Week LVII: Vaccine clinics open up for walk-ins as supply exceeds demand

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
“We need to open this up to doctors’ offices,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy of COVID-19 vaccination

ALBANY COUNTY — Five county residents died of COVID-19 this week as local and state leaders pushed people to get vaccinated.

In Albany County’s 57th week of coping with the coronavirus, a slew of restrictions — both statewide and local — were lifted or loosened.

This week, the supply of vaccine doses in Albany County exceeded the demand and the county announced walk-ins would be welcome from 2 to 6 p.m. Thursday at the county’s mass vaccination clinic at the Times Union Center in Albany to get a first dose of Pfizer.

On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo was in Yonkers announcing the state’s mass-vaccination sites will set aside doses so New Yorkers who are 60 or older can walk in for a shot.

Tony Cortese, who coordinates services for Community Caregivers, writes in this week’s Enterprise column how difficult it has been for some seniors to book online appointments. “In this seemingly exclusive electronic effort, seniors are being left out,” he writes.

He describes how the not-for-profit organization, based in Guilderland, is helping seniors schedule vaccination appointments and then transporting them to the sites.

“You don’t have to go on the internet, you don’t have to make a phone call, you don’t have to do anything,” said Cuomo at the Yonkers event. “Just show up at the vaccination site if you’re 60-plus and they will give you a vaccine.”

Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who represents Yonkers, urged New Yorkers to get vaccinated. “It will be good for you and good for your family,” she said.

The walk-in program starts Friday and, in Albany County, applies to two mass-vaccination sites: One is at the Washington Avenue Armory, run jointly by the state and federal government, and the other is at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, in the former Lord & Taylor store, replacing the state’s venue at the University at Albany.

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said in a Wednesday morning release that 800 appointments remained for the county’s Thursday clinic.

McCoy said he was pleased that the state’s health department has “backed away from the ‘use it or lose it’ policy that required us to administer all of our allotted vaccines within seven days or face a penalty.” He said, “This will allow us to be more flexible in our distribution strategies as more people get vaccinated and as we deal with vaccine hesitancy.”

While Albany County hit the halfway mark — 50 percent — on Wednesday of residents having received at least one shot, there were also concerns about more deaths.

“It’s definitely alarming, the uptick in deaths,” said McCoy at his Monday press briefing. “We haven’t seen this in a long time.”

On Wednesday, he announced the fifth COVID-related death of a county resident this week — a man in his seventies — bringing the county’s death toll to 374.

McCoy said he had spoken on Monday morning with Ferdinand Venditti, Albany Medical Center’s general director.

“They’re worried …,” he said of doctors at Albany Med. “We’re going to see a spike. It will probably go up for six weeks and come back down in June.”

McCoy went on, “Someone in their forties passed away from COVID-19. There’s a very young child in the hospital right now that has COVID-19. We’re seeing them numbers start to tick up.”

 

Vaccination

McCoy was prescient in last Friday’s press briefing when he said he anticipated a time when he would be “begging people to come out and get the vaccine.” He urged, “Help us move forward … We need to get over 70 percent of residents in Albany County being fully vaccinated.

Expert opinions on the percentage needed for herd immunity runs from 70 to 90 percent.

Both Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen and McCoy on Friday had called on the state to loosen restrictions on how COVID-19 vaccines are dispensed.

“We need more physicians that are doing vaccinations in their offices,” said the county’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, at Friday morning’s press briefing.

She noted, “Physicians can sign up to be New York State COVID-certified vaccinators.” The “fairly simple” paperwork, she said, is available through the state’s health department.

“It’s important to vaccinate people where they’re comfortable and not everybody is comfortable going to our PODs,” she said of points of dispensing.

McCoy raised another issue looming on the horizon of vaccination efficacy.  He noted that the chief executive officer of Pfizer has said — in comments released Thursday — that people will “likely” need another dose of vaccine within a year of first being fully vaccinated, and it’s possible they may need annual vaccination as with flu shots.

Researchers don’t know how long protection lasts.

“We need to open this up to doctors’ offices,” said McCoy. He also said that, while the logistics of running smaller PODs can be difficult, people feel more comfortable using them.

Whalen noted that this was the first week that appointments for vaccination at the county POD didn’t fill up within five minutes of the openings being posted online. Walk-ins were admitted to fill the slots.

“We are now getting to the point where we are really having to look at how we can broaden the amount of people that we are vaccinating,” said Whalen. 

She thinks a lot of the hesitancy may have been the pause on using Johnson & Johnson vaccine. On Tuesday morning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration issued a statement recommending the pause and New York State immediately followed.

Six American women had suffered a rare clotting disorder — one of them died — after being vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson. The clotting disorder looks to be similar to the disorder that European authorities have said is possibly linked to AstraZeneca, a COVID-19 vaccine not yet cleared in the United States.

Both of those vaccines use a cold virus to carry the coronavirus spike gene into the vaccinated person. On the other hand, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA, training the body to recognize the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus.

Whalen said her office was swamped with questions after the pause was announced.

“This is a concern,” she said of the clotting disorder, “but it is an incredibly low risk.” She noted that six individuals out of the 6 million Americans vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson had suffered from the disorder.

“I believe that the pause will give us opportunity to look at this in a more systematic fashion and gives us better information on whether this vaccine is appropriate to be reintroduced and, if so, are there certain populations that should or shouldn’t get it,” she said.

Whalen surmised that interest in vaccination in Albany County would return to “normal” after the Johnson & Johnson pause.

But she also said it is important to remove barriers to vaccination.

“It’s important to vaccinate people where they’re comfortable and not everybody is comfortable going to our PODs,” she said.

She said, too, that it is important to “work to combat the abundance of misinformation that is available, particularly on social media.”

Whalen said her department is starting to look at data to find pockets of people in the community who have not been vaccinated to see if education efforts can be targeted.

She also said that “health ambassadors” who are “trusted messengers” within their communities will talk to people about their hesitancy.

Another barrier for some, Whalen said, is computer sign-up. She said many of the walk-ins at the last county POD “were really grateful” that they didn’t need to go through an online process.

“You need your ID and you need to show up,” she said.

Whalen stressed the importance of vaccination and still following protocols like hand-washing, social distancing, and mask wearing.

Whalen concluded, “We are still seeing people suffer with COVID. We are still seeing younger people suffer with COVID,” said Whalen. “We are seeing hospitalizations and we are seeing deaths so COVID is not finished with us.”

On Monday, Steve Neuhaus, the Republican county executive for Orange County, spoke at the briefing about the problems he has faced getting residents vaccinated.

“We’re having a hard time with people signing up to get vaccinated,” Neuhaus said. Initially, he said, the county’s points of dispensing, or PODs, were vaccinating 2,000 to 3,000 people a day.

“Now we can barely get through 500,” he said.

Neuhaus said that police officers were stopping cars to ask if the people in the cars had been vaccinated and could direct them to clinics.

Orange County has about 380,000 residents, compared to Albany County’s roughly 310,000, and 800 residents have died of COVID-19, Neuhaus said.

According to the state’s vaccine tracker, as of Wednesday night, 35.3 percent of Orange County’s 381,951 residents have received at least one dose of vaccine while 50.0 percent of Albany County’s 307,117 residents have received one dose.

Statewide, 42.6 percent have received a first dose and 29.2 have completed a vaccine series.

Another problem broached by Neuhaus is nursing-home staff. “Our nursing homes, less than 50 percent of the staff have been vaccinated and that’s alarming,” he said.

McCoy said that, in Albany County, a higher percentage of nursing-home staff had been vaccinated to begin with but that there is high turnover so now the percentage is lower. “Any time they’re positive, we’re shut down for seven days,” he said.

Neuhaus also said, “We’re still finding a ton of senior citizens in these pockets that have not gotten vaccinated … Right now, I’m tracing over 1,000 active cases … We’re not out of the woods here.”

Whalen on Monday discussed different strategies her department will use to reach residents who have not yet been vaccinated.

 She discussed three groups: early adapters, who move forward immediately; a small group who will not be vaccinated and resists education; and “then we have a big group in the middle that is the group we need to engage.”

Efforts may be made to reach young people through social media, such as TikTok, Whalen said, and there will be clinics at high schools.

The health department will make “a big push on education and community engagement, using the strategy of peers that have been vaccinated to help share with communities that they serve their level of comfort,” Whalen said.

She went on, “You need to hear it from people that you trust … People do respond to stories and we know every time someone gets vaccinated, not only are they protecting themselves but they are protecting their family members.”

Whalen again noted that she and her three children have all been vaccinated. “I am giving the same recommendation to the community that I would give to my loved ones,” she said.

Whalen stressed again, “The vaccine is safe and effective.”

She also urged, “Be vaccinated to protect your loved ones.”

 

Empire Center report

On Friday, Bill Hammond, senior fellow at the Empire Center, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit think tank based in Albany, released a report showing that a committee appointed by Cuomo to verify the safety of vaccines authorized by the FDA had found they were safe.

“The governor’s six-member Clinical Advisory Task Force, which is co-chaired by a Nobel laureate, issued formal statements on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in December and on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in February,” Hammond wrote.

“Although Cuomo briefly announced each of the task force’s decisions shortly after it was made, the panel’s statements have remained unpublished until now,” he went on. “The existence of the statements did not come to light until the Executive Chamber recently turned them over to the Empire Center under the state's Freedom of Information Law.

“Why these reports stayed hidden is a mystery. Sharing them with the public would have been more consistent with Cuomo’s stated goal in establishing the task force — which was to reassure New Yorkers that the FDA's scientific judgments had been scrutinized by independent experts.”

Hammond also wrote, “Although the task force's statements contain no surprises, they include expert perspective that New Yorkers might have found reassuring or enlightening.”
 

Opening up

Starting on Monday, Albany Medical Center began allowing more visitors to the hospital. Visitors are required to have their temperatures checked and to wear surgical masks.

Two visitors over 18 per patient are allowed between 10 a.m. and noon and between 6 and 8 p.m.

A patient may have up to four visitors a day. The expansion from one to two visitors at a time aligns with updated guidelines from the state.

Also starting on Monday, restaurant curfews across New York were pushed back an hour from 11 p.m. to midnight, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday.

The curfew for catered events was also moved back an hour, from midnight to 1 a.m.

The original curfew for restaurants and bars, adopted last year to stem the spread of the coronavirus, was 10 p.m.; that was pushed back to 11 p.m. in February.

Assemblyman Chris Tague, a Republican from Schoharie, joined GOP colleagues last Thursday, calling for “justifications from the governor’s office” on the need for any curfew at all.

“After a farcical show of ‘taking away the governor’s powers,’ it has become clear the governor has as much power as ever to jeopardize the livelihoods of working people and small business owners,” said Tague in a statement.

This week, Cuomo also announced that spectators will be allowed at horse and auto races at 20 percent capacity, beginning Thursday, April 22.

Spectators will be subject to the same guidance for other sports competitions. They must show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test or completed vaccination series prior to entry and are subject to the state's health and safety protocols on face coverings, social distancing, and health screening.

“It’s about pivoting from COVID close-down to post-COVID reopening,” said Cuomo on Monday. “There’s a season for everything and this is the season for renewal and for change.”

Starting April 26, museum and zoo capacity will be raised to 50 percent, and theater capacity will go to 33 percent. On May 19, capacity at sports arenas will be raised to 25 percent, Cuomo announced.

Social distancing, masks, health screenings and all other health and safety protocols will remain in effect as capacity increases.

 

Siena poll

Siena Research Institute released results on Monday from its latest poll on Cuomo, which also had questions on vaccination.

Voters approve of Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic, 60 to 32 percent. By a 44 to 22 percent margin, voters think Cuomo has committed sexual harassment, with 34 percent undecided. 

Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg summarized the results on Cuomo this way, “On the one hand, his favorability rating is now the lowest it has ever been, with more than 50 percent of voters viewing Cuomo unfavorably for the very first time in a Siena College poll.” The Siena polls cover his entire tenure as governor, since 2011.

“On the other hand,” Greenberg went on, “a majority of voters — including Democrats by two-to-one and a plurality of independents — continue to say that Cuomo should not resign, and a similar majority say he can still effectively do his job as governor,” said Greenberg.

The poll also found that 60 percent of New Yorkers think the worst of the pandemic is over, compared to 27 percent who say the worst is still to come.

Sixty percent of voters say they have been vaccinated, with another 23 percent planning to. Only 14 percent of voters say they don’t plan to get vaccinated, down from 21 percent in March and 25 percent in January.

 

Newest numbers

McCoy announced 39 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the county’s tally to 23,499.

Of the new cases, 20 did not have clear sources of infection identified, 16 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, and three reported traveling out of state.

The five-day average for new daily positives dropped from 64.8 to 59. There are now 481 active cases in the county, down from 513 on Tuesday.

The number of Albany County residents under quarantine increased to 1,044 from 1,026. So far, 75,510 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 23,018 had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 65 recoveries since Tuesday.

There were no new hospitalizations overnight and there are now 21 county residents hospitalized from the virus — a net decrease of nine. There are currently six patients in intensive-care, down from eight yesterday.

Albany County’s infection rate, as of Tuesday, as a seven-day rolling average, was 2.9 percent, according to the state’s dashboard.

Statewide, the infection rate, also as of Tuesday, as a seven-day rolling average, was 2.7 percent.

More Regional News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.