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Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan discusses COVID state of emergency

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan Delivers Virtual Briefing, April 28, 2020
Courtes of the Office of Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan
Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan Delivers Virtual Briefing, April 28, 2020

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan has declared a 30-day state of emergency amid rising COVID cases. The Democrat says active cases have tripled since Halloween, with cases at their highest levels since April. The State of Emergency declared Sunday will allow Ulster County to more rapidly procure coronavirus testing supplies, bolster emergency public health staffing, and redeploy the workforce to support testing, contact tracing, and vaccination efforts if deemed necessary.

It all comes as President Biden says the Omicron coronavirus variant is a cause for concern, not panic.

Well, we certainly did not make the decision lightly. I think the key things are as we've done for almost the last two years in the pandemic, looking at the data and the metrics and the numbers. And we've seen in the last month active cases triple to almost 900 today, and most concerningly, we've seen hospitalizations in the last month in Ulster County quadruple. We were at six a month ago, we're at 26 today, and that that's not even factoring in the potential for a new Omicron variant. So we were considering this, I was considering this, even before the news over the weekend of the variants. And our whole approach here is we have to stay proactive in the face of the virus doing what it does, which is working around our defenses and working around the actions we take. So this is really another step to make sure that we retain our ability to keep people safe and keep people healthy.

Is there a mask mandate associated with your state of emergency?

At this time, no. I'm not a fan in general of mandating things across the board. My goal is to inform people to make them aware of the risks. And we've had in place an advisor, from our health commissioner, for several months, encouraging folks strongly to wear masks when indoors. What I did do for our county workforce and all of our public buildings is require masks and I did require testing for folks that were unvaccinated in our workforce. So we took those steps in our own operations. And I'd encourage others to do the same. But we'll leave that at this point anyway to others to decide. I will say, though, that if conditions continue to get worse, in particular, if we're seeing the hospitalizations increase, and we think we're at risk of running up on hospital capacity, then then I will look at additional steps.

In her latest COVID briefing, New York Governor Kathy Hochul said there is a problem with hospital bed capacity, especially north of New York City. What's the situation in Ulster County as we speak?

So right now we are in good shape with hospital capacity. We're nowhere near where we were, you know, last winter, for example. However, the rate at which the hospitalizations are increasing, a four-fold increase, is concerning. So we have to get that number down. And I do appreciate the governor's executive order and state of emergency in that regard, because if we do get to that place where we need more hospital capacity, this will help us to achieve that.

What's driving the spike in cases in Ulster County?

So we think the main factor remains the Delta variant, it is just so much more contagious. And just as you'd expect the virus to do, it mutated to spread more easily. That's what we fear with Omicron. We have over 85% of our adults in the county vaccinated. So we've had tens of thousands, almost 200,000 people get vaccinated. But even despite that, we're seeing the spread of the Delta variant because it's just so much more contagious. I think one of the most tragic statistics that that we were looking at over the weekend in making this decision is in the year of 2021, we've had 113 deaths in Ulster County from COVID. And of those 113, 93%, 105 of them, were unvaccinated residents. Only eight of the fatalities were vaccinated folks. So it's just so important that folks get vaccinated, that they get their booster shot. It doesn't stop all transmission, but it certainly keeps people healthier and at less risk for serious illness or death.

What are you doing to reach that last stubborn percentage of folks who just will not get the vaccine?

We've been doing everything we possibly can. For many months, we are delivering door to door vaccines. We've been offering that for several months. We even had some incentives. I'll be honest, at this this point our main effort is actually focused on the 135,000ish in the county that have already been vaccinated and getting them booster shots. I think that is where we can have much greater return on our sort of time and investment of resources, folks have already opted in to be vaccinated, making sure they get boosted. We do think some of the increased spread is due to the waning efficacy of the original vaccine first and second doses as well.

Are you very concerned about what winter will hold? You know, Governor Hochul said we're expecting another spike, you know, five to 10 days after Thanksgiving. Now we're heading into the season of Christmas parties and being inside.

We are very concerned that certainly factored into this state of emergency. Last year in Ulster County, it was a really dark and a really deadly winter, we lost 111 people in December and January, which is over a third of the total fatalities we've had for over the whole course of the pandemic. And right now we're setting up with similar numbers to potentially have another deadly winter. And so we have to do everything we possibly can to stop that. And that's really what the state of emergency here is about.

Governor Hochul also said she's been talking to leaders in different regions of the state as preparation continues for the likely arrival of the new variant. And it's a different approach than when Governor Cuomo was there. The emergency powers have ended. Are you getting what you need from New York state right now in terms of the COVID battle?

We are. I really want to commend Governor Hochul and her team. I've been in regular contact directly with her, myself, which never happened in the previous portions of the pandemic. And just today, we're corresponding about some of the needs and resources we could use. So I really appreciate her approach. It's allowed folks on the ground closest to the problem, myself and other colleagues, to really make those decisions based on the data here as it plays out. We all are also, I'm in regular, almost daily contact with our surrounding county leaders and regional leaders, so that we are trying to stay on the same page in general. But, you know, the pandemic will manifest differently in different places. And so this gives us that that flexibility.

Your state of emergency is a 30-day state of emergency. Do you expect it's likely it will be renewed throughout the winter? And what will you look at to decide whether it's renewed?

God willing, it's only 30 days, if we do our, our work now, I think we could flatten this down. And that means vaccinations, boosters, wearing masks indoors, taking those precautions. So my hope is that in 30 days, right around the holidays, we'll be able to say we've done what we needed to do, let's lift this. The main factors that we'll look at our active case counts the new positivity rate, which for us has been very high at over 6%, the last few weeks, and most importantly, hospitalizations. That is kind of the red line of we just can't get to a point where we're worried that our hospitals could be overrun. We all remember that. And that's what we have to work to avoid.

Is this what you expected when you signed up to be county executive?

It wasn't in the brochure. That's, that is for sure. Yeah, honestly, my wife thinks I'm a little crazy. Even going back to my Army days, I actually appreciate the opportunity to try to help and get us through a really tough time and the people of our county have been really, really awesome. We've asked so much, we've put so much stress and burden. People are exhausted, people are so frustrated. But I what I try to remind people is really our sort of adversary here is not each other. We can't get divided among each other. It's this thing, this virus, which we have to stay unified to really defeat. We saw that with a variant when we let our guard down in another part of the world, a potential variant emerges. So it really shows that whether we like it or not, we're all connected and dependent on each other in this pandemic, especially so just trying to remind people that every day.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.