Week CIX: COVID cases nearly double in Albany County, hospitalizations creep up

The percentages of people with antibodies caused by the coronavirus was estimated in studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC survey estimated that 49.0 percent of New Yorkers had been infected or roughly 9.6 million of the state’s 19.6 million population

ALBANY COUNTY — Across the United States, with the highly transmissible BA.2 sublineage of Omicron now predominant, the number of COVID-19 cases has increased. That increase has been steepest in the Northeast, including in Albany County.

Using the metric the governor’s office termed “most reliable,” Albany County, as of Tuesday, as a seven-day average, had 21.1 cases of COVID per 100,000 of population; this is nearly double the 11.0 cases reported two weeks before.

Last Friday, the county announced that wastewater samples collected and analyzed on April 4 have shown a 32 percent spike in COVID-19 intensity over a two-week period.

“Measuring COVID levels in wastewater is a leading indicator of the Coronavirus infection rate and a more accurate estimation, as it is not dependent on individuals making the choice to be tested,” said the county’s health department. “A spike in COVID intensity will likely mean a corresponding spike in COVID case counts and percent positivity in the near future.”

The wastewater samples were taken from the Albany County Water Purification District’s South Plant, which serves an estimated 80,922 Albany residents. The announcement stressed that the water samples represent just a portion of the city, and may not apply to Albany County as a whole, as most water-treatment facilities have not established this type of reporting mechanism. 

On Tuesday, the governor’s office reported that the statewide seven-day average of cases per 100,000 is now 25.62, up from 17.73 a week ago. Central New York has the highest count at 53.18 per 100,000 and the Capital Region is the lowest at 21.08.

While Philadelphia announced on Monday that it is reinstating its mask mandate, no city in New York State has done so nor have there been any statewide measures taken to stem the current wave of COVID. However, starting on Monday, students at Columbia University in New York City were required to wear masks in class.

Some experts believe that part of the reason the current BA.2 uptick isn’t as severe as the drastic Omicron surge in January is because so many people were infected then that, vaccinated or not, they have immunity. 

The percentages of people with antibodies caused by the coronavirus was estimated in studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC survey estimated that 49.0 percent of New Yorkers had been infected or roughly 9.6 million of the state’s 19.6 million population. 

This compares with 17.8 percent of residents of neighboring Vermont having been infected with the coronavirus. “The estimates do not necessarily indicate the percentage of people with sufficient antibody to protect against reinfection,” the CDC says.

The CDC studies show that, the younger the age group, the more likely antibody prevalence is: Those 0 to 17 years old have a prevalence of 58 percent while those 65 or older have a prevalence of 23 percent.

“As we approach the Easter and Passover holidays and we see more New Yorkers travel and gather together, let’s continue to use the tools to keep each other safe and move forward through this pandemic safely,” Governor Kathy Hochul said in a Tuesday release. “Make sure you get tested before you travel, and if you test positive, isolate from others and talk to your doctor about treatments.”

Drugs include Evusheld, for the immunocompromised, to prevent infection, and the antiviral drugs, Paxlovid or molnupiravir, to treat infection.

Last month, Mary Bassett, the state’s health commissioner, told reporters 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.

On Tuesday, Hochul continued her statement, “The number one way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is to get vaccinated. Second booster doses have been authorized for individuals 55 and up, so make sure to sign up for your booster today if you’re eligible.”

New Yorkers who are 50 or older and are four months past their first booster are eligible for a second shot. Also, New Yorkers who are 12 and older and are immunocompromised are eligible for a second booster.

All 15 of the state’s vaccination sites, including the one at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, remain open.

Additionally, Albany County residents can get free vaccinations, including booster shots, at the county’s health department at 175 Green Street in Albany. Appointments can be made through the county’s website.

Albany County’s vaccination rate remains stubbornly below three-quarters with 74.3 percent of residents fully vaccinated as of Tuesday.

In his twice-weekly releases on COVID-19, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy reportered three COVID-related deaths this week, the county’s 109th of coping with the coronavirus.

Two of the deaths — a man in his eighties and a woman in her eighties — were previously unreported. The third death, of a man in his seventies, was new this week.

This brings Albany County’s COVID-19 death toll to 541.

While the cases of coronavirus per 100,000 has nearly doubled in two weeks, the infection rate — the percentage of positive tests, which the governor’s office says is a less reliable metric — has also seen a dramatic increase in that same time period.

On Tuesday, McCoy reported a positivity or infection rate, as a seven-day average, of 7.5 percent for Albany County. Two weeks ago, the infection rate was 3.5; three weeks ago, it was 2.6 percent.

McCoy reported on Tuesday that 21 county residents are currently hospitalized with the virus, up from 13 a week ago. Three of the current COVID patients are in intensive-care units, up from one patient a week ago. Hospitalizations typically lag two weeks behind infections.


Wastewater surveillance

As The Enterprise reported in August 2020, Albany was part of a pilot program to detect the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater, which is designed to set up an early indicator system to forecast the virus’s spread in communities. The successful pilot project, funded by the Department for Environmental conservation, took place for six weeks in Albany, Erie, Onondaga, and Orange counties.

Early in the pandemic, scientific studies showed that the genetic material of the virus causing the disease could be detected in the feces of up to 40 percent of people who were infected. Although wastewater is not believed to be a source of transmitting COVID-19, the thought was that it can be traced through wastewater just as the poliovirus was decades ago.

The state started its wastewater surveillance project in March 2020, shortly after a project in the Netherlands concluded it was feasible, according to the state’s website. Now most counties have at least one testing site.

Last month, Kirsten St. George, chief of the Laboratory of Viral Diseases at the Wadsworth Center, said there is now wastewater monitoring in more than 50 counties. This will be expanded to cover all 64 of the state’s counties, she said at a press conference. She thanked the governor for including $5 million in her executive budget to expand surveillance.

“It will also use high-speed sequencing methods to facilitate the rapid identification of variants and their circulation throughout the state. So we will have early warning signals at an even more widespread rate,” St. George said.

“The Environmental Protection Agency will eventually standardize and license different methods, but that process takes quite a long time and is years away,” says the state’s website, which goes on to describe the methods currently being used, each with pros and cons.

The earliest use of wastewater surveillance in the United States was for polio in the 1940s when researchers from Yale University tested wastewater for traces of the virus. In the 1960s, researchers began testing sewage in Middletown, Connecticut for the presence of poliovirus before, during, and after a vaccination campaign, according to the state website, which says this practice is still used in examining the effectiveness of vaccine efforts.

Early wastewater surveillance methods depended on cell-culture methods. Since then, both quantitative PCR and droplet digital PCR have been developed and used for wastewater lab testing.

Early on during the pandemic, studies showed that wastewater case detection preceded clinical detection, suggesting that wastewater surveillance could provide an early warning system for community spread. Now, various wastewater surveillance systems have been implemented in more than 50 countries and 260 universities around the world.



As last Friday’s release from Albany County’s health department noted, wastewater analysis can provide a more accurate estimation, as it doesn’t depend on people getting tested.

This more accurate estimation becomes important as use of home tests increases and as county health departments have given up their original emphasis on tracking every case.

Albany County continues to encourage residents to submit the positive results of at-home COVID testing on the county website.

Last Friday, Hochul sent out a release, noting that her administration has now distributed more than 70 million COVID-19 over-the-counter tests.

“At-home COVID-19 testing is now widely available and provides real-time information regarding your COVID-19 status, particularly as we are seeing infections increase,” said Bassett in the release. “People who test positive should isolate and, for those with symptoms, seek medical advice for treatment as soon as possible.”

At-home rapid tests are being provided regularly to schools and nursing homes throughout the state, the governor’s office said.

Guilderland school Superintendent Marie Wiles sent a notice to parents last Friday, saying, “To ensure that students and families enjoy a safe break and return to school, the district is providing rapid, at-home COVID-19 test kits to all GCSD families who would like one. With increased travel over break and the emergence of a new variant, we hope families will use these test kits to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the GCSD community.”

Several thousand additional test kits as well as 59,000 high-quality face masks have been directly distributed to counties in the Central New York region, the governor’s office said. 

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled most of New York State, including Albany County, as having a “low” community level of COVID-19, as of April 12, three Central and Southern Tier counties — Cayuga, Onondaga, and Oswego — are labeled “high” and eight — Broome, Cortland, Delaware, Madison, Seneca, Schuyler, Tioga, and Tompkins — are labeled “medium.”

Also, Essex County in the North Country is labeled “medium.”

As of April 9, the CDC map shows 92.5 percent of the COVID-19 cases in New York and New Jersey are of the BA.2 sublineage of the Omicron variant.


Webinars for Workers’ Comp

The Workers’ Compensation Board continues to offer free online webinars to help workers who believe they contracted COVID-19 on the job, especially those who have missed time from work or are suffering from ongoing or “long-haul” symptoms.

Each one-hour session provides information on workers’ rights when it comes to filing a workers’ compensation claim and the cash and medical benefits they may be eligible to receive.

Registration is not required. Webinars will be held, from noon to 1 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11, June 8, and July 13.

More information is available on the board’s website.

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