient they should not admit the patient. It is against the law to take someone they can’t care for. We said you can’t deny a person because they have COVID. We never said you can’t accept, we said you can’t deny.

“We found 37,000 staff that had been infected,” Dr. Zucker said. “It came in asymptomatically, it came it inadvertently by dedicated staff. This was back in a time when we didn’t even know about asymptomatic spread. March 25 was not the driver of COVID infections, it was not the driver of COVID fatalities — the facts are the facts.

“Since May, no resident has been admitted into the facility without a negative test,” Dr. Zucker said. We still had restricted visitation and the staff are the only ones coming in and they’re tested twice a week and yet we are still seeing nursing home outbreaks and fatalities,” Dr. Zucker said. “You make the decisions based on the information that you have at the time. We made the right public health decision at the time and faced with the same facts, we would make the same decision again.”

Testing to reopen

Earlier this week, on a conference call with media, the governor announced guidance for reopening amusement parks, summer camp status, vaccination progress, and more.

“I’ve said it from the beginning: Reopening is going to be accelerated by testing,” Gov. Cuomo said. “If a person is tested and is negative then you can reopen. I went to visit the President of the United States. I took a test, and I was negative, and I could see the President. Why? I took a test and I was negative. So why can’t I go see a movie or go to the theater to see a play? Testing is key.”