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Ulster County Exec Fields COVID-19 Questions During Telephone Town Hall

Ulster County Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith and Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan
Courtesy of the Ulster County government
Ulster County Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith and Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan

The Ulster County executive hosted a telephone town hall Sunday with the county health commissioner on COVID-19. About 10 residents had the chance to ask questions during the hour. 

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan and County Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith addressed a number of topics relating to COVID-19. Last week, Ryan declared a state of emergency, suspended in-person county services for two weeks and directed schools to close, also for two weeks beginning Monday.

“This is a challenge that affects our entire community, and the only way that we are going to address this and rise to the challenge is as a community,” Ryan says. “And so I really ask everyone on the line and everyone you’re talking to to think about what you can do — big, small, in between — to help contribute.”

Ryan, who has restricted visitors to assisted living facilities, said it’s important to reach out to senior citizens in other ways. He mentioned that his grandmother, who turned 89 Saturday, lives in one of these facilities in Kingston. One caller wanted to know if there would be adequate testing in Ulster. Ryan cited five confirmed cases in the county at the time of the call:

“Lack of testing capability has been and still remains one of our greatest challenges here in Ulster County and really across the country,” Ryan says.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Friday the FDA had given approval for New York to authorize the state's 28 public and private labs to begin testing for COVID-19. Ryan says his county received additional tests Saturday night.

“New York state did establish the first mobile testing site down in New Rochelle, which has obviously been hit much higher degree of the virus at this point,” says Ryan. “We are pushing and will continue to push at the state level to have one of those established if not in Ulster County then definitely in our region.”

Ryan says he recognizes New York City and other locales may be more in need of such a testing setup right away. Melissa, from Ryan’s hometown of Gardiner, has a concern.

“My question is specifically about our students who are on free and reduced lunch,” Melissa says. “The district I work in, one-third of our population is on free and reduced lunch.”

She says teachers in her school district are worried about getting meals to students.

“Again, I know this will have a big impact. And many of our districts have near 70 percent of their students that rely on breakfast and lunch in schools,” says Ryan. “So in my conversations and Dr. Smith’s conversations with the school superintendents, which we had extensive discussions before making the decision, we all agreed that that was one of the top challenges. And I’m confident that at the district level and even at the school level we’re going to work through a plan to resolve that. I‘ve already heard, and it somewhat is varying by district, but several very creative solutions. I know one of our school districts is actually looking at using, continuing to prepare the meals and then using bus routes, which are already contracted, to deliver those meals along bus routes. Other districts are looking at other innovative solutions.”

Ulster County Legislator Laura Petit of Esopus had other questions.

“I’ve been getting questions about any disruptions to our UCAT public transportation system and also Meals on Wheels,” Petit says.

“That was another hard call that we had to make,” says Ryan. “We are keeping UCAT running because we think it’s critical that individuals can get to the grocery store and other important needs that they may have.”

Ryan says Ulster County Area Transit bus routes have been tweaked. As for meal deliveries, Ryan says the county’s Office for the Aging provides some 90,000 meals per year and has been working on a backup plan without compromising anyone’s health. Tanya from Kingston had a question.

“So I’m wondering about what the plan is and what your thoughts are on students who are younger, who are at home, whose parents have to work,” Tanya says. “Is there any sort of plan or are you working on anything for that for over the next couple of weeks?”

“Yeah, that was that other big… that and meals are the two big worries in the decision on schools. So one of the things we’re, again, looking at — and I know districts are thinking about it differently —  we are starting to think about prioritizing specifically healthcare workers and first responders who may have children at home but are a priority in terms of being able to respond if and when the current situation develops further,” Ryan says. “So we are looking at possibly sending up, and that’ll be coming in in the next few days, plans for those individuals to be priority for daycare, again, assuming their little ones are asymptomatic. So that’s something we’re looking at. I’ll be totally honest, we don’t have that completely figured out.”

Gerard in Kingston says he contracted COVID-19 abroad.

“How are you?” asks Ryan.

“I’m, well actually, I’m not good. I just back from 42 days in Asia. I was in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and then South Korea. And I was diagnosed in Thailand. All they did was put a mask on me and put me on a plane to Seoul, South Korea, where I was still stick. I told them at the gate. And I got home here, I self-isolated for 14 days, which was recommended,” Gerard says. “I called to get tested, and this is where politics and I would say, everything comes to…  I was told I was non-essential so I was not going to get tested. We only have enough supplies in Ulster County to keep basically important, essential people going if they’re exposed. Now, no offense, I’m a father and a grandfather, and I think they’d debate if I was essential or not. I volunteered on the Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, church, I do everything. I’m an activist. And I was told to stay home. I was sick as a dog. I have my x-rays they told me to bring back to America. And nobody’s asked for anything, I’ve tried to report that I had COVID-19 and nobody’s done anything. They just…  I guess I’m not essential.”

“Well, sir, you are, you and everybody on this line should, is absolutely essential. Every single one of us is essential and important. And we’re all human beings,” says Ryan. “And I’m very, very sorry that anyone said anything different than that to you, whether from my team or anyone else. That’s unacceptable, and we will will figure out what happened there.”

Ryan, who held the call one week after he’d announced the county’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, said more than 10,000 households joined the call. The county’s coronavirus hotline is 845-443-8888.

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