County grapples with evolving COVID-19 situation

Schools, businesses close, residents join together in support

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On March 12, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus, a pandemic. In the past few weeks, county government, organizations and businesses have responded to the virus, calling on residents to practice caution but to keep a level mindset as things continue to change.

Tompkins Weekly will be monitoring the situation through channels like the Tompkins County Health Department and will issue updates on our website (TompkinsWeekly.com) and our social media (@TompkinsWeekly). These are some of the most recent responses as of the afternoon of Tuesday, March 17.

Health

The Tompkins County Health Department has been issuing regular updates on the coronavirus. On March 14, the Health Department was notified by the New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) of a positive case of COVID-19 analyzed at the NYS DOH Wadsworth Laboratory in Albany.

“While this is the first case of COVID-19 in Tompkins County, we are prepared to respond to limit future exposures and community spread of the virus,” said Public Health Director Frank Kruppa. “We are looking to our community to take shared responsibility by practicing social distancing and helping each other during the weeks to come.”

On March 16, the Health Department announced a second confirmed case of COVID-19 in the county, and on March 17, there was a third confirmed case.
The individuals have been in isolation since the samples were collected for testing. TCHD public health nurses have begun a contact investigation to determine if there were any additional exposures.

In a previous announcement, Kruppa advised the public on best future practices.

“It is important that we give each other permission to practice social distancing, including staying home if you are sick and simple actions such as elbow bumps instead of handshakes and hugs,” Kruppa said.

The Health Department said the best way to protect yourself is to avoid close contact with people who are sick, stay home when you are sick, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, and cover your cough or sneeze. In addition, clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces, and wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

If you develop symptoms of illness including fever, cough or trouble breathing, call your healthcare provider before you go to the office.

For more information, call the Health Department at 607-274-6604 or go to tompkinscountyny.gov/health/factsheets/coronavirus. The county’s 2-1-1 line is also available to answer general questions regarding COVID-19.

Dr. Douglas MacQueen, infectious disease specialist at Cayuga Medical Center, said that local hospitals are also working to ensure the safety of residents.

“We’re taking a look at all of our processes to be sure that if we do test someone for it that we keep them from entering into the general hospital population and that we keep employees safe while taking care of them,” MacQueen said.

MacQueen said health departments throughout the country are now focused on slowing the spread of COVID-19 to lessen the burden on healthcare facilities.

Cayuga Medical System, in partnership with Tompkins County, has set up drive-by testing lab to further assist in this effort, which opened March 16 at noon. So far, over 50 people have been tested, mostly from the county.

“We’ve been doing sampling for the past few weeks through urgent care and ER, but our plan with this was to help support physician offices in the area and centralize our testing for those who don’t also need an evaluation,” MacQueen said.

MacQueen said the testing facility doesn’t require as much personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, making it more efficient than other testing methods.

The testing site is on Craft Road in Ithaca, same as the location of the Cayuga Centers for Dermatology and Women’s Health. Doctors orders are required for an individual to be tested at the drive-by location.

Susceptible populations

Those in the vulnerable population for this virus include elderly and those with preexisting conditions.

“Those groups should really pay attention to staying out of group situations where they could come into contact with the virus,” MacQueen said. “That group has to be the most observant about staying out of large groups, out of busy places where they’re going to come into contact with viruses.”

Longview Executive Director Mark Macera said that for residential facilities like Longview, preparing for COVID-19 has been a challenging process.

Longview announced March 17 that it has suspended visitation at its residence until further notice, and other local residences have established similar policies.

Macera, like others, advised those in the elderly population to be diligent in these uncertain times.

“Listen to the appropriate authorities regarding this,” he said. “There’s so much information coming out, whether it’s daily or weekly, it’s become hourly and by the minute these days.”

Hospicare has also taken action, suspending all events and support groups at its facilities until April 15. The front door is now the single point of entry and exit for both Hospicare locations: East King Road in Ithaca and Kennedy Parkway in Cortland.

All staff, volunteers and visitors will be screened upon entry, and an infection control station is available with hand sanitizer, tissues and other supplies. Anyone exhibiting respiratory symptoms or fever will not be permitted to enter the building.

Visits to patients’ private homes continue as normal, and Hospicare has purchased extra food and extra medical supplies to ensure that it has everything it needs for the coming weeks.

Lifelong will suspend all classes, including off-site classes, beginning Monday, March 16, said Executive Director Lucia Sacco.

In addition to the elderly, many parents have raised concerns about their children being more susceptible to the virus. However, as Dr. Jessica Casey at Buttermilk Falls Pediatrics explained, while with many infectious diseases, the very young and very old are the highest risk groups, COVID-19 doesn’t affect children nearly as badly as elderly or those with preexisting conditions.

“There are no recorded deaths from COVID-19 in kids under 10 and there are not a lot of reports of severe disease,” Casey said.

There is a risk that children could spread the virus to those more vulnerable, like their elderly relatives, and that’s where Casey advises parents to take extra precautions.

“If they have a parent at home on immunosuppressive medication or a grandparent with cancer, that person would be at very high risk from what can seem like a normal childhood cold,” Casey said.

The most important thing to teach kids is all the same stuff we’re telling adults, Casey said: wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, cough into your elbow and keep your hands out of your face (and your fingers out of your nose).

In response to COVID-19 concerns, Buttermilk Falls Pediatrics has two offices and has designated one to see ill patients and the other to see healthy patients. It’s also giving a lot more advice over the phone to try to keep people at home and out of medical facilities. Casey said many practices in the county are doing similar things.

Government

On March 13, County Administrator Jason Molino declared a State of Emergency in the county during a press conference that evening.

“Declaring a State of Emergency is a preemptive measure to help protect our community, including frail elders, persons with underlying medical conditions and persons who are immunocompromised,” said Deputy County Administrator Lisa Holmes in an announcement after the press conference.

The State of Emergency went into effect at midnight on March 14.

As of March 12, Molino has assigned several other staff from other departments to assist with the response temporarily. Last week, the Facilities Department announced it had increased its cleaning measures in all county facilities.

On March 17, Tompkins County Legislature Chair Leslyn McBean-Clairborne directed Standing and Special Committees of the Legislature to postpone or defer non-essential in-person reports and presentations.

In accordance with the executive order suspending the requirements of the Open Meetings Law last week, committee meetings will be closed to in-person attendance by members of public. County staff and members of the public will be able to listen to meetings by utilizing Zoom conferencing. The call-in number for this option will be available on Committee agendas as it is available.

All meetings of advisory boards, committees and commissions will be suspended through the end of March.

On March 17, Molino signed an Executive Order requiring all licensed childcare facilities in Tompkins County to close Wednesday, March 18 to April 13. This decision was made in collaboration with the Tompkins County Health Department, Child Development Council, Human Services Coalition and other community partners to promote social distancing.

Education

On March 13, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that as of March 19, all SUNY and CUNY institutions will close physical classes for the rest of the spring semester, shifting to distance learning classes.

Tompkins Cortland Community College, in accordance with this, has extended its spring break to run from March 16 to March 30, after which the college will switch to a distance-learning model for the remainder of the semester. The college will not be closing, as all other services will be available and residence halls will remain open for the remainder of the semester.

On March 11, Ithaca College announced a similar plan. Spring break was extended one week and classes moved to remote instruction, a move President Shirley M. Collado calls a “phased approach.”

“A phased approach gives us an opportunity to remain nimble and ready to adjust our practices to respond safely and appropriately to shifting realities around this virus,” she said.

Spring break has been extended to include the week of Monday, March 16 through Friday, March 20. As a result, classes for the semester will extend through Monday, May 11 and move to remote instruction for the rest of the semester.

The college was originally hoping students could continue in-person instruction on April 6, but on March 17, the president decided to stick with virtual instruction at least until next semseter. More information can be found at ithaca.edu/news.

“I encourage all of us to approach these unexpected times in the spirit of fellowship and collaboration,” Collado said. “Let’s please take care of one another, check in with one another and have confidence that we will get through this together.”

On March 11, Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack announced that Cornell, too, will be moving entirely to virtual, remote learning on Monday, April 6. This will allow students to complete their semester coursework off-campus from their permanent home residences, as they have to leave campus no later than March 29.

Pollack explained the rationale behind the decision as supporting the second phase of controlling a pandemic – mitigation, which is slowing the spread of the disease.

“The best way that we can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is through social distancing,” Pollack said. “To the extent possible, you limit or eliminate large groups of people coming together and you try to minimize the number of people congregating in close settings. Universities are places that, by definition, have these elements.”

Pollack said social distancing works best when it starts early, even before direct evidence of disease in the community, which is why the college is acting now to move to virtual instruction.

On March 13, Pollack announced that starting on March 13 at 5 p.m., Cornell is suspending all classes on the Ithaca campus for three weeks to accelerate social distancing, allow students more time to get to their homes and relieve some stress to faculty and students.

Visit cornell.edu/coronavirus for continuous updates. The campus has also set up a dedicated hotline to connect members of the community with campus resources. It can be reached by calling 607-255-0101 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

In conjunction with the State of Emergency, Dr. Luvelle Brown and TST BOCES District Superintendent Jeff Matteson announced that Tompkins County’s seven school districts would be closed, effective midnight March 14 through midnight April 13. The school closures were put in place as a proactive measure to slow potential community spread of the virus.

Business

The Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce issued advice for its members on its website.

“Everything that we are reading and examining about this illness indicates that we should take this threat seriously, and it is highly likely that widespread health and economic impacts from this virus will be felt nationwide,” the Chamber said on its website.

While the Chamber monitors the situation, its issued guidelines to businesses including: encourage frequent handwashing and make hand sanitizer, tissues and cleaning wipes readily available; consider changing in-person meeting to virtual meetings or phone calls; support employees in staying home if they are sick; and have a person on staff who will take the lead in keeping information current, address staff concerns and communicate updates to the team.

On March 15, the Chamber Foundation established a fund to support members (businesses and nonprofit organizations) experiencing economic hardship over the next several months.

“The fund will be used to support those who wish to continue engaging in virtual events with their peers, take advantage of educational opportunities, receive vital information and resources, and be promoted/supported,” the Chamber said on its Facebook page.

The fund can be found at givegab.com/campaigns/chamber-member-support-fund.

Transportation

On March 14, TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool announced TCAT is reducing service as a preemptive measure to decreasing ridership due to COVID-19.

The start date for the revisions is Thursday, March 19. They will remain in effect through the remainder of TCAT’s winter-spring service period ending Saturday, May 23. The start date was originally planned for Sunday, March 22, but Vanderpool moved the date earlier due to a recent large drop in ridership. TCAT has also cut late-night routes until further notice.

Service reductions will be similar to those TCAT makes during the summer when most students leave town for their year-end break. From late May to late August, TCAT maintains routes that accommodate its year-round riders but trims the level of peak time service needed to meet demand during the fall and spring semesters.

“We are mindful that there are many people in our community, including our rural riders, who use our service 12 months a year, and want to assure them that we will continue to make every effort to meet their needs,” Vanderpool said.

TCAT Assistant General Manager Matt Yarrow, who oversees TCAT’s service development, said that additional changes may be needed throughout the service period depending on how the crisis evolves. TCAT will do its best to inform and update its passengers with service changes via its website tcatbus.com, public notifications on its Bus Tracker and MyStop app, and with notifications posted on buses and shelters.

“I am grateful to the county and all local leaders for their proactive and solid planning to protect our community during a crisis that has placed all of us in unfamiliar territory,” Vanderpool said.

Leisure

All live events at the Hangar Theatre during the remainder of March have been postponed. Decisions for spring programming will be made by March 25 or as the situation evolves.

Ticket holders will be notified of rescheduled dates as they are confirmed, and tickets purchased will be honored for the new event dates. More information at hangartheatre.org/coronavirus.

The Kitchen Theatre has cancelled all performances of its production of “Catch As Catch Can.”

Patrons with tickets for the production will automatically receive a credit that they can use this season or next. Those requesting refunds will get them.
Please send communications regarding refunds and ticket donations to boxoffice@kitchentheatre.org or call (607) 272-0570.

The Cherry is closing the Artspace to the public through April 23 at the earliest. All events at the Cherry scheduled between now and then are cancelled or postponed. Contact info@thecherry.org to request a refund and for more information.

Cinemapolis is temporarily closed until Thursday, April 9, as the theater often attracts a large audience from a far-reaching area.

Most libraries in the area have announced temporary closures. The Tompkins County Public Library announced on March 13 that the library would be closed from March 14 through April 13 to help limit the spread of the virus. The Ulysses Philomathic Library in Trumansburg announced it would be closing for a few weeks starting March 16. The Southworth Library in Dryden and the Lansing Public Library will be closed until April 13. The Newfield Public Library closed March 16 until further notice.

On March 16, Cuomo announced that gyms, restaurants, bars and theaters will be closed statewide until further notice, beginning at 8 p.m. that night. Restaurants and bars are permitted to offer takeout products.

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