CARMEL, N.Y. - As states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona keep setting records that no wants to set regarding the coronavirus pandemic, New York State—and Putnam County in particular—have become shining examples of how to do it right.
Back in April, the county was seeing more than 50 new cases a day. Now there is just a handful per week and the number of deaths since the pandemic started has plateaued at 63. In the week of June 1-7, the county saw 25 new cases; in the week of June 29-July 5, that dropped to just 13, according to the Putnam County Department of Health.
“Initially, we were the epicenter and I’m happy to report we’ve done a great job here in Putnam County,” said Dr. Michael Nesheiwat, the county’s commissioner of health. “That’s because the people here have followed the guidance from the county and state departments of health and the [federal Centers for Disease Control] CDC. It comes down to educating the public: wearing a mask, washing hands and practicing social distancing and avoiding people who are sick. Overall, we are actually doing very well in Putnam County.”
Nesheiwat said that at the time of this writing—July 10—Putnam Hospital had had no new COVID-19 admissions over the last 24 hours and only one COVID-positive patient.
“I’ve been here for 38 years and I have to admit, no one was prepared for this,” said Kathy Peracciolo, supervising public health nurse for Putnam County. “We are doing disease investigation and get lab reports every day. We have to investigate each case that is positive and call them personally. We conduct an in-depth investigation and [compile] a list of their contacts, so they can be put on the 14-day quarantine. We do that with all communicable diseases; it’s just that the numbers are really different for this.”
Nesheiwat said it’s exhausting work, and he’s proud of the staffers who tirelessly carry it out.
“I’ve been in the trenches with them from Day 1 and I really have to applaud the people who work here,” he said. “They have done a tremendous job. They are so confident and professional and compassionate. I am so proud of them. It’s an honor to be part of it.”
Peracciolo said the work is not only grueling but can be heartbreaking as well. “When we do these investigations, we get to hear their stories and we are in tears sometimes,” she said.
Nesheiwat has witnessed the impact.
“It takes its toll on everyone,” he said. “It is a tough situation. But we are on a decline and hope to stay that way. I see it firsthand—people here are obeying the guidelines.”
That includes wearing a mask. A recent report by PBS Newshour showed that states that required masks have seen a 25 percent dip in COVID-19 cases. However, those that don’t mandate masks have seen cases jump 84 percent, the report said.
As cases continue to grow exponentially in other states, Putnam health officials said precautions are being taken here to make sure the virus is kept from coming back.
Peracciolo said the state Department of Health notifies the county of travelers returning from problem states. New York airports, Penn Station and the Port Authority are all keeping track of such travelers.
“[Those travelers] are asked to fill out a form and are put into our contact tracing system and are traced for 14 days and are contacted daily to see how they are doing,” she explained. “We had a cluster who came in from Florida. They were away when this all happened and came back. They were put on quarantine and were very cooperative. People just got caught in the middle. It’s not punitive.”
Nesheiwat said communication is the key when dealing with those types of situations.
“When people understand the motive, they are very cooperative,” he said.
Some expressed concern over the recent rallies against racism that took place in Mahopac, Carmel and some other Putnam County communities in which some people neglected to wear masks or social distance properly. Nonetheless, those events didn’t seem to cause a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“But how many of those people were actually Putnam County residents?” Peracciolo wondered. “We only have access to Putnam County residents.”
As the region enters Phase 4 of the reopening, larger crowds are being allowed to congregate with certain guidelines that must be followed. Sycamore Park’s beach is open; the county is moving ahead with its Friday night concert series and barbecue at the Putnam County Golf Course in Mahopac, and the town of Carmel Rec Department is starting up its Sunset Concert Series at Chamber Park. While he has some worries about that, Nesheiwat said, he believes county residents will handle it.
“Our job is public health, and so we are always concerned,” he said. “Any organism, bacteria, flu, worries us, so, of course, we are concerned. But it comes down to communication and education. I believe our people are smart enough to follow the guidelines. They’ve shown that. We are here to make sure public health is not compromised.”
“It’s a fine line, but we have to try to get back to some sense of normalcy,” she said. “It’s a slow roll, social distancing and wearing masks. Fingers crossed we will come out ahead of the game.”
There was one scare earlier this month when an employee at Tops Friendly Market in Carmel was identified as having the virus. The health department immediately sent out an alert and Nesheiwat said he believes it was contained.
Anyone who worked at or visited the grocery store on July 2 from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. or July 5 from 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus and was urged to watch for symptoms.
A spokesperson for the Buffalo area-based chain issued a statement saying, “We want all customers, vendors and associates to know that the entire store has been deep-cleaned and sanitized in response to this alert.”
Nesheiwat said the employee “had mild symptoms on the second day.”
“Tops was cooperative with us,” he said. “It’s a low risk because of the time of day the employee was there. The exposure there was minimal.”
Putnam County businesses overall have been doing a good job during the pandemic, Nesheiwat said, and he especially had high praise for restaurants and food vendors.
“A lot of our inspectors are working well with restaurant owners, who are doing a great job and are policing themselves,” the health commissioner said. “They have masks on, people are sanitizing and doing a great job. They want to open up and still be safe. We are going to increase occupancy to 50 and they are separating the tables. I think we are on the right track.”
Nesheiwat said that if county residents continue to follow the guidelines—wear masks, social distance, wash hands—COVID-19 will soon become just a bad memory.
“I am very optimistic, as long as we follow the guidelines,” he said. “No one can predict it… we are learning from each other, and hopefully, it will end soon, and life will go on.”