COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to open wide in New York State

ALBANY COUNTY — Starting Tuesday, New Yorkers age 30 and older will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday.

Then, beginning April 6, New Yorkers 16 and older will be eligible to get the vaccine, he said.

As the White House ramps up vaccine distribution, President Joe Biden had called for states to offer universal eligibility by May 1.

Also on Monday, a New York State Supreme Court judge, in the Bronx, ruled that all inmates in the prisons and jails in the state are to be immediately offered COVID-19 vaccines.

The governor’s early afternoon announcement coincidentally followed an Albany County press conference on Monday morning in which both the county executive, Daniel McCoy, and the county’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, called for eligibility expansion.

“We’re getting more vaccine than we ever did before …,” said McCoy. “The problem is it’s getting harder and harder to fill,” he said of vaccination slots. “We’re all competing for that age group.”

He also said, “It’s like the Hunger Games. We’re all trying to get the same group.”

Previously, eligibility had been limited to New Yorkers age 50 and older or to those with listed comorbidities or with listed essential jobs.

“It’s time, governor, to open this up to everybody,” said McCoy.

He noted that 20 percent of the county’s population is between the ages of 18 and 3 and that is the group most likely to carry the virus and unwittingly spread it.

The county’s dashboard shows that about 5,000 residents in the 20-to-29 age group have tested positive for COVID-19 — by far the largest of age groups defined by decades.

“We know the younger age group — the college age group and those up to age 30 — usually are our highest rate of positives,” said Whalen. “Now, we know they have a lower rate of hospitalizations and deaths. But they are very capable of spreading COVID to relatives that may be at risk … It is essential this population be vaccinated to stem the spread.”

“We get seven days to get all the vaccine out,” said McCoy. “If we don’t, we get penalized … We’re gonna be looking for people on the street.”

Although he said the county has not run afoul of the state’s rules determining which New Yorkers  it can vaccinate, “They said they’d fine us a million dollars and they tried to and they were wrong a couple of weeks ago,” McCoy said. “They gave us a letter, they were going to fine us $100,000 a day.”

McCoy went on, “It just puts people more on edge but … we need to get that population of kids that are between 18 and 30 vaccine. They’re not getting sick; they’re infecting their parents and grandparents.”

McCoy urged residents of not just Albany County but also of neighboring Schenectady and Rensselaer counties to use Albany County’s pre-registration tool, which is online at the county’s website: https://alb.518c19.com.

“We’re running out of names,” said McCoy.

Those who registered will be called or emailed when they become eligible and a slot is available. Other groups besides the county’s point of dispensing, or POD, draw from the list.

In addition to the county’s POD, Albany County has two continuous mass-vaccination sites: The federal and state governments together run a POD at the Washington Avenue Armory, and the state runs a POD at the uptown University at Albany campus.

Whalen said that the county is currently in Week 16 of receiving vaccine doses.

“We’re in a race,” she said, “because we know, in other parts of the country, we are seeing higher rates of COVID. We know that is a concern that could hit us here in Albany County and we are racing to vaccinate people.”

She said, “We have not sent any vaccine back.” But, she also said it can “be tricky” to use it all when people who have signed up for a slot don’t show.

“If you pierce a vial, you have to get all the doses in that vial out,” Whalen said.

The county will develop a stand-by list to have people ready to come in to fill the no-show slots, she said.

So far, Albany County has vaccinated more than 20,000 people in its clinic. With its partners, more than 30,000 vaccine doses have been administered, she said, calling it “a herculean effort.”

This week, Albany County is getting 1,670 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 1,300 doses of Moderna, Whalen said, and is still waiting to hear if it will receive an additional shipment of Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Pharmacies will receive doses this week, Whalen said, and health-care providers are also starting to get vaccine doses.

“We are told this will be a consistent supply that we’ll get in Week 17 through 20,” she said, which will make planning easier.

“If you are eligible or not, please pre-register so we know that you are interested in getting vaccine and we can get word out to you when availability opens up to you,” said Whalen.

She stressed again that it takes time to have the COVID-19 vaccine become fully effective. Pfizer requires two shots three weeks apart while Moderna requires two shots four weeks apart. Johnson & Johsnon requires just one shot. 

After the final shot, for all three vaccines, it takes two weeks to be fully effective.

After just one dose, people can contract COVID-19, said Whalen, adding, “I’ve seen it happen in my family.”

She also said, “The vaccine that’s available is the vaccine you should get …. All of these vaccines do protect against hospitalization, severity, and death.”

“The vaccine is safe and effective,” Whalen stressed. “Both the county executive and I have been vaccinated. We’ve encouraged family members to be vaccinated and we are encouraging the general public to be vaccinated.”

She also said, “We are ahead of the curve for vaccination in the state so that is good news but it’s not a complete reassurance.”

Statewide, 29.6 percent of New Yorkers have received at least one dose of vaccine and 16.8 percent have completed a vaccine series, according to Monday’s release from the governor’s office.

At the same time, McCoy said, 36.1 percent of Albany County’s population has received at least a first dose while 20.3 percent have been fully vaccinated.

Whalen concluded, “When you are eligible … sign up for vaccination.”

 

Holiday warnings

“If you look back 10 days, you can see a disturbing trend in our new numbers,” said McCoy of the infection rate as he reported 61 new cases on Monday morning.

He attributed this to people letting down their guard. “Spring break’s here, the weather’s changing ...,” he said. “I know some people are going out; they’re starting to drop their masks … We’re starting to get complaints because this has been a long 55 weeks.”

McCoy noted that, 10 days ago, the county’s seven-day rolling average for infection rate, was 1.8 percent. It is now 2.2 percent, according to the state’s dashboard. Statewide, the infectionrateis 3.5 percent.

“It’s not just here in Albany County ...,”said McCoy. “New York and New Jersey are now number 1 and number 2 for the highest infection rate based on population.”

However, Johns Hopkins, which has consistently tracked every state and territory to see which have infection rates below the threshold of 5 percent set by the World Health Organization, which means they can be open.

New York is well below that threshold at 3.45 percent while 24 states are above it. The state with the highest rate is Idaho, at over 25 percent. Johns Hopkins explains that a high positivity rate may indicate that the state is only testing the sickest patients who seek medical attention, and is not casting a wide enough net to know how much of the virus is spreading within its communities. 

“We have seen some evidence … we’re not continuing to see a downward trend and are concerned that the numbers could start to tick up,” Whalen said of infection rates.

She said there are two primary reasons for this.

First, she said, is the increased prevalence across the country of COVID-19 variants that are more highly contagious.

According to a webpage on variants maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Monday evening, New York State has had 136 cases of the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom. Nationwide, the United States has had 10,579 B.1.1.7 cases, in every state but Oklahoma.

New York has had just one case of the P.1 variant, first identified in Brazil, while there are 118 cases in 22 states reported across the United States.

The second reason, Whalen said, is relaxation of mitigation efforts like mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social-distancing. She said it is largely the younger population that is not vaccinated and not adhering to mitigation strategies.

She also urged people who feel sick to stay home and to get tested. “Testing is essential to controlling the spread,” she said.

Whalen said of reopening, “I think it’s a balance. It’s not flipping a switch.”

As far as celebrating Easter with family gatherings, she noted that the CDC said fully vaccinated individuals can visit each other without wearing masks or physical distancing and that they can visit with people from a single household who are low-risk for the disease.

“We are still encouraging people not to gather at this point,” Whalen said. “We’re nearly there.”

 

Inmates to be vaccinated

On Monday, Justice Alison Y. Tuitt of the State Supreme Court in the Bronx ruled that jail and prison inmates in New York State had been arbitrarily left out of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and that doing so was “unfair and unjust.” She said the state must immediately offer vaccine to all inmates in the state.

“This decision is a critical step to stopping the spread and harm of COVID-19 in NY State prisons and jails, and outside communities across the state,” said Jose Saldana. Director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, in a statement. “We thank the attorneys who worked tirelessly to make this possible and look forward to helping to hold Governor Cuomo accountable to ensure that these life-saving vaccines are administered as thoughtfully and swiftly as possible.”

The New York State prison system reported the 35th death of incarcerated people from COVID-19, this time at Clinton Correctional Facility, a release from the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign said; the number of incarcerated people who have tested positive for the virus has officially surpassed 6,000.

Over the last year, Cuomo has granted 10 clemencies to New Yorkers in prison. 

Beth Garvey, acting counsel to the governor, responded in a statement on Monday evening, “The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision began vaccinating staff and incarcerated individuals on Feb. 5, and as of March 27, more than 19,246 vaccinations have been administered.

“Tomorrow the state will expand eligibility to include New Yorkers age 30 and older for the general population, and we will expand eligibility to include all incarcerated individuals whether in state or local facilities. Our goal all along has been to implement a vaccination program that is fair and equitable, and these changes will help ensure that continues to happen.”

 A similar lawsuit was recently filed by the Legal Aid Society in State Supreme Court in Albany County against Cuomo and Howard Zucker, the state’s health commissioner, on behalf of three people incarcerated in New York State prisons.

The suit demands that the state grant people in custody the same access to the COVID-19 vaccine that has been afforded others in virtually every other congregate residential setting — settings which by their very nature place individuals at high risk for contracting and transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19, the suit argues. 

“Upon entering a facility, the virus can sweep rapidly and mercilessly through its population,” the suit says.

Such a surge of COVID-19 swept through Albany County’s jail in January. Sheriff Craig Apple, who called it “a month of hell,” said that 189 out of roughly 330 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 and he said that 110 of the staff members at the county jail, which number in the “low 300s,” had tested positive.

The three petitioners in the Albany County lawsuit live at different facilities throughout New York State, the Legal Aid Society said in a release announcing the suit, and experience living conditions common to all congregate residential facilities, including shared and crowded living, bathroom, reactional, and eating spaces — characteristics of these settings that make them particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19, the society says.

“The petitioners also report the inability to practice social distancing and refusal from the correction officers and others to comply with mask wearing and other CDC protocols,” the release said, referencing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The inherent qualities of a correctional setting create an urgent need for vaccinations to keep people — those in custody as well as staff and members of the community — safe from infection and its potentially life threatening effects.”

More Regional News

  • The new CDC guidance says that, except in certain crowded settings, fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks.

  • “We’ve got to reimagine how we’re getting the vaccine out to people,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy. New strategies include a mobile van, walk-ins at the county’s health department, and incentives provided by businesses.

  • Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said she has received word from the state’s health department on the “likelihood that in the next week the FDA will give the OK for the 12-to-15 age group.” Her department is preparing to vaccinate youth, communicating with local schools and pediatricians, urging the doctors to become certified vaccinators through the state’s Department of Health.

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