State makes it optional to trace COVID-19, Albany County follows suit

— From the NYS Governor’s Office

Governor Kathy Hochul displays a map showing three regions where hospital capacity is a concern.

ALBANY COUNTY — The state is urging “self-management” when a person has been exposed to, or infected with, COVID-19.

At her press conference on Tuesday morning, Governor Kathy Hochul said that, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York State is making it optional for counties to contact trace.

The state’s acting health commissioner, Mary Bassett, described a new state website that will provide guidance in self-management. “If you test positive,” she said, “you should no longer expect a call from your health department.”

“We will no longer be doing contact tracing because the numbers of new daily positive cases is too high to keep up with in a time sensitive way,” Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen wrote in an email Wednesday morning, answering Enterprise questions.

“We ask that those who test positive notify those who have been around them so they may take appropriate action,” Whalen said.

Last week, as cases of the Omicron variant surged, Albany County continued to call everyone who tested positive for COVID-19, although it took more time than formerly to work through the list from the state since it wasn’t prioritized.

Albany County’s seven-day average of new daily cases as of Wednesday was up to 1,072 — a record since the start of the pandemic.

And that number is low since accessing tests remains a problem. Some sick people have been unable to get tested for COVID and not all county residents who test positive with at-home tests may be reporting the results to the web link set up by the county.

The federal government has yet to launch its promised website from which Americans can order at-home test kits to be delivered by mail.

Asked about protocols for schools, Whalen told The Enterprise on Wednesday morning, “There is additional state guidance for the schools that we are told may be issued today. In the interim, we are continuing to work with school partners daily to assist them in their efforts including test-to-stay.”

Whalen said that her department issued a memo to schools that it has revised its isolation and quarantine guidance to align with the CDC and state health department recommendations.

The Dec. 27 CDC guidance shortened the isolation period from 10 to five days for asymptomatic patients and said vaccinated people who have been exposed to the virus do not need to quarantine but should wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure.

“But the schools can be more stringent if they choose,” Whalen said.

“We are changing our approach to contact tracing because of the winter surge,” said Bassett at Tuesday’s press conference. “As everyone knows, the number of people who’ve tested positive has been setting records across our state, across the nation, around the world.”

Neighboring Canada is now listed by the CDC as having a “very high” — the top of four categories — rate of transmission. “Even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants,” says the CDC of going to Canada.

The number of COVID cases in New York State is now four-fold higher than in the beginning of December, Bassett said.

“Omicron is very contagious and has a very short incubation period …,” said Bassett. “So the result is a very large number of people who have tested positive, a very short window for intervention to disrupt transmission, which is the purpose of contact tracing to break transmission chains.”

So, instead of expecting a call from the county health department, Bassett said, New Yorkers should instead follow the isolation and quarantine guidance on the new website.

Consequently, said Bassett, “We’re moving to more self-management when a person has either tested positive or been exposed to someone who tested positive, and less active outreach by departments.”

This will allow staff at health departments to “focus on where we can make the biggest difference  — that’s in testing and vaccination,” she said.

Bassett said the state would launch a website on Wednesday — at ny.gov/isolation — to provide “very clear guidance for the public and for employers.”

 

#VaxForKids

On Tuesday, Hochul announced a campaign to increase vaccination rates among children age 5 and older: #VaxForKids.

As of Jan. 10,  32.2 percent of children 5 to 11 years old have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine and 21.6 percent have completed their initial vaccine series.

Comparatively, 73.4 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and 65.4 percent have completed their initial vaccine series.

Children age 5 and older are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. As of Jan. 7, adolescents 12 and older are eligible for a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at least five months after completing their initial vaccine series.

On Jan. 7, Bassett said at a press conference, with the surge of the Omicron variant, the rate of increase among children is faster than with adults.

Among children under 5 — too young to be vaccinated — the increase is nearly five-fold, she said, displaying charts that are included in a report she issued on Friday.

For those in the 12-to-18 age group — a group eligible for vaccination — the increase has been tenfold.

Comparatively, for adults, the rate has gone up between two and two-and-a-half fold.

Although a smaller number of children than adults are being hospitalized with the virus, the number of hospitalized children has gone from 85 at the beginning of December to 571 now. 

“The vast majority of children who are hospitalized are unvaccinated ….,” said Bassett. “Over 90 percent of the very young [hospitalized] group, 5- to 11-year-olds have not been vaccinated; that needs to change.”

“Those children who are hospitalized do not have to be scared, frightened, lying in a hospital bed; they do not have to be there,” said Hochul, urging vaccination.

Hochul on Friday announced new guidance recommending booster doses for all New Yorkers ages 12 and older.

The guidance, following action by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends that people, including the newly authorized 12- to15-year-old age group, who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should receive a booster dose at least five months after their second dose; the previous recommended interval was at least six months.

In addition, moderately to severely immunocompromised 5- to 11-year-olds can receive an additional primary dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine 28 days after their second dose. At this time, only the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is authorized and recommended for children ages 5-11.

The CDC last Friday also recommended the same change to a five-month booster interval for the Moderna vaccine, which is authorized only for people 18 years and older.

“Ninety-one percent of 5- to 11-year-olds newly admitted to hospitals are unvaccinated,” said Hochul at Tuesday’s press conference. “Doesn’t have to be that way,” she said, calling it “unnecessary, preventable.”

She said of vaccination, “It’s safe; it’s free, and it protects even the younger siblings who are not eligible.”

Pediatric providers, parents, and guardians are encouraged by the governor’s office to visit ny.gov/VaxForKids, ny.gov/Boosters, and ny.gov/GetTheVaxFacts for “trustworthy information and resources about the COVID-19 vaccine and children and adolescents,” said a Tuesday release, promoting the new campaign.

The COVID-19 vaccine is free and widely available statewide, including at over 2,000 locations administering the vaccine for children. All state mass vaccination sites are offering the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children five years and older, booster doses for New Yorkers 12 years and older, and additional doses for immunocompromised children five years and older. Parents and guardians can visit vaccines.gov, text their ZIP code to 438829, or call 1-800-232-0233 to find nearby locations.

 

“Glimmer of hope”

At her press conference on Tuesday, Hochul displayed graphs and said of the surge, “Looks like we might be cresting over that peak.”

Hochul went on, “The rate of increase is slowing down, but they’re still high … We are not at the end. But I want to say that this is, to me, a glimmer of hope, a glimmer of hope in a time when we desperately need that.”

She said that New York City is “starting to plateau” but that there are still increases in infection rates on the Southern Tier, in the Capital Region, and in Western New York.

“Upstate, the numbers are continuing to go up, without a doubt,” said Hochul. “So we think that upstate is about two weeks behind downstate.”

Hospitalizations, Hochul noted, lag behind infections.

She displayed a map showing three regions in red — Mohawk Valley, Finger Lakes, and Central New York — where hospital capacity is a concern. For two weeks, nonessential elective procedures will be limited at hospitals in these regions, Hochul said.

At her press briefing last Friday, Hochul reported on the numbers of people who are hospitalized because of severe COVID as opposed to the 42 percent statewide who were hospitalized for other reasons and tested positive for COVID-19 once in the hospital.

In New York City, Hochul said, it’s about 50-50. “So, half of the hospitalizations in New York City are someone who needs to be there because of the severity of their COVID situation and the other half are there for other reasons,” she said.

On Tuesday, she went over the numbers in that split again. In the Capital Region, as of Tuesday, 24 percent of the 382 patients hospitalized with COVID — 92 patients — were not admitted because of COVID. The other 76 percent —290 patients — were admitted due to COVID or its complications.

Hochul also repeated an earlier plea: “Please don’t go to the emergency room to get a test.”

Hochul said that 20 percent of recent emergency-room visitors were there simply to be tested for COVID-19.

Hence, the state has deployed testing vans to hospital parking lots to ease the burden on emergency rooms.

Basset said the dominant strain — over 90 percent of cases — remains the Omicron variant. Some Delta also remains, she said.

“We have not identified the variant identified in France,” Bassett said; that variant, B.1.640.2, has not appeared to spread widely in the two months since it was first identified.

New York State has ordered 49 million over-the-counter tests and so far has received and distributed 13 million, said Jackie Bray, Commissioner of Homeland Security at Hochul’s Tuesday press conference.

“We want to be really clear that schools are our top priority for access to these over-the-counter tests,” said Bray.

Over 3 million test kits have gone to New York City schools, said Hochul, and 4.6 million to schools outside the city.

 

Nursing homes

Nearly a million tests have gone out to nursing homes statewide, said Bray on Tuesday.

“We’re starting to see an increase in cases in our nursing homes, as much as we’ve done to protect them with the vaccinations, the booster shots,” said Hochul at Friday’s press briefing.

 “So now we’re going to be making sure that, when visitors do come in,” she said, “that they have to wear a better mask. They have to wear a surgical type mask and they have to have a negative COVID test within 24 hours.”

Hochul said, because of federal regulations, the state cannot require visitors to be vaccinated.

“This will spread like wildfire,” she said of infections in nursing homes. “It is starting to in some places, and we’re getting a real clear view of what’s going on, but we believe that the visitors are a point of vulnerability for us. The workers, the patients getting vaccinated, that’s great.”

Starting Wednesday, all nursing-home visitors must wear surgical-type masks and must present upon entry a COVID negative test taken within 24 hours of their visit.

Hochul on Friday also announced her plan to require that all covered health-care workers previously required to receive a COVID-19 vaccination under the health department’s Aug. 26 emergency regulation must also now receive a COVID-19 booster dose within two weeks of becoming eligible, absent a valid medical exemption.

Consistent with the Aug. 26 emergency regulation, there is no test-out option. Following review and approval by the Public Health and Health Planning Council at its emergency meeting on Tuesday, the emergency regulation will be filed with the Department of State, making the regulation effective.

 

Food help

New Yorkers enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, will receive the maximum allowable level of food benefits for January, Hochul announced on Tuesday.

All households participating in SNAP — including those already at the maximum level of benefits — will receive a supplemental allotment later this month, bringing in roughly $230 million in federal funding into the state's economy.

“As we continue to endure the difficulties of the pandemic, too many New Yorkers are struggling to make ends meet,” Hochul said in a statement. “These additional food benefits will play a critical role in eliminating food insecurity throughout the state. As the cold weather puts pressure on family budgets, these additional SNAP funds will provide much-needed relief.”

The emergency assistance supplement is provided to households that do not ordinarily receive the maximum allowable benefit per month on SNAP. Those households already near or at the maximum benefit level  — $835 for a household of four — will receive a supplemental payment of at least $95.

In the first months after the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, New York saw a substantial increase in SNAP enrollment.

The initial spike has remained sustained, and recipient counts remain about where they were at the end of the initial surge, which is substantially higher than pre-pandemic levels.

As of November 2021, there were nearly 1.6 million households totaling 2.77 million New Yorkers that were receiving SNAP benefits.

 

OGS restricts capitol visitors

Starting on Monday, visitors to the capitol now must be fully vaccinated or provide proof of a negative COVID test within 48 hours, the Office of General Services announced on Saturday.

The office also announced that the Legislative Office Building will be closed until further notice “as a necessary precaution in response to the evolving COVID-19 situation.”

On Monday, the Cultural Education Center announced that the same rules — no admittance without proof of vaccination or a negative test — will apply to all visitors, including volunteers, interns, contractors, and vendors, effective Jan. 12.

All visitors will be required to enter the capitol from the Empire State Plaza concourse level. Proof must be shown along with valid identification before entry. Masks will be required at all times, and there will be limited capacity in the capitol to align with social distancing best practices.

Authorized state workers and others with state-issued access cards will continue to access both buildings via all normal entrances, turnstiles, and portals. The New York State Police will continue to staff all security screening access points.

 

Albany County

This week, Albany County’s 96th of dealing with pandemic, seven residents died of COVID-19: a woman in her thirties, a man in his fifties, a man in his sixties, two men and a woman each in their eighties, and a man in his nineties.

The county’s COVID-19 death toll is now at 480.

“Not only do I have to report the most recent Albany County resident losing their life to COVID complications, we also have the highest number of residents currently in ICUs with the virus since January 7, 2021. This number isn’t far from the peak of 24 individuals we had reported back on January 4 of last year,” said County Executive McCoy in his daily COVID press release on Wednesday morning.

There were 23 new hospitalizations since Tuesday, McCoy reported, and there are now 119 county residents hospitalized with the coronavirus — a net increase of one. Eighteen of those hospital patients are in intensive-care units, up from 16 on Tuesday.

Surges in COVID hospitalizations typically come several weeks after infections surge.

On Friday morning, McCoy reported 1,166 new COVID-19 cases in Albany County. The county’s most recent seven-day average of cases per 100,000 is up to 243.0 and its infection rate is 19.5 percent.

Statewide, as of Jan. 10, the seven-day average per 100,000 population is 381.66 and the infection rate is 20.91.

Johns Hopkins, which has been tracking positivity rates across the United States since the spring of 2020, reported on Wednesday that not a single state is below the 5-percent threshold set by the World Health Organization. 

On May 12, 2020, the WHO advised governments that, before reopening, rates of positivity in testing — that is, out of all tests conducted, how many came back positive for COVID-19 — should remain at 5 percent or lower for at least 14 days.

“And while the situation we’re in is far from ideal, it could be much worse if it weren’t for people doing their part by getting vaccinated, getting their booster shots, wearing masks and practicing social distancing,” said McCoy in his Friday release. “We need these protective measures to continue as we push through the worst of the pandemic and fight back against the Omicron variant.”

As of Tuesday, 79.5 percent of all Albany County residents have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, and 72.1 percent have been fully vaccinated. The first-dose vaccination rate for county residents 18 and older is 88.3 percent.

Statewide, 95 percent of adult New Yorkers have received at least one shot while 83.4 percent have completed a series.

More Regional News

  • Graphs on the county’s website show the surge this January, with the Omicron variant still making up 95 percent of the cases statewide, was about three times higher than the surge last January, but, at the same time, another graph shows hospitalizations with COVID-related cases were about three-quarters the number in January 2020. Hospitalization surges typically lag about a week behind infection surges so the county’s hospitalizations, while they may be leveling, have not yet plunged like the infection rate.

  • New York State has requested an additional $1.6 billion from the United States Treasury Department to help tenants and landlords who have applied for Emergency Rental Assistance.

  • Tim Norray raises bees in the Hilltowns.

    As bird and insect populations plummet, pesticides that can harm bees and other pollinators are b

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