Week CV: Governor quietly extends NYS pandemic emergency

— Graph from NYS Department of Labor

ALBANY COUNTY — This week, Albany County’s 105th of coping with the coronavirus, marked the two-year anniversary of its first reported COVID-19 cases.
On March 12, 2020, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy had held a press conference — the first of many — to announce the county’s first two confirmed cases of COVID-19. One was a student in his early twenties, living in Albany and attending classes at the University at Albany. The second was a Guilderland woman in her thirties connected to Farnsworth Middle School.

That same week, local schools hastily closed and moved to remote learning as more cases were announced.

This week, after five waves of various variants and ever-changing government policies to keep up with the evolving science, as Albany County enters its third year of virus variables, hope is on the horizon. Albany County, like most of the state, is labeled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a “low” community level of COVID-19.

Nevertheless on Wednesday, Governor Kathy Hochul quietly extended for another month the pandemic state of emergency she had declared on Feb. 14, set to end March 16.

The shortened declaration says, “New York continues to experience COVID-19 transmission, with the rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions remaining at over 100 new admissions a day” and also says “the state must pursue a coordinated approach to ensure hospital capacity statewide is able to meet regional needs” and “State government must support the municipalities and counties in their efforts to facilitate and administer vaccinations and tests for COVID-19.”

The order runs through April 15.

Hochul on Monday told the county executives who gathered this week in Albany County, “We got rid of the mask restrictions, OK, because New Yorkers did what they were asked to do …. No more mask-or-vax restrictions for our businesses that were in place for two months; our children were able to see their beautiful faces. I feel very secure about this now, but I’m watching the numbers ….”

Also this week, for the first time since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention switched to a three-tiered system to track coronavirus transmission, Albany County is labeled “low” — and colored green on the CDC map.

The only county in the state labeled “high,” and colored orange, is Franklin County in the North Country. CDC guidance calls for mask-wearing indoors in counties labeled “high.”

Albany County, since the system started on Feb. 25, had, until last Thursday, been labeled “medium,” and colored yellow — masks not required.

The levels are “determined by looking at hospital beds being used, hospital admissions, and the total number of new COVID-19 cases in an area,” the CDC says.

Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber wrote on Tuesday in his daily COVID email to residents that, because of the continuing low community level of infection, the town’s boards and committees will resume meeting in person at the town hall, starting on March 16.

While there are no capacity restrictions, wearing masks is “strongly encouraged,” Barber wrote.

On Tuesday morning, the county executive’s office provided an update on virus-related numbers. The reports from McCoy’s office had been daily for nearly two years but, since last week, are now issued on Tuesdays and Fridays as the cases and hospitalizations continue to decline from the Omicron spike in January.

Over the course of the week, from Wednesday, March 9, to Tuesday, March 15, McCoy reported five COVID-related deaths, bringing the county’s death toll from the virus to 536.

A man in his sixties and a woman in her eighties died on Saturday, March 12, and a woman in her forties died on Sunday, March 13. Additionally, a man in his sixties and a man in his seventies had died earlier, but their deaths had not been reported before this week.

On Tuesday, Albany County reached 62,481reported COVID cases, with 21 new infections identified since Monday and 100 new infections since the last update on Friday.

The county’s seven-day average of new daily positive cases is now at 29.5, down from 41.5 a week ago.

Albany County’s most recent seven-day average of COVID cases per 100,000 is now at 7.6, down from 9.7 a week ago. The infection rate, also as a seven-day average, is at 2.2 percent, down from 2.6 percent a week ago.

McCoy reported that there was one new COVID hospitalization since Friday so there are now 10 county residents currently hospitalized with the coronavirus — down from 24 a week ago. Of those patients currently hospitalized, one is now in an intensive-care unit, down from four a week ago.

“Despite these tragedies,” McCoy said of the recent deaths, “we continue to see signs of hope. Albany County now has the lowest number of COVID hospitalizations since August 6, and the last time our average percent positivity was this low was back on July 23. Less infections and hospitalizations mean fewer deaths in the future.”

McCoy continues to encourage residents to submit the positive results of at-home COVID testing on the county website, and to get vaccinated.

As of Monday,  81.2 percent of all Albany County residents have received at least the first dose of the vaccine.


Masks required for travelers

The federal Transportation Security Administration announced last Thursday that, at the CDC’s recommendation, it would extend the security directive for mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs for one month, through April 18.

“During that time,” the TSA said in a statement, “CDC will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor.

“This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science. We will communicate any updates publicly if and/or when they change.”

On Tuesday, in a bipartisan vote, 57 to 40, the Senate passed a resolution, described by The New York Times as “symbolic,” to repeal the federal mask mandate for travelers on public transportation; the House is not likely to vote on the measure and the Biden administration has said the president would not sign it into law.


School leaders in NYS surveyed

School leaders across the state were surveyed by the School Administrators Association of New York State on the effects of the pandemic.

Of the 676 respondents, 85 percent report that their traditional professional duties have been sidelined to fulfill COVID-related work while 86 percent report an increase in student behavioral issues this year.

Also, 28 percent believe that there has been significant learning loss across the general student population and 33 percent indicate that their retirement plans have been accelerated because of the pandemic.

The report on the survey concludes, “Our members are tired, overworked, and stressed about so much. Student mental health and wellbeing, academic supports, staffing shortages and morale, keeping up with ever-changing COVID rules and regulations, and the sheer time and energy it continues to take for school administrators to manage it all weighs heavily.”

The report goes on, “The survey shows that school administrators are most definitely ‘Under Pressure’ and need support from all levels, especially now, so that they in turn can support the many needs of their school communities. One respondent summed it up: ‘I would like to get back to the job of education, both with staff and students.’”


More food help

New Yorkers enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, formerly food stamps, will receive the maximum allowable level of food benefits for March.

All households participating in SNAP — including those already at the maximum level of benefits — will receive a supplemental allotment this month, which will result in New York State's economy receiving roughly $232 million in federal funding.

“No New Yorker should struggle to put food on the table,” said Hochul in a statement, making the announcement on Thursday. “Ensuring eligible New Yorkers get the maximum level of food benefits will bring much-needed relief to millions of New Yorkers, ensuring no one gets left behind as our economic recovery moves forward.”

SNAP households in all counties outside of New York City should see these extra benefits posted between now and the end of the day Thursday, March 17.

The emergency assistance supplement is to be provided to households that do not ordinarily receive the maximum allowable benefit per month on SNAP — a federally funded program overseen by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

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.

New Yorkers continue to rely heavily on SNAP, with about 1.6 million households throughout the state enrolled in the program in January, a nearly 1 percent increase over the previous month. Roughly 2.8 million New Yorkers received benefits in January, the most since June 2021.

OTDA began issuing the emergency supplemental benefits 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 successfully worked with the federal government to secure the maximum allotment for all SNAP households until the expiration of the federal declaration, currently expected to be extended into May.


More jobs

Statewide, the number of jobs increased as unemployment decreased over the month of January, according to preliminary seasonally adjusted figures released Thursday by the state’s labor department.

The number of private-sector jobs in New York State increased over the month by 20,600, or 0.3 percent, to 7,858,000 in January 2022. Similarly, the number of private-sector jobs in the United States increased by 0.3 percent.

New York State’s private-sector jobs (not seasonally adjusted) increased by 466,100, or 6.4 percent, over the year in January 2022. By comparison, the number of private-sector jobs in the U.S. increased by 5.2 percent over the year.

New York State’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased from 5.4 percent to 5.3 percent in January 2022.

The Albany-Schenectady-Troy area had a net gain of 14,100 jobs or 3.3 percent. The unemployment rate in the area was 9.4 percent in January 2021 and 5.4 percent in January 2022.

Albany County’s unemployment rate this January was 3.4 percent.

The county with the highest rate was the Bronx at 10.3 percent followed by Queens at 7.0 percent. The county with the lowest unemployment rate was Tompkins at 2.8 percent followed by Saratoga at 3.0 percent.

The sector with the largest increase over the year was leisure and hospitality with an increase of 219,900 jobs, or 40.3 percent.

Only construction saw a decrease — of 2,000 jobs or 0.6 percent.

An analysis by the Empire Center noted, “New York has been rising towards a full recovery from the pandemic crash somewhat faster than previously indicated — while continuing to fall well below the national trend ….

“New York in January had recovered nearly 75 percent of the post-pandemic decline, while employment in the U.S. as a whole exceeded 90 percent of the February 2020 level. At January’s growth rate, however, New York still won’t fully recover until the end of 2023, while the nation is on track to hit the pre-pandemic level within this year.”


Nursing-home care

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, reviewing scientific research, found, “Larger bed size and location in an area with high COVID-19 prevalence were the strongest and most consistent predictors of facilities having more COVID-19 cases and deaths.”

The study also found that outcomes varied by a facility’s racial composition, and more staff members increased outbreaks but more staff hours may have prevented deaths.

As of May 2021, almost 40 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States were of long-term care facility residents.

“Better control of community COVID-19 spread would have been critical for mitigating much of the morbidity and mortality long-term care residents and staff experienced during the pandemic,” the study concludes. “Traditional quality measures such as Nursing Home Compare 5-Star ratings and past deficiencies were not consistent indicators of pandemic preparedness, likely because COVID-19 presented a novel problem requiring extensive adaptation by both long-term care providers and policymakers.”

Mark Parkinson, president and chief executive officer of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, sent a letter on March 8, requesting meetings with President Joe Biden, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to discuss ways the Biden administration and providers can work together for changes that benefit residents and caregivers.

The association represents more than 14,000 non-profit and proprietary skilled nursing centers, assisted living communities, sub-acute centers, and homes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

The letter highlights “the long term care workforce crisis” and states, “We want to hire more caregivers, but there are no workers to hire. Nursing homes have lost 238,000 workers since the beginning of the pandemic.”

It also says, “Even if the caregivers were there, the resources needed to invest in them are not. More than 60 percent of our residents rely on Medicaid, but the program does not adequately fund the actual cost of care.”

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