Image: County of Suffolk

New York State is changing its strategy for battling the novel coronavirus by focusing on what Gov. Andrew Cuomo calls “micro-clusters,” using testing data to identify and control COVID-19 hot spots.

The micro-cluster strategy is predicated on three principles: refined detection, specific and calibrated mitigation, and focused enforcement.

With the ability to track cases by address, the state will identify outbreaks and implement mitigation measures tailored to the precise areas where outbreaks occur, the governor said.

The state will implement rules and restrictions directly targeted to areas with the highest concentration of COVID cases, or red zones, and put in place less severe restrictions in surrounding communities — orange and yellow zones — creating a buffer to ensure the virus does not spread beyond the central focus area. Enhanced focused testing and enforcement will follow.

“One of the lessons we learned in New York is to look ahead and stay ahead. It’s not checkers; we’re playing chess with this virus,” Cuomo said.

“In the fall you’re going to see an increased viral transmission rate — that’s just a fact and it’s happening,” Cuomo said.

Graphs depicting U.S. data. Source: COVID Tracking Project

New confirmed COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are on the rise across the country, where yesterday nearly 60,000 new cases were reported, according to the COVID Tracking Project. There were 37,404 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the U.S., 7,391 COVID patients were in ICU and 1,792 of them were on ventilators. There were 797 deaths reported yesterday, a decline from the peaks in May and early August, but a number that has been holding steady for a couple weeks.

In New York, a record number of 159,972 tests were reported yesterday, with 1,784 positive — a 1.1% positivity rate, the state health department said. There were 929 people hospitalized for COVID-19, 195 of them in ICU and 103 of those patients on ventilators. The state reported nine deaths yesterday, bringing the state’s total COVID-19 death toll to 25,637, according to the state health department.

Suffolk County yesterday reported 126 new positive test results of the 12,149 tests administered, a positivity rate of 1% — where the county has been holding steady since early September. There were 38 people hospitalized, seven in ICU. Suffolk reported one COVID-19 death yesterday.

Locally, the number of positive cases in Riverhead Town was 844, a rise of just under 3% since the first day of fall (Sept. 22) when there were 820 positive cases reported in Riverhead, according to data provided by the Suffolk County health department.

“Until now, we have been targeting all our actions either on a statewide level or a regional level. That worked fine and frankly was our only option because we didn’t have any more sophistication than that,” Cuomo said yesterday during a press briefing.

After seven months of battling COVID-19, New York State is doing more testing than ever before and has more sophisticated data analysis tools and can drill down to the “block-by-block level,” Cuomo said.

One of those tools is the COVID-19 exposure notification mobile app launched by New York earlier this month.

The app, COVID Alert NY, available to adults 18 and older, notifies users of potential COVID-19 exposure. The app uses Bluetooth to sense when you spend more than 10 minutes within six feet of another person with the app — a “close contact” for purposes of coronavirus transmission.

When the app senses the close contact, your phones exchange a secure random code, which is stored in a list on your phone. The codes do nor reveal any information about you or the other person. The app does not collect or share any names, locations or phone numbers, according to the app’s privacy disclosure document.

Every day, every phone that has the app compares its own list of close contact codes to the list of “infected” codes. It there is a match, the app will display a COVID alert.

If you test positive for COVID-19, a contact tracer will ask you to share your app’s list of close contact codes.

The app also allows the user to keep track of their wellbeing or symptoms in a daily health log and provides the user access to daily statewide testing data, in graph format, and seven-day averages. The app, available in multiple languages, can be downloaded at the App Store or Google Play. So far, more than 75,000 New Yorkers have downloaded and are using the app, the governor’s aide Melissa DeRosa, said during yesterday’s briefing.

A very targeted response to the disease requires more testing, more targeted testing, and more targeted mitigation measures, Cuomo said yesterday.

Ultimately, the governor said, the micro-cluster strategy “has the advantage of causing less disruption.”

The new strategy is based on the state’s cluster action initiative, which the governor announced on Oct. 6 to address COVID-19 hot spots in Brooklyn, Queens and Broome, Orange and Rockland Counties. That plan was developed in consultation with national public health experts, Cuomo said, including Dr. Noam Ross of EcoHealth Alliance, Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota and former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.