WATERTOWN — Coronavirus cases across the north country are spiking at a rate like never before. Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties have been reporting new cases in the double digits for well over a week, causing some to ask: Are we approaching “microcluster” zone territory?
One control room official — a group in charge of monitoring COVID-19 metrics across a region — in the north country said microcluster designation isn’t something people need to worry about here.
“We have a high rate of positivity,” control room member and Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chairman Scott A. Gray said Friday, “(but) we are not in the scope of a microcluster by any zip code.”
Last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued new guidelines for the state’s altered approach to addressing what have been termed microclusters of infection.
The state conducts such a high number of COVID-19 diagnostic tests each day that officials can easily map and pinpoint the data to target growing virus hot spots, or microclusters, which will then be targeted with vigorous testing.
Because of this, the state is able to better pinpoint the origin of a positive case, or cases, and initiate prohibitions in that area to curb the spread of the virus.
Microcluster zones are split into three colors which correlate with an area’s virus severity level — or positivity rate. The restrictions in place for microcluster zones vary by color — yellow being the lowest level, orange the middle level and red being the highest level of infection in a microcluster. Yellow is considered the precautionary zone, orange the warning zone and red is a cluster itself.
Restrictions implemented in microcluster zones include, among others, again pausing nonessential businesses, a transition to remote learning or a limitation on mass gatherings and attendance at houses of worship.
The metrics a zip code must meet in order to be deemed a microcluster vary depending on the population size of the county the zip code is in.
For zip codes located within a Tier 3 area — a county of 50,000 or more people, such as Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties — a zip code must have a seven-day rolling average positivity rate of 3.5% or higher for 10 days to reach yellow territory. That number increases to 4.5% in order to hit the orange zone, and 5.5% for 10 days to be a red zone microcluster.
For Tier 4 areas, which include counties of less than 50,000 people — including Lewis County — a zip code must have a seven-day rolling average positivity rate of 4% or higher for 10 days to reach yellow territory. That number increases to 5% in order to hit the orange zone, and 6% for 10 days to be a red zone microcluster.
For Tier 3 and Tier 4 areas, there must also be 15 or more new daily virus cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day average, all according to the governor’s office.
Mr. Gray put misinformation to rest Friday by confirming microclusters are tackled on a zip code level, not a county level. In other words, despite the fact that the tri-county region is seeing a spike in virus cases, a regional approach to prohibitions is a thing of the past.
Microclusters are dealt with on a zip code-by-zip code basis. For example, 13601 — Watertown’s zip code — would not see the same restrictions as 13619 — Carthage’s zip code — would see if either ever entered microcluster territory.
If a zip code begins to approach microcluster territory of any level, the state will give control room officials advanced notice, Mr. Gray said.
He also said the state’s microcluster mitigation strategy is the model going forward, but there’s no way to tell if that will change again in the future.
“Nothing is constant in this world of COVID,” Mr. Gray said.
If the infection rate “blows a gasket,” he added, there could be a change in strategy across the state.
The state previously dealt with mitigation strategy on a regional level, which is how the control room groups came about. The north country’s control room consists of officials from Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton, Essex and Hamilton counties.
The governor noted Friday that the testing positivity rate in all focus areas under the microcluster strategy is 4.55%, and outside the focus zone areas is 2.15%.
For now, north country residents can rest assured officials are doing everything possible to curb the virus’s spread and keep businesses open.