Confirmed coronavirus cases have surged in the cities of Newburgh and Middletown and now far exceed the count in the Village of Kiryas Joel, despite an early spate of positive tests in that community that led elected officials to ask the state to declare it a containment zone.
Newburgh had 836 confirmed cases and Middletown had 715 as of Tuesday in the most recently updated counts by the Orange County Health Department. Those two cities now lead the county both in cases and in case ratios based on their populations, with Newburgh well in front with nearly 30 cases per 1,000 residents.
Kiryas Joel - also known as the Town of Palm Tree - now ranks fifth among Orange's 23 towns and cities with 511 confirmed cases, or about 20 per 1,000 residents. It also trails the Town of Wallkill and New Windsor.
Dr. Irina Gelman, the county's health commissioner, said Thursday that the places with the most known infections tend to have multi-family housing as a shared factor that contributes to the spread.
“All communities with high-density housing and areas of multi-family dwellings have had associated sporadic COVID-19 clusters,” Gelman said in an emailed statement. “That has contributed to the steep increase in the numbers in those municipalities.”
The county's first coronavirus map on March 27 showed that Kiryas Joel had 234 confirmed cases, more than triple the next-highest count of 71 in New Windsor. County Executive Steve Neuhaus had asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo by then to identify the community as a containment zone - a designation the state had given its first hot spot in New Rochelle - so that more resources would be directed there.
Leaders of seven towns and villages surrounding Kiryas Joel later renewed the containment-zone request in a joint letter that suggested some residents weren't practicing social distancing. Hasidic leaders and advocates denounced the requests and a similar one in Rockland County as a baseless and bigoted attack on their community.
Kiryas Joel's coronavirus cases have since grown at a slower pace than that of every other town and city in Orange.
Neuhaus said Thursday that the “containment zone” term gave a misleading sense of imprisonment and was requested merely to focus resources on fighting the infection spread. In a similar way, he said the county soon will deploy National Guard members to distribute safety instructions at newer hot spots in city apartment buildings and areas with migrant farm workers.
Monroe Supervisor Tony Cardone said he was pleased that social distancing seemed to be working in Kiryas Joel and frustrated that he and other municipal leaders were labeled anti-Semitic for requesting a containment zone.
“That isn't what this was about,” he said. “It's about preserving life. It's about preserving their lives.”
Kiryas Joel Administrator Gedalye Szegedin invoked that same value in a conference call with elected officials last month, saying that "life is the most important thing in our community“ and that “everything that needs to be done to protect life will be done to the utmost.”
The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group, has argued that earlier testing in Hasidic communities accounted for their initially high case numbers. It also cites the relatively low number of coronavirus deaths in Kiryas Joel - 12 out of 256 in Orange County - as evidence that its infection rate is not unusual.
OJPAC co-founder Yossi Gestetner said elected officials should have realized that sooner and may have misled people into thinking the coronavirus spread was confined to the Hasidic community, making them less careful. He argued officials should correct that misconception now by highlighting where the most virus cases truly are.