Week LVIII: As more than half in region are vaccinated, county and state try new strategies

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
“We still need to get buy-in from the community,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy on April 26. “So I’m pleading with everyone …. We need your help.”

ALBANY COUNTY — The Capital Region on Wednesday was the first in the state to cross the half-way mark in giving a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine to residents.

Albany County crossed that 50-percent landmark last week but, like the rest of the state, has “hit a wall” County Executive Daniel McCoy put it, in filling slots at mass vaccination clinics.

For its Thursday clinic at the Times Union Center in Albany, the county, as of Wednesday, still had 600 slots for Pfizer slots are available. Pfizer is the only vaccine approved for 16- and 17-year-olds.

“It’s safe, quick and easy …,” said McCoy in a Wednesday statement, urging residents to walk in. “We’re also not requiring you to register in advance — walk-ins are welcome — and we won’t ask for any health insurance or social security information.”

At last Thursday’s county clinic, only 319 residents came to use the 1,200 first doses of the Pfizer vaccine that workers were ready to dispense; 56 of those were walk-ins.

This has led both the county and the state to change strategies. The county is sharing vaccine doses for smaller community clinics and also started a campaign to entice youth to get vaccinated.

Starting on Thursday, New Yorkers will be able to walk into state vaccination clinics, like the one at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, without an appointment.

The walk-in appointments are reserved for first doses only with second doses to be scheduled automatically after the first shot is given. Additionally, all vaccine providers are encouraged to allow walk-in appointments.

“With COVID, we are a little bit of a point of transition ....,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo at an event in Broome County on Tuesday. We're seeing a reduction in the number of people coming in for vaccines. We were doing about 175,000 vaccines statewide every 24 hours. That number is down to now about 115,000 vaccines every 24 hours ... The demand is reducing.”

Statewide, as of Wednesday afternoon, 45.1 percent of New Yorkers have received at least one shot while 32.6 percent have completed a vaccine series.

According to the state’s vaccine tracker, 52.6 percent of Albany County’s 307,117 residents have received at least one shot while percent are fully vaccinated. Mccoy announced on Wednesday morning that 38.5 are fully vaccinated.           

Starting on Thursday, Cuomo said, “You don’t have to call. You don’t have to make an appointment. All New Yorkers 16-plus, just come into a mass vaccination site on Thursday, and you are eligible for a vaccine.”     


Commissioner speaks to uncertainty

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said this week that there has been a shift “throughout New York State” as mass vaccination clinics are not reaching capacity.

The county is moving to “smaller PODs where people live, work, and play ....,” she said. “We remain committed to vaccinating those that are homebound and those that are homeless.”   

While early adopters, comfortable with medical science stepped forward early to get their vaccine, “now we have to work on those that have been waiting or are uncertain,” Whalen said at Friday’s briefing.

She launched into a thoughtful sermon on uncertainty.

“Uncertainty has become a large part of all of our lives under COVID-19,” she said. The uncertainty is whether you’re going to be able to resume normal life. The uncertainty is whether it is safe to see your family members.

“The uncertainty is whether or not you may become ill yourself and how this could affect your family or your loved ones. The uncertainty has been: Is this something you could be transmitting unknowingly? And this uncertainty has taken a toll on all of us.

“It has obviously changed the rules for life as we know it.”

Whalen spoke of the tremendous upheaval in many areas, from the economy to mental health.

“Vaccination takes away the uncertainty,” she said. “It helps all of us — moves us back to a place where we can look at resumption of normal life.”

Whalen said she had spoken this week to someone who said, “The first dose of the COVID shot gives you COVID.” Whalen explained that this is not true. “It helps produce antibodies so you will not get the disease,” she said.

She urged people who are uncertain about getting the vaccine to get their information from a trusted source, someone versed in science, like a doctor or pharmacist.

“Think about the path forward out of uncertainty,” Whalen said. “In particular, we are targeting the younger demographic.”

She noted again that all three of her children have been immunized. “I believe in the science and I believe it will protect them,” Whalen said.

“We need to get to that 70-percent mark and we’re at 50-percent now ...,” “You’re not only doing something for yourself,” she concluded of vaccination. “You’re doing something for the community. You’re doing something to help us all forward out of uncertainty.”                 


Reaching youth

Explaining the county’s Instagram challenge, McCoy said, “If you got your first shot, we’re asking you to post a video or photo on Instagram, explaining why you got it, encouraging others to do the same.”

The promotion was launched with a video in which a series of young people are shown at the Times Union Center getting their shots and explaining why.

“I got my shot today so I can worry less and visit family more,” said a masked girl.

“I got my shot because I am a baseball coach and I like to protect my team,” says a young man.

McCoy reflected on the high school athletes and their parents and coaches who had protested in January after the health department determined the infection rate was too high to allow contact sports.

“Get those kids vaccinated,” he urged the sports parents and athletes.

He lauded Bethlehem High School, which hosted a clinic that vaccinated 400 students. He said that 100 other students among the 700 eligible had been vaccinated, bringing the school to over 70 percent.

“Help us educate these kids,” said McCoy, addressing school board members.

For anyone having trouble filling out forms with their Social Security number and health-insurance information, McCoy said, “Call my office.” He also said they could call United Way at 2-1-1 for free assistance.

The shots are free but residents with health insurance are asked to fill out forms so the insurance company can reimburse.


J&J shots resume

On Monday, Whalen noted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had stopped the pause on administering Johson & Johnson vaccine.

“After very careful analysis, it was determined that the benefit by far outweighs the risk of this vaccine,” she said.

The government analysis showed that 15 women, between the ages of 18 and 49, who had received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, out of 8 million vaccine recipients in the United States, had developed a rare kind of blood clot.

On Saturday, Cuomo had issued a statement, saying, “World-renowned public health experts from the federal government and our own independent state task force have reviewed the data and reaffirmed that the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can resume. The state of New York will resume administration of this vaccine at all of our state-run sites effective immediately.”   

At the same time, the state’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker, issued a statement, saying, “The data has shown the vaccine’s known benefits far outweigh the potential and extremely rare risks, but we urge anyone with questions about the COVID-19 vaccines to speak with their healthcare provider.”

Whalen said on Monday that the county has a lot of Johnson & Johnson doses and “will partner with interested parties to get that out.”

She went on, “We also have a lot of Pfizer and a fair amount of Moderna.” She stressed again that the vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech is the only one that 16- and 17-year-olds can use.

McCoy noted that 52 percent of the United States population has been vaccinated and surveys show that 62 percent either have been vaccinated or plan to be vaccinated while 17 percent are waiting and undecided.

He also said, “On the national level, 10 percent of people aren’t going back for their second dose, which is alarming because they’re afraid of the side effects.”

Johnson & Johnson requires just one shot while Pfizer and Monderna require two shots several weeks apart.

McCoy said the county will target college students with its Johnson & Johnson doses.


Mask-free outdoors

New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that, except in certain crowded settings, fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks. Someone is fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two weeks after getting the second dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Masks should still be worn indoors and should still be worn by people who are not fully vaccinated. Fully vaccinated people with immunocompromising conditions should consult with their health-care provider before unmasking.

Fully vaccinated people, according to the CDC, do not need to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19 unless they live in a congregate setting.

They can visit with other vaccinated people without wearing a mask or staying socially distant. They can visit indoors with unvaccinated people, including children, from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease without wearing masks or physical distancing.

They can travel in the United States without being tested and they can leave the United States without being tested and, on returning, they don’t have to quarantine.


Opening up

On Wednesday, Cuomo announced that the midnight food-and-beverage service curfew will be lifted for outdoor dining areas beginning May 17 and for indoor dining areas beginning May 31.

He also announced that the 1 a.m. curfew for catered events where attendees have provided proof of vaccination status or a recent negative COVID-19 test result will be lifted beginning May 17, with the curfew for all catered events set to be lifted May 31. 

Catered events can resume at residences beginning May 3 above the state’s residential gathering limit of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, as long as the events are staffed by a professional, licensed caterer, permitted by the respective locality or municipality, and strictly adhere to health and safety guidance, including social and event gathering limits, masks, and social distancing.

Also on May 3, the guidance for dancing among attendees at catered events will be aligned with neighboring states, replacing fixed dance zones for each table with social distancing and masks.

On April 26, Cuomo announced that spectator capacity at large-scale outdoor event venues, including professional and collegiate sports and live performing arts and entertainment, will increase from 20 to 33 percent beginning May 19.

Starting May 15, capacities will increase at gyms outside New York city from 33 to 50 percent, at casinos from 25 to 50 percent, and at offices from 50 to 75 percent.


Newest numbers

On Wednesday morning, in a release, McCoy announced the county’s latest COVID-19 casualty — a man in his nineties — bringing the county’s death toll from the disease to 375.

He also announced 20 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the county’s tally to 23,763.

Of the new cases, 13 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, six did not have clear sources of infection identified, and  one reported traveling out of state.

The five-day average for new daily positives declined from 35.4 to 31.2. There are now 360 active cases in the county, down from 399 on Tuesday.

The number of Albany County residents under quarantine decreased to 731 from 757. So far, 76,806 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 23,403 had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 58 recoveries since Tuesday.

There was one new hospitalization overnight, and there are now 26 county residents hospitalized from the virus — a net decrease of four. There remain four patients currently in intensive-care units.

According to the state’s dashboard, Albany County’s infection rate, as of Tuesday, as a seven-day rolling average, was 1.8 percent.

Statewide, the infection rate, also as a seven-day rolling average, was 2.0 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.