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COVID-19 clusters growing in Southern Tier and elsewhere

David Robinson
New York State Team
The Chemung County Health Department ordered Lighthouse Baptist Church in Horseheads closed after a COVID-19 cluster was traced to the church.

Horseheads church and Corning Center outbreaks part of larger statewide spike

State health officials will deploy rapid COVID-19 testing machines to target growing clusters in the Hudson Valley and Southern Tier linked to religious groups, a nursing home and at least one pub, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.

The effort included tracking COVID-19 outbreaks in some communities in Rockland and Orange counties with as many as 30% of tests coming back positive Sunday. About 200 rapid testing machines, which provide results in 15 minutes, will be made available based on ZIP codes with the highest infection rates, Cuomo said.

Of the 834 positive COVID-19 tests processed Sunday in New York, 25% came from just 10 ZIP codes, including two in Rockland and one in Orange, according to Cuomo.

"The key with these clusters is to jump on them quickly," he said during a press briefing.

Cuomo noted the effort will also track infections through local hospitals and data analysis to identify and isolate more of the New Yorkers driving the statewide positivity rate above 1% in recent days.

About 1.5% of tests in New York came back positive Sunday, the highest level since July. Test positivity rates are a key indicator for researchers assessing whether COVID-19 infection is widespread.

The Hudson Valley clusters are occurring in Rockland and Orange counties, where dozens of cases linked to large Orthodox Jewish communities are being connected to a similar cluster in Brooklyn.

In Orange and Rockland, the positive test rate has topped 4% in recent days as local and state authorities reached out to religious leaders in an attempt to get more people to wear face coverings and practice social distancing as the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur began Sunday.

The Southern Tier clusters included the cases linked to Lighthouse Baptist Church in Chemung County, where about 300 people have been diagnosed or identified as contacts potentially exposed to COVID-19 as a result of the cluster, health officials said.

More: Lawyer says Horseheads church should be reopened, First Amendment rights have been violated

Cuomo did not disclose the names of a Stueben County nursing home and Broome County pub linked to Southern Tier clusters, and state Health Department officials did not immediately answer questions Monday about the issue. The Southern Tier had an infection rate of 1.4 on Saturday, state data show.

The Steuben County Public Health Department had previously named the Corning Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing as a facility of concern. At least 40 positive cases have been identified there in the past 10 days.

Monika Hammer, spokesperson for Broome County Executive Jason Garnar, said the cluster mentioned by the governor is actually tied to multiple establishments.

"The governor’s mentioned cluster is tied to several local establishments that have already been reported publicly by the Broome County Health Department," she said in a statement. "We are coordinating with state agencies on this."

The COVID-19 flare ups in parts of New York come amid more significant and widespread outbreaks of the deadly respiratory disease in many other states, such as Wisconsin, which had an 18% positive test rate, Cuomo said.

Meanwhile, New York had a one-day COVID-19 tally on Friday of 1,005, a level not seen since June 5, but still far below the pandemic peak in April and May, when new infections often tallied between 8,000 and 10,000 per day.

Cuomo noted the clusters account for a large chunk of the statewide tally of new infections.

For example, the top 10 ZIP codes at the heart of the COVID-19 clusters represented about 1 in 4 of the state's new cases on Sunday, but only 2.9% of the total population, Cuomo said.

Cuomo also urged local governments to improve enforcement of social distancing and mask-wearing orders, warning the state could be forced to pause reopening plans in some communities if COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

"You’re going to make more people unhappy if the infection rate goes up, and then we’re going to have to close businesses or tighten up gatherings," he said.

Of the communities with the highest rates, Cuomo noted 30% of tests came back positive Sunday in the 10977 ZIP code in Rockland. The 10952 ZIP code had 25% positive.

In Orange County, the 10950 ZIP code had 22% positive.

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene noted its plan to curb the the cluster in Brooklyn, as well as rising cases in Queens neighborhoods, included new enforcement actions if the COVID-19 infection rate does not stabilize soon.

"For the first time in the city's recovery period, there could be the immediate scaling back of activities in these ZIP codes if progress is not made by Monday evening," the agency wrote on Twitter.

David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud