Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a five-stage plan to attack what he described as a “new stage in the war against Covid.”
Cuomo said during his daily briefing Monday that hospitalizations are on the rise across the state, but Erie County has the “most critical hospital situation in the state.”
Cuomo’s chief concerns now are hospital capacity, staffing and equipment.
As a result, the first part of his plan is to halt all elective surgeries in Erie County, which goes into effect Friday.
In addition, hospital metrics will now be used in the decision-making process of which sections of the state will be deemed in yellow, orange or red zones.
Cuomo called on hospitals to identify retired nurses and doctors to help with any staffing shortages. He also wants hospitals to balance their population loads so no single facility is overloaded.
“So, you distribute the patients among your hospitals in your system,” he said.
“The nightmare we went through last time was a hospital would be overwhelmed but that system had no other hospitals that had capacity.”
The state will also prepare an emergency field hospitals plan, which he said could add an additional 50% of capacity. The state will also confirm stockpiles of protective equipment (PPE) used in the hospital setting.
“We’re going to have a problem in the hospitals,” Cuomo said.
“I’m telling you that right now. It’s going to be a serious situation. We’re going to manage it. We have to work together. Hospitals are going to have to do things that they don’t normally do.”
Erie County reported 327 hospitalizations on Saturday, with 63 people in ICU.
As of Sunday, the Western New York region reported 411 hospitalizations and 86 people in ICU.
Those are the highest recorded totals for Western New York and Erie County hospitals to date, said County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
Cuomo noted that any infection rate spike as a result of Thanksgiving gatherings won’t be known for about a week.
The second stage of his plan is testing.
Cuomo said partners in the state are working to increase testing everywhere. But the distribution needs to be balanced among healthcare workers, nursing homes schools, essential workers, business professionals, personal services industry and the general population.
The third stage involves changes to testing policies for schools in orange and red zones. The state’s advice Monday was to keep kindergarten through 8th grade open if it is safe to do so.
Schools in orange and red zones must still test weekly, but the number of tests will decrease.
Cuomo said schools in orange zones must test 20% of students and staff over a month and schools in red zones must test 30% over a month, both on a rolling basis.
Local districts can increase testing but must at a minimum adhere to these new testing rules.
In addition, the state is no longer requiring schools to conduct mass testing to reopen in orange zones. Most of Erie County remains in an orange zone.
For the fourth stage, Cuomo cited the holiday season as a big concern as individual behaviors shift.
Family gathering spread “has exploded,” he said.
Small home gatherings are the top cause of the spike in Covid-19 cases across the state, accounting for 65% of cases, he said. Poloncarz said Erie County is seeing similar statistics.
But the government’s ability to monitor small, private gatherings is very limited, but he is keeping the 10-person limit in effect for private residences, both indoors and outdoors.
To combat this, the state will soon unveil a public education campaign on the risks of small gatherings and the benefits of mask wearing, washing hands and social distancing.
The closings of personal service businesses such as spas, gyms, barber shops and spas remain in effect for orange zones and restaurants are restricted to delivery and take out only.
The fifth stage is the state’s vaccination program.
Cuomo said he does not believe Covid-19 vaccinations will be available in critical mass until late spring or early summer.
The vaccination program to start will focus on fairness, equity and safety, he said, and will be inclusive for poor and minority residents
As for the spike in infection rates, Cuomo said he does not believe rates will stabilize until mid-January after the holidays. And he cautioned, this pandemic will not end until a vaccine reaches critical mass, but the state can slow the infection rates with restrictions, if needed.
“I think we’re going to be fine here on all of this, but we have our work cut out for us,” Cuomo said.