The cluster of positive COVID-19 cases linked to the recent Horace Greeley High School graduation rose to 19 on Tuesday afternoon.
County Executive George Latimer and county Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler made a joint announcement Monday in front of New Castle Town Hall that the number was at 14, before the amount jumped to 19. At least one person who tested positive lives in the Town of Mount Pleasant. Amler said she was unable to provide information regarding how many of the positive cases were students or adults.
The state Department of Health and the Westchester County Health Department continue to work with Chappaqua school officials to identify the individuals who attended the June 20 drive-in graduation ceremony at the Chappaqua train station or a subsequent gathering where they may have been exposed and if there may be additional cases. The New York State Contact Tracing Program has been reaching out to identify anyone who attended the ceremony or the post-ceremony gatherings and is urging them to get tested.
County and state health officials also continue to implore anyone who attended the ceremony to quarantine. That includes those who attended a non-school-sanctioned event following the ceremony that was attended by Greeley juniors and seniors and students from surrounding school districts that lasted into June 21.
Health officials warned that regardless of the results of a person’s COVID-19 test, their isolation must continue until July 5 if they attended any of those events. For the 14 individuals who have tested positive, their two-week period begins the day they received their test result, Amler said on Monday.
Latimer said despite excellent progress having been made in controlling COVID-19 in the county and region and the steady decline in cases, everyone must take the virus seriously.
“This is a disease that has killed 1,400 people (in Westchester County) and the pleasurable use of your time and my time is secondary to stopping the spread of the disease because more people could die potentially,” Latimer said.
Last Saturday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the state Department of Health to launch an investigation into potential exposures from the graduation. He issued an executive order mandating that anyone who attended the graduation must quarantine until this Sunday, July 5.
“We learned this lesson in Westchester,” Cuomo said during his Monday briefing. “It was one person in New Rochelle. We had the first hotspot in the United States. One person led to hundreds of cases. One person.”
Amler said there were two sets of families that had traveled to Florida before the graduation, returned to the area and attended the ceremony. It wasn’t until after the event that the initial person who tested positive began exhibiting symptoms, she said.
Amler said the first positive from the cluster came back on June 24. By last Saturday morning four more people who had attended or had contact with that individual were confirmed to have tested positive. That number grew to 12 on Sunday and 14 on Monday and 19 on Tuesday.
It is uncertain how many people attended the graduation or the post-ceremony festivities. While there were 336 graduating seniors, according to the Chappaqua School District, it was not immediately known how many members of the class attended or the number of family members or school personnel who were on hand on June 20.
There were two New Castle police officers who were present and they are in quarantine, said Police Lt. James Dumser.
A statement from Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Ackerman over the weekend mentioned that the graduation was a carefully-planned event that strictly followed the governor’s executive orders and state health guidelines. Clear guidance and protocols were continually communicated to graduates and families.
“Unfortunately, at the event, and despite police presence, numerous individuals failed to follow our protocols,” Ackerman stated.
Attendees were supposed to remain in their cars throughout the ceremony, but on local social media posts on Friday it was mentioned that many of the graduates were interacting.
Dumser said the two officers at the event told school district officials to make an announcement to have everyone return to their vehicles when people were seen mingling. For the most part, the instructions were followed, he said.
New Castle Deputy Supervisor Jeremy Saland said that it may seem extreme to quarantine everyone who attended the ceremony, but it is the responsibility of public health officials to protect people beyond the town’s borders.
“The governor’s decision to do this may not directly be based on the science and medicine but it’s an efficient way and the best way to ensure that the potential spread is limited,” Saland said.
Latimer urged residents to put the good of the public over their own desires.
“If we’re going to overcome the disease, not just in Chappaqua but in the United States of America, it will take some control and self-discipline,” he said. “There are not enough police in the world that can come to your front door to make you do what is right.”
On June 14, the state issued guidance in hopes of ensuring any district which was planning to host a graduation ceremony would follow protective measures including social distancing, limits on attendees, face coverings and other steps.