Week LV: As COVID-19 infection rates rise, county races to vaccinate

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
“It’s time, governor, to open this up to everybody,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy of vaccine eligibility on Monday morning. On Monday afternoon, Andrew Cuomo announced that, beginning April 6, New Yorkers 16 and older will be eligible to get the vaccine.

ALBANY COUNTY — Eligibility for COVID-19 vaccination opened up during the county’s 55th week of dealing with the pandemic as did more venues and activities — including college sports and nursing home visits.

Still, there were concerns as across the state and the nation infection rates, which had been in steep decline since the post-holiday high, plateaued or even increased.

“We’re in a race,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen on Monday, “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.”

Whalen said of infection rates, “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.”

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 Wednesday night, 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 11,569 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 172 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.”


Vaccine eligibility

Starting Tuesday, New Yorkers age 30 and older became eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. Then, beginning April 6, New Yorkers 16 and older will be eligible to get the vaccine, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday.

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 on Monday coincidentally followed an Albany County press conference on Monday morning in which both the county executive, Daniel McCoy and 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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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. 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, as of Wednesday night, 30.4 percent of New Yorkers have received at least one dose of vaccine and 17.9 percent have completed a vaccine series, according to the state’s vaccine tracker.

In Albany County, 37.3 percent of the county’s 307,117 residents have received at least one dose of vaccine. 


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.


Opening up

New York State revised its guidance for nursing-home visits to permit visits at all times for all residents with limited exceptions.

The new guidance, effective immediately, replaces the state’s Feb. 23 regulations, which required a facility to be free of COVID-19 for 14 days before allowing visitors.

The guidance, announced in a Thursday press release from the governor’s office, aligns with the recently released guidance from the United States Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The exceptions are for unvaccinated residents in areas of high community spread and lower resident vaccination rates, residents with confirmed COVID-19 infection, or those in isolation or quarantine.

Nursing homes must still continue to adhere to strong infection control practices.

The number of positive cases in nursing homes have decreased more than 80 percent since peaking in mid-January during a second COVID post-holiday surge, the release said.

Cuomo said last month that all nursing home residents and workers had been offered vaccinations.

The state’s Department of Health strongly recommends that all facilities offer testing for visitors as COVID-19 is still present in communities statewide.

Visits to dying nursing home residents, which had previously been allowed in all facilities at all times, will continue under this new guidance. 

Starting on Friday, fans can return to the stands for college sports competitions, following state guidelines, Cuomo announced on Tuesday.

Venues that hold more than 1,500 people indoors or 2,500 outdoors can host up to 10-percent capacity indoors and 20 percent outdoors.

Each person must present proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test or of completed vaccination.

Small-scale college venues can host spectators at either two fans per player to up to a limit of 100 people indoors or 200 outdoors. Capacity can increase to 150 spectators indoors and 500 outdoors if each person presents proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test or of completed vaccination.

The maximum occupancy limit of 50 percent remains in effect. And all spectators are to be screened before entry and must wear masks and stay socially distant.

“The presence of spectators at sporting events has always been a quintessential part of the collegiate experience — both for the athletes and the students, parents, and community members who root them on …,” said SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras in a statement.

“With rapidly expanding vaccine supply, SUNY’s protocol of mandated once-a-week testing, comprehensive protocols for student athletes, SUNY positivity rates below half a percent, warmer temperatures, and a hardened, collective determination to defeat COVID for good — having some spectators can be done in a safe and secure manner,” Malatras said.


Excelsior Pass

On Friday, Cuomo announced the launch of the Excelsior Pass to “fast-track the reopening of businesses and event venues.”

The pass, a free voluntary platform developed with IBM, confirms that the holder has been vaccinated against COVID-19 or has had a recent negative test for the virus. Cuomo likened it to a mobile airline boarding pass that can either be printed out or stored in a smartphone.

The pass can be used to gain entry to stadiums and arenas, to wedding receptions or other catered events.  Major venues, including the Times Union Center in Albany, have announced they will use the Excelsior Pass, said the Friday release from Cuomo’s office; beginning April 2, it will expand to smaller arts, entertainment, and events venues.

The state’s motto is “excelsior,” Latin for “ever upward.”


Economic recovery

The Capital District Regional Planning Commission this week announced the release of a new tool to track the pace of economic recovery from the pandemic. The dashboard developed by the commission features data on changes in employment by sector, small-business activity, consumer credit-card spending, and impacts to mobility and migration.

Developed with funding from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding, the dashboard provides specific economic data for Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, and Schenectady counties.

“Being able to track where we are in terms of unemployment, transportation, and other important indicators is essential to understanding where we have been affected the most by the pandemic and what further assistance is needed to help the region grow back even stronger,” said Michael Stammel, the commission chairman and chairman of the Rensselaer County Legislature, in a statement. 

The state’s labor department on Tuesday released preliminary unemployment rates for February.

New York State’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased from 8.8 percent in January to 8.9 percent in February 2021.

For the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, the February unemployment rate was 6.3 percent compared to 4.0 percent in February 2020 — before the pandemic caused shutdowns.


COVID and wildlife

A study released this week by the United States Geological Survey found that the risk is low that scientists could pass the coronavirus to North American bats during winter research.

“The virus that causes COVID‐19 likely evolved in a mammalian host, possibly Old‐World bats, before adapting to humans, raising the question of whether reverse zoonotic transmission to bats is possible,” says the abstract of the study.

The overall risk of scientists passing the virus to bats they are studying was found to be 1 in 1,000 without protective measures, which fell to 1 in 3,333 or less with the scientist testing negative for COVID-19 before starting research and then using personal protective equipment.

“This is a small number, but the consequences of human-to-bat transmission of coronavirus are potentially large,” said USGS scientist Evan Grant, an author of the new rapid risk assessment, in a statement. “The virus has not been identified in North American bats but, if it is introduced, it could lead to illness and mortality, which may imperil long-term bat conservation. It could also represent a source for new exposure and infection in humans.”

The origin of SARS-CoV-2, the name scientists use for COVID-19, is not confirmed, but studies indicate the virus likely originated from similar viruses found in bats in the Eastern Hemisphere, according to the USGS.

The agency goes on to point out the value of bats to people. Previous USGS studies found that bats save the U.S. agriculture industry more than $3 billion per year by eating pests that damage crops, reducing the need for pesticides. Bats are currently under duress from white-nose syndrome, a disease that has killed millions of bats in North America.

“The potential for SARS-CoV-2 to infect wildlife is a real concern for state and federal wildlife management agencies and reflects the important connections between human health and healthy environments,” said Jeremy Coleman, National White-nose Syndrome Coordinator for the United States Fish and Wildlife Serviceand an author of the study.

“Natural resource managers need information from these kinds of analyses to make science-based decisions that advance conservation efforts while also protecting the health of people, bats, and other wildlife,” Coleman said.


Newest numbers

McCoy announced 75 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday morning, bringing the county’s total to 22,326.

Of the new cases, 47 did not have clear sources of infection identified,  25 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, two reported traveling out of state, and one was a health-care worker or resident of a congregate setting.

The five-day average for new daily positives has decreased to 69.2 from 71.8. There are now 584 active cases in the county, up from 562 on Tuesday.

The number of Albany County residents under quarantine increased to 1,563 from 1,414. So far, 70,984 people have completed quarantine. Of those, 21,742 had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 50 recoveries since Thursday.

There were four new hospitalizations overnight, and there are now 27 county residents hospitalized from the virus — a net increase of one. There are currently two patients in intensive-care, down from three on Tuesday.

Just one county resident died of COVID-19 this week, bringing the county’s death toll to 366.

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