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How one Halloween gathering in Cayuga County became a COVID-19 superspreader event
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What may have seemed like an innocent social gathering turned into one of a few COVID-19 superspreader events that are now being managed by the Cayuga County Health Department. 

The health department released a diagram Saturday showing how one gathering over Halloween weekend affected nine households. Twenty people attended the gathering, 13 of whom later tested positive for COVID-19. 

The superspreader event began, according to the department, with an individual who attended the gathering. They were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and infectious at the time of the gathering, health officials say. But the person didn't believe the symptoms were caused by COVID-19. 

Because they attended the event, others were exposed to the virus and had to be placed into quarantine. Four people from two households began to exhibit symptoms after the event and tested positive for COVID-19. They were among the first confirmed cases stemming from the party. 

There were eight other confirmed cases linked to the gathering. In each of those cases, they were in mandatory quarantine due to their contact with others from the gathering and later tested positive for the virus. 

At least one person from six of the nine households that attended the party contracted the virus, according to the health department. In one household, four people tested positive for COVID-19 while in quarantine. 

"The eight individuals who did convert to positive while in quarantine did not have exposures at school sites or workplaces because we were able to quarantine them from their exposure to the original positive case," the department said. "This demonstrates the importance of quarantine." 

The 13 people who attended the gathering and tested positive for COVID-19 had a "wide range of symptoms," according to health officials. Symptoms of COVID-19 can include a cough, fever, shortness of breath, body aches, headache, loss of smell or taste, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. 

The details about the superspreader event were released five days before Thanksgiving. Health experts have urged the public to avoid large holiday gatherings because they could lead to a significant spike in COVID-19 cases. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has issued an executive order imposing a 10-person limit on gatherings at private residences. 

On Friday, the Cayuga County Health Department reported 131 active COVID-19 cases and 664 people in quarantine, both new highs for the county during the pandemic. There are active cases connected to gatherings that occurred over Halloween weekend three weeks ago. 

COVID-19 cases have spiked in Cayuga County over the past two months. Since Oct. 1, there have been 467 confirmed cases in the county. That uptick accounts for more than two-thirds of the county's total number of cases (685) since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Sticker shock: The cost of New York’s youth prisons nears $1 million per detainee
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Editor's note: This story was co-published with The Imprint, an independent, nonprofit daily news publication covering child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and educational issues.

A dozen years ago, New York state revealed that taxpayers were shelling out $140,000 to $200,000 each year to house each young person in the state’s juvenile facilities. Many of these supervised residential centers and deeply troubled youth prisons lined with razor wire and high-security locked gates were less than half full.

The state’s Office of Children and Family Services described in a 2008 report with a cover showing rows of empty beds, why some of the facilities needed shutting down: Public money could be far better spent on investments such as six first-year teachers, six caseworkers, or four undergraduate degrees from the public university system.

Today, that once-shocking price tag has grown four-fold to almost $900,000 a year for some of those detained, making New York’s youth lockups the most costly in the nation.

“There are so many better ways we could spend a million dollars on young people in the juvenile justice system than locking them up in a prison-like facility,” said Nate Balis, a director of juvenile justice at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit research and advocacy organization.

The high costs are mostly attributable to low occupancy rates, amid plunging youth crime rates across the state and nation.

After being closed for seven years, the Harriet Tubman Residential Center on Pine Ridge Road in Sennett reopened in 2018 to house up to 25 girls — with 98 staff positions. OCFS said it could not immediately provide information about current detainee and staffing levels; a Freedom of Information Request is pending.

Today, relatively few beds in the state’s hulking juvenile prisons are filled, and largely fixed staffing and infrastructure expenses have driven up the annual cost. New York’s per-person price now ranges between $748,000 and $892,000 a year, depending on the type of locked facility. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars more than costs at the next most expensive state: New Hampshire at $540,000, according to a July report by the national nonprofit Justice Policy Institute.

Meanwhile, fewer young people ages 12 to 17 are serving time in New York’s locked facilities. Nationally, juvenile arrest rates in 2018 were about a quarter of what they were in 1996. And after the state passed its 2012 Close to Home law, youth from New York City — the majority of those serving time in the state — began to be housed closer to their families and communities rather than in upstate facilities.

The latest state figures show just 247 youth in state juvenile prisons, down from almost 500 10 years ago.

There are also far fewer damning reports on conditions inside. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice found youth in four state-run facilities were subjected to excessive force, given inadequate mental health care and doped up inappropriately on psychiatric drugs. Kids who did as little as fail to follow instructions by putting sugar in their orange juice were the targets of violent staff interventions that sometimes resulted in concussions, broken or knocked-out teeth and fractures.

By 2013, with youth crime down and a growing national movement to house juvenile offenders in more humane and homelike settings, New York state had shut down two of its 12 youth lockups. The 10 prisons that remain are scattered across the state from the mid-Hudson Valley to northwestern Monroe County.

Christine Ongjoco, The Imprint 

Spending at New York state-operated juvenile detention facilities, as reported by the state Office of Children and Family Services.

Though the cost of youth incarceration may seem high, some say the numbers need context to be understood. Staff ratios are much higher than they would be in an adult prison, said Jacquelyn Greene, a former assistant deputy counsel with the Office of Children and Family Services and now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina.

By law, juvenile facilities must also provide for children’s education and offer vocational and mental health services. Greene noted that youth in custody tend to also “have a lot of medical needs, dental needs and unaddressed medical issues that have to be taken care of while they're there.” What’s more, delinquency rates vary, often cyclically, requiring enough capacity to accommodate regular variation in placement rates, Greene stated in an email.

Amid the pandemic shutdowns, crime among adults continues to drop, according to a recent study published by the National Institutes of Health. But that research also found that some more serious crimes like battery and homicide appear to have stayed the same or increased. And there’s geographic variation: There have been sharp upticks in homicide rates in some major cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Oakland.

Greene said the fact that juvenile facilities are housing such a small number of young people is “good news” for public safety. “And it's good news for kids and families and communities. But the challenge then becomes, how do you downsize the system in order to reduce the cost?”

Jeannine Smith, a spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services, confirmed the number of secure youth facilities that the agency has closed and the timing of those closures. But she did not respond to questions about the number and high costs of detaining the youth. Two unions contacted for this story — the State of New York Police Juvenile Officers Association and the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association — also did not respond to requests for comment.

For advocates who have long pointed to institutional abuse, poor recidivism rates and the high cost to taxpayers of New York state juvenile prisons, a price tag approaching $1 million a year is yet another clear example of why the lockups should be shuttered for good. The state’s pandemic-driven budget crisis, they say, only underscores the need for abandoning the near-empty facilities.

There are also equity issues to address. In 2019, youth of color made up 283 of the 388 kids in state custody — 73% in a state in which people of color make up just 30%.

Nationally, youth in state lockups have higher reoffense rates, lower educational attainment, and worse health and employment outcomes, the Justice Policy Institute and other research groups have long reported.

“These systems that are so tied in to large buildings confuse the mission with the infrastructure,” said Vincent Schiraldi, former commissioner of New York City’s Probation Department. “The mission is to keep us safe and to turn kids’ lives around.”

Across the country, the number of youth housed in prisons has dropped as states like Virginia and Maryland have shut them down, according to tracking by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. A report last year by the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, which uses research to “expose the broader harm of mass criminalization,” noted a 60% drop in youth confinement since 2000. A month ago, California’s governor finalized plans to shutter its once-sprawling state-run youth prison system.

Hernán Carvente Martinez said his experience shows how damaging prisons can be to a developing child, no matter how serious his or her offense. The Queens resident, now 28, said he grew up in a household with a father who beat him as well as his mother, and he experienced untreated anxiety and depression.

Carvente Martinez said he can’t forget the day in November 2008 that he entered a youth prison in New York’s Columbia County, 2 1/2 hours from his home in Queens at the time. In June of that year he had pleaded guilty to shooting a rival gang member when he was age 15.

After being held four months at a city-run juvenile detention facility, he arrived at the Brookwood Secure Center in the back of a van, arms and legs cuffed. The van pulled through two locked gates. Next, he was strip-searched and handed a red polo shirt and beige pants and taken to the unit where he’d live. As he was walked to his unit, every door locked behind him.

The juvenile justice system was established to rehabilitate young people, Carvente Martinez said, but everything about Brookwood felt like adult prison.

He said what saved him was admission in 2010 to a college program created by a teacher at the facility. It allowed him to graduate after his release and serve on the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, as well as in his current role as strategist for the Youth First Initiative, which seeks to end youth incarceration.

Despite his progress, Carvente Martinez shared freely how self-doubt has hounded him even as an adult: “I thought that I could never screw up because otherwise I would end up in prison again.” Two years ago — six years after leaving Brookwood — he attempted to take his own life, he said.

“I realize now that the harm that these institutions cause our young people is too great,” Carvente Martinez said.

Steve Yoder, The Imprint 

The Brookwood Secure Center in Columbia County.

Still, there are signs that resistance to closing upstate facilities could be fierce.

In the past, upstate legislators and juvenile officer unions have successfully fought other proposed shutdowns. In 2007, then Office of Children and Family Services Commissioner Gladys Carrión tried to close four facilities, but the state Legislature restored funding for two — even though one was empty, according to reporting by the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Youth advocates look to Carrión’s tenure from 2007 to 2014 for inspiration. In late 2008, under her leadership, the state launched a publicity campaign to highlight the number of empty beds taxpayers were footing the bill for, and the child welfare agency’s 2008 report was part of that blitz. Some corrections officers were moved into other jobs.

Small counties that may send only one or two offenders to state custody each year have been encouraged by reformers like Schiraldi to use the staggering amount they pay to instead contract with local, private providers.

Others point to the need for more prevention services as the most effective way to decrease reliance on costly prisons, including quality mental health care for troubled youth. Julia Davis, director of youth justice and child welfare for Children’s Defense Fund New York, said while the cost of youth prisons is “shocking,” it’s also an opportunity to look at why we are relying on this type of facility.

Albany County District Attorney David Soares, past president of the association that represents the state’s district attorneys, agrees New York needs to invest in prevention and that costs for state custody have grown exorbitant. “When it comes to spending money for incarceration, there is a checkbook that's open and there's no amount of zeros that someone would consider too much,” he said.

But he’s critical of those who want to shut down lockups at a time he claims the state hasn’t made enough investments in preparing local officials to supervise older and more serious offenders now in their care. The burden is greater, Soares said, under the state’s 2017 Raise the Age law that ensures most 16- and 17-year-olds are not sent to adult jails and prisons and not processed through criminal courts.

“It was a policy shift that did not have dollars flowing along with it to better train the personnel necessary to address these issues,” Soares said. But more important, he added, it did not have the “dollars necessary for the kind of therapeutic counseling and other needs that families in crisis experience.”

Carvente Martinez was housed at Brookwood during the period when Carrión was making changes so that secure youth facilities would feel more rehabilitative and less punitive. But he recalled corrections officers referring to those changes as “hug a thug” and continuing to treat him and others there like future criminals.

He’s been back to visit Brookwood three times since 2015. Today it’s a tan, low-slung warehouse of a building sitting behind five rolls of razor wire strung along a 20-foot chain link fence. On his last visit he noticed the walls had been painted with inspirational people, quotes and other art. But it still had locked and bolted doors, security cameras and the standard features of most prisons, he said.

It’s why he now believes trying to reform youth prisons won’t work, because they don’t redirect young people to healthier and safer futures.

“Painting a place,” Carvente wrote in an email, “doesn't change the toxic energy in the air.”

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'This hits everybody': Auburn hospital staff shares COVID-19 experiences
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COVID-19 is real. And though it doesn't need to be feared, it does need to be respected.

That's the consensus of three Auburn Community Hospital staff members who spoke with The Citizen last week about their experiences treating people with the virus, including the eight in Cayuga County who have died from it. As local cases surge, far past their peak when the pandemic began in the U.S. in the spring, the three health care providers are asking the community to show that respect to not only COVID-19, but each other. That means, among other things, socially distancing, washing hands regularly and wearing a mask.

"If you can save someone's life by wearing a mask, do it. Just do it," said Melissa Pisano, a registered nurse in the hospital's emergency room.

"It's not going to kill you. Wear a mask if it's going to save our kids in school, if it's going to save people their jobs."

Pisano, along with Dr. Shakeel Usmani and ER nurse manager Courtney Seamans, has treated several people with COVID-19 at the Auburn hospital, many of them during the surge of the last month.

Seamans said those who come to the ER suspecting they have the virus are asked to ring a buzzer outside for a staff member. The person is then asked about their symptoms, possible exposures and testing history. If they're deemed likely to have COVID-19, someone wearing personal protective equipment escorts them to a negative pressure room for further care. If not, they can enter the ER.

It's ultimately the health care provider's decision whether to test the person for the virus, Seamans said. Rapid tests, which deliver results in 15 to 30 minutes, are available but only administered to those in the ER who are pending admission to the hospital or transfer to another facility. Those who have symptoms and don't need care are asked to quarantine at home.

Those who do need care for COVID-19 don't just come to the ER outright. Sometimes they come from their doctor, sometimes by ambulance. Many are sent by the county health department. However they come to the hospital, though, they mostly have the same symptoms: cough, fever and shortness of breath. If they're admitted, it's often because they need supplemental oxygen, or intubation.

But Usmani, who has treated more than 20 people with the virus in Auburn, has also seen a few less common symptoms. An attending physician in the ER, director of the hospitalist department and chief of the department of internal medicine, he has seen body aches, loss of taste and/or smell, and gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea. Nearly a quarter of those hospitalized with COVID-19 have heart complications, and Usmani has seen those, too. Some patients have shown elevated levels of the same enzymes released after heart attacks, he said.

"At the beginning, everyone was focusing on the respiratory part, but now when we treat them, I strongly encourage providers to focus on the cardiac part as well," he said.

The Auburn hospital staff members feel a few things distinguish COVID-19 from the flu, H1N1 and other respiratory illnesses — besides the current pandemic being deadlier. For Usmani, it's the significantly greater ease with which COVID-19 spreads and its non-respiratory symptoms. For Seamans and Pisano, it's the variety of ways the virus affects everyone who has it.

And though it's only deadly for some, Pisano stressed, it can affect anyone. 

"A lot of people think it can't happen to them, but it can. It doesn't discriminate," she said. "This hits everybody."

The three providers have seen that harsh reality set in for those who've been hospitalized with COVID-19 in Auburn. Many are "devastated" by the news, Usmani said. Fear is another common reaction, one compounded by the fact patients aren't able to be comforted by family or friends due to the hospital's restricted visitation policy during the pandemic. Some also worry which of those loved ones they've exposed to the virus, the doctor added. The more of their stories they share, Seamans said, the harder it is not to get attached to them.

But people with COVID-19 need not fear, Usmani continued. Much more is known about the virus now than in March, like the ability of steroids to treat it by strengthening the respiratory system.

So while the doctor and his hospital colleagues ask the community to take the virus seriously, they don't believe it's cause for panic. People should maintain 6 feet of distance from others and wear masks when they can't, and if they suspect they have symptoms, they should quarantine and get tested. Usmani suggests following the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, which on Friday issued a statement advising the country not to travel for Thanksgiving: "The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with."

As the pandemic and its many disruptive effects continue, however, people also shouldn't disengage from each other entirely, Pisano said.

"We need to come together and help each other. Check on your neighbors and your friends. It is going to take a community to get through this," she said. "We will overcome this virus together."

Cayuga County leaders to residents: 'Thanksgiving should be different' due to COVID-19
  • Updated

A group of Cayuga County officials is asking the public to alter their Thanksgiving plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Cayuga County Health Department on Saturday released statements from a half-dozen business, civic and medical leaders. While the wording of each was different, the theme was the same: Avoid large gatherings and do your part to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Dr. John Cosachov, who is president of the Cayuga County Board of Health, asked residents to "give thanks a little differently this year." He highlighted the actions taken in the spring that limited the community spread of COVID-19. During the first few months of the pandemic, the county had 94 cases. That was when most businesses were closed due to the statewide shutdown and social distancing guidelines were adopted. 

But there has been a surge in COVID-19 cases in Cayuga County, especially in the past two months. More than two-thirds of the county's total confirmed cases have been reported in October and November. There have been 239 cases this month. 

Cosachov said that while some people who contract COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, others can be seriously ill and require hospitalization. 

"Those hospitalizations can be lengthy. That means hospital beds fill up, leaving less room for people who might need the hospital for other reasons such as cardiac care, surgery or childbirth," he said. "Every COVID infection carries the chance for hospitalization, and more people hospitalized means fewer beds available to others who might need them." 

Cosachov continued, "This year, our Thanksgiving should be different. We will celebrate with those in our household, but we won't be meeting with family from far away. There is always a chance someone could bring an uninvited guest with them or maybe carry an uninvited guest (COVID) back to their home." 

That sentiment was echoed by others, including Kathleen Cuddy, who is the county's public health director. Cuddy previously told The Citizen that county residents should avoid large gatherings for Thanksgiving

On Saturday, the health department provided an example of a superspreader event that occurred after 20 people attended a gathering over Halloween weekend. Thirteen people tested positive for COVID-19 and eight others had to quarantine because they were exposed to the positive cases. 

Health experts worry that there will be more superspreader events stemming from Thanksgiving gatherings. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recommends limiting Thanksgiving gatherings to people in your household and avoiding travel. 

Cuddy asked local residents to keep their circles small. 

"Our collective goal is to keep people healthy," she said. "We want people to be able to access the health care needed if they are not well. This is the time for us to remain vigilant in our efforts and wisely choose our actions for our personal and community health benefit." 

Two top elected officials in the county, Cayuga County Legislature Chairwoman Aileen McNabb-Coleman and Auburn Mayor Michael Quill, joined the calls to limit gatherings and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Tracy Verrier, who is executive director of the Cayuga Economic Development Agency, noted that it's important to prioritize public health to keep businesses open. 

Shaun O'Connor, who is the superintendent of the Weedsport Central School District, also asked the public to abide by COVID-19 guidelines. Earlier this month, Weedsport Jr.-Sr. High School shifted to remote learning for two weeks after more than 100 students were placed into quarantine because they were exposed to the virus. 

"Our school district's recent closing after the Halloween season warrants a reminder for all of us," O'Connor said. "It is critical for all to continue to adhere to the most important COVID safety protocols at all times, whether at school or outside of school." 

Statements from community leaders