Week CL: Albany County has ‘high’ community level, says CDC

— Photo from NYS Governor’s Office

On Women’s Equality Day, Governor Kathy Hochul, right, announced that Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, center, will oversee a study to examine the impact of COVID-19 on women in the workforce and explore equitable solutions. Starletta Smith, left, who directs the YWCA of the Greater Capital Region, spoke with passion about the hardship women endured during the pandemic when many had to choose between being employed and caring for their children.

ALBANY COUNTY — This week, Albany County once again is designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a “high” community level of COVID-19.

Last week, New York City, Long Island, and the Mid-Hudson region, which presses against Albany County, were all labeled “high.” Those same areas had significantly higher rates of COVID cases caused by the super contagious XBB.1.5 sublineage of the Omicron variant than in the rest of the state.

Now, what had been a solid bloc of “high” designations has just Queens, Richmond, and Bronx counties in New York City labeled “high” along with Orange and Sullivan counties while the rest of the bloc are now labeled “medium” or even “low.”

Meanwhile, Albany and neighboring Rensselaer counties, which were labeled “medium” last week, are now high.

CDC guidance is to wear masks indoors in public when the community level is “high.”

Nationwide,  from Jan 15 to 21, XBB.1.5 made up 49 percent of new cases, the CDC reports, followed by BQ.1.1 at 27 percent and BS.1 at 13 percent.

Meanwhile, in our region, which includes New York, New Jersey, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, a whopping 87 percent of new cases are caused by the XBB.1.5 sublineage of Omicron, followed by BQ.1.1 at 6.8 percent and BQ.1 at 3.6 percent.

The XBB.1.5 sublineage, first confirmed in New York State in October 2022, continues to be the dominant variant in New York, according to the state’s health department. For the first two weeks of January, 55.6 percent of new cases statewide were XBB.1.5.

Albany County had been designated “medium” by the CDC for the last four weeks, which followed two weeks of a “low” designation. That was preceded by four weeks of being labeled “medium” after 13 weeks of being labeled “high.”

The weekly metrics the CDC used to determine the current “high” level for Albany County are:

— Albany County now has a case rate of about 102 per 100,000 of population, down from 120 last week and 107 two weeks ago but up from 79 three weeks ago and higher than almost all the case counts for the two months before that, except for the high of 104 nine weeks ago;

— For the important COVID hospital admission rate, Albany County has a rate of 22.2 per 100,000, up from 18 last week, the same as 22.2 two weeks ago but up from 16 three weeks ago and again up from the counts for the two preceding months; and

— Albany County now has 7.2 percent of its staffed hospital beds filled with COVID patients, down from 7.9 last week but up from 7.1 percent two weeks ago and 6.5 percent three weeks ago and again higher than all counts for the two months prior.


Vax advice

The Food and Drug Administration is proposing a plan for annual vaccination against COVID-19.

In a briefing document to be discussed on Jan. 26 by the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, the FDA proposes a worldwide approach of annual vaccination with bivalent doses.

After going over the four vaccines authorized in the United States — messenger RNA vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech as well as vaccines by Janssen and Novavax — the document says, “Although the use of the bivalent mRNA boosters is supported by the available evidence, their deployment has been associated with significant implementation complexities.

“Given these complexities, and the available data, a move to a single vaccine composition for primary and booster vaccinations should be considered. This simplification of vaccine composition should reduce complexity, decrease vaccine administration errors due to the complexity of the number of different vial presentations, and potentially increase vaccine compliance by allowing clearer communication.”

The paper advises considering “an approach to both simplifying the immunization schedule, and periodically updating the composition of COVID-19 vaccines as needed.”

A process would be set up, the paper advises, “for vaccine strain selection recommendations, similar in many ways to that used for seasonal influenza vaccines, based on prevailing and predicted variants that would take place by June to allow for vaccine production by September.”

The paper also says that, moving forward, most people may need only one dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine to restore protective immunity for a period of time. Two doses may be needed for people, like the very young, with a low likelihood of prior exposure or for people, like older and immunocompromised individuals, who may not generate a protective immune response.

“Similar to the approach with influenza,” the paper says, “the global nature of SARS-CoV-2 strain evolution warrants a global response when evaluating and recommending vaccine strain composition changes. Ideally, any change in vaccine composition, when appropriate, would be implemented broadly and would be coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) with national regulatory authorities.”


Gender gap

In August, on Women’s Equality Day, at an event at the University at Albany, the governor announced that the state’s labor department would examine the impact of COVID-19 on women in the workforce and explore equitable solutions.

“And boy, this pandemic was cruel for women,” said Kathy Hochul at the time. “We’re going to peel back every dynamic, and let’s look at not just in the workplace, but what happened to women when the decisions were made to have all the kids go home and learn remotely? Wow. Wow, what a mistake that was ….”

The state’s labor commissioner, Roberta Reardon, who is overseeing the study, said at the August event, “When women are not part of our workforce, we are literally leaving money on the table. It damages our economy and it bruises our culture.”

Reardon also described her own experience of metaphorically opening a door and not seeing another woman and then either walking away from a great opportunity or feeling “like I had to armor up to be able to go into that room or I was not seen.”

She concluded, “That should never happen again … it’s just not right.”

Reardon said that taking “a closer look to see what the real story is” will lead to implementing “real solutions right now.”

This week, the labor department announced a series of hearings that New Yorkers can register to attend or to provide testimony. Two hearings have been scheduled.

The first hearing is in New York City on Jan. 26, starting at 11 a.m. and has this livestream link. The second, on Jan. 31, also beginning at 11 a.m., is in Albany at the Empire State Plaza, Concourse Meeting Room 2-3, and has this livestream link.

New Yorkers who want to participate can fill out a registration form, which has space available for written testimony, to be submitted by Feb. 15.

“In recent years, we had made significant progress addressing pay inequities for women in New York State, but the pandemic was a setback that disproportionately affected women, particularly single mothers and minorities. We must renew our efforts to address this issue,” said Reardon in a release announcing the hearings.

“COVID-19’s devastating grip put a strain on more than just our economy, and it is our job to see just how deep the wound is,” she said, “especially for women and women of color who were already struggling beforehand.”

The report, titled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Women in the Workforce with an Update on 2023 Gender Wage Gap,” will be released in March 2023. It builds on the findings of the 2018 Gender Wage Gap report, co-chaired by Hochul and Reardon, which included a number of policy and programmatic recommendations to close the wage gap.


Electric, gas unpaid bill relief

Also this week, Hochul announced that 478,000 residential customers and 56,000 small businesses in New York State will receive assistance totaling $672 million to pay off unaffordable past-due utility bills.

This is the largest utility customer financial assistance program in state history, according to the governor’s office, and it applies to people who are not defined as “low income.”

“Every New Yorker deserves affordable energy, yet too many New Yorkers are at risk of having their lights turned off due to financial problems caused by the pandemic,” Hochul said in a release, announcing the relief.

The debt-forgiveness program was approved on Jan. 19 by the New York State Public Service Commission. The one-time credits provide relief to all residential non-low-income customers and small-commercial customers for the period through May 1, 2022, similar to a program approved last summer for low-income customers.

The recommendations were made by the Energy Affordability Policy Working Group, a group of stakeholders including prominent consumer advocacy groups in the state.

The working group proposed a statewide program to resolve all arrears through May 1, 2022, of approximately 75 percent of residential non-low-income and small business customers, and partially resolve arrears for approximately 25 percent of remaining customers through a one-time credit.

The financial cost to New Yorkers of adopting the arrears relief program is less than the estimated $1 billion to $1.3 billion cost of inaction, the governor’s office said, and it will also potentially avoid a significant amount of downgrading of customers’ credit.

The automatic credit is limited by an “up to” monetary cap for each utility. This second phase would also allow residential non-low-income customers who previously had their service terminated in 2022 for non-payment to participate, so that their eligible arrears might be resolved.

Unpaid consumer and small-business utility debts have risen considerably since March 2020, the governor’s office said, and are beyond the ability of most impacted New Yorkers to pay.

The relief will result in an increase of 0.5 percent on the average customer’s total bill, an increase that will end in one to four years for most of the state, depending on the utility and the amount of existing arrears.

New York State Electric & Gas and Rochester Gas & Electric issued a Jan. 19 release, quoting their president, Patricia Nilsen: “Based on current market prices, the average residential customer is expected to see a 20 percent increase in electricity supply price from December through March over last year, and about 40 percent more for the gas supply price.

“We recognize that it has been a difficult winter season for many of our customers and will continue working to make sure customers are getting any available assistance they need to heat their homes.”

Qualifying residential and small-business customers are eligible if they have any past-due balance from bills for service through May 1, 2022, reduced through a one-time bill credit.

For NYSEG customers, the residential cap is up to $1,000 and the small-business cap is up to $1,250. For RG&E customers, the residential and small-business caps are the same: up to $1,500.

To qualify for a bill credit in 2023, an individual must have a past-due balance for service billed through May 1, 2022 and be a residential customer who did not previously receive an electric or gas bill credit. Small-business customers with usage below a certain point for electricity and gas in the past 12 months who have a past-due balance for service billed through May 1, 2022 are also eligible.

Residential and small-business customers who meet the criteria will have their bill credits processed automatically, and do not need to take any action. They will be notified by a bill message once the credit is applied.

In addition, residential customers will not have their service suspended for non-payment until after March 1, 2023, or 30 days after credits are applied, whichever is later.

Customers who are enrolled in a NYSEG or RG&E’s bill discount program or Energy Assistance Program by Dec. 31, 2022 or who have received benefits under New York State’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program or the Home Energy Assistance Program Regular Arrears Supplement last heating season and previously received a bill relief credit, will not receive an additional credit in 2023.

For more information on bill assistance or other available resources, visit nyseg.com/HelpWithBill.


Unemployment holds constant

On Tuesday, the labor department released preliminary unemployment rates for December 2022, showing that the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment held constant at 4.3 percent.

For the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, the unemployment rate was down slightly from 2.6 percent in December 2021 to 2.5 percent this past December.

Albany County itself had a rate of 2.5 percent.

In December 2021, Albany had 150,700 people employed, which grew to 153,300 this past December — an increase of 2.6 percent.

The corresponding numbers for unemployment are: In December 2021, Albany had 4,000 unemployed compared to 3,900 unemployed this past December — a decrease of 0.1 percent.

Earlier in the week, on Jan. 19, the labor department released a report showing the number of private-sector jobs in New York State increased over the month of November by 22,100, or 0.3 percent, to 8,105,700 in December 2022.

At the same time, the number of private-sector jobs in the United States increased by 0.2 percent in December 2022.

New York State’s private-sector jobs, not seasonally adjusted, increased by 271,800, or 3.4 percent, over the year in December 2022, which exceeded the 3.2-percent increase in the number of private-sector jobs in the U.S.

The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate held constant at 4.3 percent in December 2022. At the same time, the state’s labor force, seasonally adjusted, decreased by 5,000. As a result, the labor force participation rate held constant at 60.5 percent in December 2022.

On a net basis, the total number of nonfarm jobs in the state increased by 14,700 over the month, while private sector jobs rose by 22,100 in December 2022.

At the same time, the total number of nonfarm jobs in the nation increased by 223,000, while private sector jobs increased by 220,000.

The sector with the largest percentage increase in jobs from December 2021 to December 2022 was in leisure and hospitality, at 8.6 percent or 68,000 more jobs.

Another big jump in that same time period was in education and health services at 4.6 percent, or 95,500 more jobs.


State tax receipts exceed projections

According to the monthly State Cash Report released on Jan. 18 by the state’s comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, state tax receipts totaled $79.8 billion through the third quarter of State Fiscal Year 2022-23.

This exceeded the latest projections from the Division of the Budget’s Mid-Year Update to the State Financial Plan by nearly $7.7 billion.

“Tax collections continued to exceed projections through December,” said DiNapoli in a statement, releasing the numbers. “However, concerns of an economic downturn and a cloudy revenue picture continue to create uncertainty. These conditions reinforce the importance of increasing rainy day reserve funds on or ahead of the schedule proposed in the Financial Plan.”

Personal income tax receipts totaled $42.1 billion and were $8.1 billion above the latest financial plan projections through Dec. 31. However, those receipts were $6.9 billion lower than the same period last year.

Year-to-date consumption and use tax collections totaled $15.5 billion, including $14.3 billion from sales and use taxes, which were 4.6 percent or $679.5 million higher than the same period last year, and $85.7 million higher than anticipated by the Department of Budget.

Business taxes totaled $19.3 billion, $1 billion or 5.5 percent higher than the prior fiscal year, but $761.1 million below the Department of Budget’s latest financial plan projections. 

Pass-through entity tax collections in December 2022 were $443 million lower than those received in December 2021.

All funds spending through December totaled $149.3 billion, which was $7.8 billion, or 5.5 percent, higher than last year for the same period. All funds spending through December was $120 million lower than the Department of Budget’s latest projection primarily due to lower than anticipated capital projects spending.

The State’s General Fund ended December with a balance of $49.4 billion, $9.7 billion higher than projected and just under $18.8 billion higher than last year at the same time, primarily due to Pass-through entity tax collections, higher than anticipated tax collections, and lower than anticipated capital projects spending.


Food help

On Tuesday, Hochul announced that all New Yorkers enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, formerly as food stamps, will receive the maximum allowable level of food benefits for January — a roughly $234 million infusion of federal funding into the state economy, the governor’s office said.

“These temporary additional food benefits have helped hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers avoid food insecurity at a time when so many are struggling with household budgets that have been stretched thin,” Hochul said in a release, making the announcement. “This assistance has helped New York’s recovery from the pandemic by helping families and individuals put healthy, nutritious food on the table — providing much needed relief to New Yorkers.”

Emergency supplemental benefits were first issued in April 2020 to those SNAP households receiving less than the maximum monthly benefit amount. When New York State’s emergency declaration expired in June 2021, the agency continued to work with the federal government to secure the maximum allotment for all SNAP households through February.

The recently approved federal spending bill ends these temporary emergency allotments after the February supplemental payments are issued. Beginning in March, SNAP recipients will receive just their regular monthly benefit moving forward. For more information, visit otda.ny.gov/EA-SNAP.


County numbers

This week, Albany County’s 150th of dealing with COVID, two new COVID-related deaths were reported by the governor’s office: one was reported on Wednesday, Jan. 18, and another was reported on Tuesday, Jan. 24. The county’s dashboard, as of Tuesday, Jan. 24, still shows a death toll of 616: 299 males and 317 females.

As of Jan. 24, according to Albany County’s COVID dashboard, 36 patients were hospitalized with COVID, down from 42 last week, 43 two weeks ago, and 46 three weeks ago but the same as 36 four weeks ago, which was up from 30 five weeks ago, and 24 six weeks ago.

About 35 percent of the Capital Region residents hospitalized with COVID this week were not admitted because of having the virus, according to a chart from the governor’s office.

Although figures on infection rates are no longer reliable since tracing and tracking systems have been disbanded, the state dashboard shows that cases in Albany County as well as statewide have continued last week’s decline.

Three weeks ago, rates for both the state and county had jumped after having leveled off in November following two months of climbing.

Albany County, as a seven-day average, still has 14.7 cases per 100,000 of population, the same as last week, which was down from 16.2 two weeks ago and 24.4 three weeks ago but still higher than 12.4 four weeks ago, 12.0 five weeks ago, 10.9 six weeks ago, and 13.5 seven weeks ago.

The current rate is up from numbers hovering between 8 and 11 two months ago, which was a fairly steady decrease from 21.8 cases per 100,000 twenty-two weeks ago.

This compares with 17.8 cases per 100,000 statewide, down from rates over the last month in the twenties following a fairly steady decrease from 30.03 per 100,000 of population five months ago.

The lowest rates are in the Finger Lakes at 11.5 cases per 100,000 as a seven-day average, about the same as last week’s low of 11.4 in the Southern Tier.

The highest count is still in Mid-Hudson at 21.7, which is down from last week’s 23.3 cases per 100,000, and down dramatically from the high on Long Island two weeks ago at 32.2 per 100,000 of population.

The numbers for vaccination in Albany County have hardly budged for several months. The state’s dashboard now reports on these two categories:

— People with a primary series, for those who have completed the recommended initial series of a given COVID-19 vaccine product — two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine; and

— People who are up to date, for those who have completed all COVID-19 vaccinations, including the bivalent booster, as appropriate per age and clinical recommendations.

As of Tuesday, 20.4 percent percent of Albany County residents were up to date on vaccines, a gradual increase from 17.9 six weeks ago, as opposed to the 61.5 percent of eligible residents who had received booster shots, as reported in prior weeks.

At the same time, 76.1 percent of county residents have completed a primary series, nearly the same as the last several weeks.

This compares with 76.4 percent of New Yorkers statewide completing a vaccination series, and 13.2 percent being up to date with vaccinations, up from 10.6 seven weeks ago.

New Yorkers are being encouraged by the state’s health department to get bivalent COVID-19 vaccine boosters from Pfizer-BioNTech for anyone age 5 or older and from Moderna for those 6 or older.

To schedule an appointment for a booster, New Yorkers are to contact their local pharmacy, county health department, or healthcare provider; visit vaccines.gov; text their ZIP code to 438829, or call 1-800-232-0233 to find nearby locations.

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