Week CVII: Hochul asks for federal funds to deal with COVID variants as BA.2 spreads

— Map from the CDC
While a week ago all of New York State was colored green — for a low community level of COVID-19 — now Franklin County is orange, for a high level, and six other counties are yellow, designating a medium level. Albany County remains green, meaning no masks are required.

ALBANY COUNTY — After nearly two months of falling COVID-19 case counts, the new sublineage of Omicron, BA.2, is causing cases to tick up in Albany County, in New York State, and across the country.

Elsewhere in the world, notably in Hong Kong, where there is a low vaccination rate, but also in European countries like Britain, Germany, and Italy, where vaccination rates are similar to the United States, there have been surges caused by BA.2.

While the Delta variant was about twice as transmissible as the original variants that hit New York in March 2020, Omicron was about twice as transmissible as Delta, four times the original — and the new sublineage is even more transmissible.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the region made up of New York and New Jersey, about 73 percent of cases are BA.2, as of March 26. A week ago, that number was just over 50 percent.

At a press conference last week, the state’s health commissioner, Mary Bassett, said that, while BA.2 is more transmissible than the original variant, “it does not appear to cause more severe illness and it doesn’t appear to have any more ability to evade the vaccination immunity.”

On Tuesday, Governor Kathy Hochul sent a letter to senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and members of the New York Congressional Delegation, asking for additional federal funding to prepare the nation to respond to future variants of COVID-19.

“New variants, such as the B.A.2 variant, continue to arise,” Hochul wrote, “and without additional federal funds the proven tools we have come to rely on, most notably vaccines and boosters, may not be readily available for all New Yorkers.”

She went on, “Three months ago, New York was once again the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, this time battered by Omicron. Our daily case rates shattered previous records, reaching over 90,000 new cases a day, and again, our hospitals were stretched.”

Yet, she wrote, because New Yorkers had access to tests and treatment, vaccines and boosters, schools and businesses remained open, unlike with the initial 2020 COVID-19 assault that “paralyzed” the nation.

“With the rise of the B.A.2 subvariant, we are again laying the groundwork to ensure our State is ready and able to meet this virus head on,” Hochul wrote. “This includes ensuring we have the testing capacity up and running so that supply meets demand and making sure booster doses and FDA-authorized treatments are stationed around the state for all eligible New Yorkers to receive them.  

“And finally, as additional booster doses undergo review by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York State stands ready to distribute these recommended doses to eligible New Yorkers.”


Second boosters

The CDC has determined that the effectiveness of messenger RNA vaccines — Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — wanes with time. Both companies had asked the Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization for a second booster shot. Pfizer made the request for people 65 and older; Moderna made the request for all adults.

On Tuesday, the FDA, which previously authorized a single booster dose for certain immunocompromised individuals following completion of a three-dose primary vaccination series, amended the emergency-use authorizations to allow a second booster of either Moderna or Pfizer for people age 50 and older at least four months after their first booster dose.

Also, a second booster of Pfizer may be given to anyone 12 or older with certain kinds of immunocompromise at least four months after the first booster. These are people who have undergone solid organ transplantation, or who are living with conditions that are considered to have an equivalent level of immunocompromise.

Finally, a second booster of the Moderna may be given at least four months after the first booster to people 18 or older with the same certain kinds of immunocompromise.

“Current evidence suggests some waning of protection over time against serious outcomes from COVID-19 in older and immunocompromised individuals. Based on an analysis of emerging data, a second booster dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine could help increase protection levels for these higher-risk individuals,” said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, in the FDA release.

The release also said that it will continue to evaluate data and information as it becomes available when considering the potential use of a second booster dose in other age groups.

The FDA cited data from the Ministry of Health of Israel on the administration of approximately 700,000 fourth (second booster) doses of the Pfizer vaccine given at least four months after the third dose in adults 18 years of age and older (approximately 600,000 of whom were 60 years of age or older), which revealed no new safety concerns.

The FDA also cited an independently conducted study in which the Moderna vaccine was administered as a second booster dose to 120 participants who were 18 or older and had received a two-dose primary series and a first booster dose of Pfizer at least four months prior. No new safety concerns were reported during up to three weeks of follow-up after the second booster dose, the FDA said.

The next step is CDC review of the FDA authorization.

In a statement on Tuesday, the CDC said, “During the recent Omicron surge, those who were boosted were 21-times less likely to die from COVID-19 compared to those who were unvaccinated, and 7-times less likely to be hospitalized. CDC continues to recommend that all eligible adults, adolescents, and children 5 and older be up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines, which includes getting an initial booster when eligible.”

Following Tuesday’s FDA action, the CDC said it is updating its recommendations to allow certain immunocompromised individuals and people over the age of 50 who received an initial booster dose at least four months ago to be eligible for another mRNA booster to increase their protection against severe disease from COVID-19.

Separately and in addition, based on newly published data, adults who received a primary vaccine and booster dose of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine at least four months ago may now receive a second booster dose using an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky issued a statement saying that the second booster shots are especially important for those 65 and older and those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions that increase their risk for severe disease from COVID-19. “CDC, in collaboration with FDA and our public health partners, will continue to evaluate the need for additional booster doses for all Americans,” she said.

Hochul had said at a press conference last week, “We’re watching the issue in Washington about a fourth dose, and I’m very anxious to get that approval, if that’s determined by the CDC to be the next best defense against this variant. And as soon as it’s signed off, we’ll be out there.”

For this reason, she said, and because of increased cases with BA.2, she is keeping the vaccination sites in New York State, which have recently been underused, up and running.


Albany County

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy, who now puts out COVID releases on Fridays and Tuesdays, reported two COVID-related deaths in Albany County this week: A woman in her seventies and a woman in her eighties each succumbed to the virus. This brings the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 538.

On Tuesday, McCoy reported the county’s seven-day average of new daily positive cases is now at 48.4, which is up from 36.0 a week ago, and up from 29.5 two weeks ago.

Albany County’s most recent seven-day average of COVID cases per 100,000 is now at 11.0, which is up from 8.1 a week ago, and up from 7.6 two weeks ago.

The infection rate, also as a seven-day average, is at 3.5 percent, which is up from 2.6 a week ago, and slightly up from 2.2 percent two weeks ago.

The infection rate depends on the number of positive test results. Albany County continues to encourage residents to submit positive results from at-home COVID tests to the county website as the county is still tracking them.

Last week, the CDC map designating counties across the country as having a low (green), medium (yellow), or high (orange) level of community transmission of COVID-19, colored all of New York State green.

This week, while most New York, including Albany County, is still labeled “low,” in the North Country, three counties — Clinton, Essex, and Hamilton — are labeled “medium,” and Franklin County is labeled “high.”

In Central New York, Broome, Onondaga, and Tioga counties are all labeled “medium.”

The CDC recommends that masks be worn indoors in public in counties labeled “medium” or “high.”

McCoy reported on Tuesday that there are now 13 county residents hospitalized with the coronavirus — which is one fewer than a week ago, but up from 10 hospitalized residents two weeks ago. Of those patients currently hospitalized, one is in an intensive-care unit, down from three a week ago.

According to the governor’s office, 45 of the 54 Capital Regions patients hospitalized with COVID were admitted because of COVID, meaning about 17 percent were admitted for other reasons but then tested positive for the virus.

Albany County still has over a quarter of its residents not fully vaccinated; 74.2 percent have been fully vaccinated and 64.1 percent of those who are eligible have received a booster shot.

In the governor’s office Tuesday COVID release, Hochul said, “As we continue to closely monitor an uptick in cases, particularly in Central New York, I want to remind New Yorkers that the vaccine and booster are our best tools to move forward safely through the pandemic.”

Statewide, the seven-day average of cases per 100,000, as of March 28, was 15.32. Central New York had the highest rate at 48.64; the Capital Region was at 13.15.

Similarly, the seven-day average infection rate as of March 28 was 2.42 percent statewide. Central New York was highest at 9.11 percent while New York City was lowest at 1.80 percent. The Capital Region was at 3.44 percent.

Hochul, in the release, also advised, “If you feel sick, get tested and limit your exposure to others. If you test positive, talk to a doctor right away about treatments.”

Bassett told reporters last week that both health-care providers and patients are not fully aware of the oral treatment, meaning pills, that are available for people with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19.

Pfizer’s Paxlovid reduces the risk of hospitalization and death by 88 percent and Merk’s molnupiravir reduces it by 30 percent in patients at high risk for severe COVID-19 when started early after symptom onset, the state’s health department says.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has authorized the use of these oral antivirals for patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have had symptoms for five days or less and are at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19, including hospitalization or death.

Patients require a prescription for Paxlovid and molnupiravir. The federal Department of Health and Human Services has a COVID-19 Therapeutics Locator so people can find where the drugs are available.


Clean air

The federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a “Clean Air in Buildings Challenge” this month.

“Infectious diseases like COVID-19 can spread through the inhalation of airborne particles and aerosols,” the EPA says, noting that improving indoor air quality can also “reduce the risk of exposure to particles, aerosols, and other contaminants, and improve the health of building occupants.”

Funds from the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law can be used to improve indoor air quality in public indoor settings, the EPA says.

The challenge outlines four steps:

— Creating an action plan for upgrades and improvements, including inspection of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems and maintenance;

— Optimizing fresh-air ventilation by bringing in and circulating clean outdoor air indoors;

— Enhancing air filtration and cleaning using the central HVAC system and in-room air-cleaning devices; and

— Getting the community engaged in the plan by communicating with building occupants to increase awareness, commitment, and participation in improving indoor air quality and health outcomes. 


More jobs

New York State’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased from 5.3 percent in January to 4.9 percent in February, according to data released this week by the state’s labor department.

Albany County’s unemployment rate for this February was 3.5 percent.

In February 2022, Albany had 151,000 jobs filled, compared to 146,900 last February, an increase of 4.1 percent.

At the same time, the unemployment rate went from 6.0 percent last February to 3.5 percent this February, a decrease of 2.5 percent.

The five boroughs of New York City have unemployment rates higher than 5 percent as do nine upstate counties. Albany, like most counties in the Hudson Valley, has a rate between 3 and 3.9 percent.

New York City’s unemployment rate decreased over the month from 7.6 percent to 7.0 percent. Outside of New York City, the unemployment rate decreased from 3.6 percent to 3.4 percent, the labor department reported, reaching its lowest level on record (current records date back to 1976).

The number of unemployed New Yorkers decreased over the month by 36,500, from 498,700 in January to 462,200 in February 2022.

From February 2021 to February 2022, the sector seeing by far the largest increase in jobs statewide was leisure and hospitality at 34.4 percent, or 199,100 jobs.


Population shifts

While Albany County itself lost population during the pandemic, between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021, the eight-county Capital Region’s population grew by 1,212, or 0.1 percent, to 1,106,274, according to a report this week from the Center for Economic Growth.

Driving the Capital Region’s growth was an annual net domestic migration of 3,176 and a net international migration of 541. The Capital Region’s domestic annual net migration was by far the largest in the state, the center’s analysis said, with the North County region trailing at 239. 

The eight-county Capital Region was one of only two economic development regions in the state to see total population gains in that time period. The Capital Region had New York’s greatest number of annual net domestic movers, according to a center’s analysis of new U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Saratoga County had the third largest total population annual gain in the state, adding 1,670 people, and Greene County was New York’s second fastest-growing county, adding 609. Schenectady County added 228, and Columbia added 228.

Rensselaer County sustained the biggest loss at 691, followed by Albany at 625, Washington at 187, and Warren County lost 20.

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