Week CXV: Local surge plateaus as a quarter of county residents still aren’t fully vaccinated

— Graph from CDC
Americans 12 and older who were unvaccinated were 17 times more likely to die from COVID-19.

ALBANY COUNTY — For the first time since the original Omicron surge abated in February, the United States — even though many infections are unreported — is now averaging over 100,000 new cases a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And hospitalizations have increased by 25 percent since the start of the month.

Nationwide the number of counties with a “high” community level of COVID has more than doubled from a week ago to over 9 percent.

While Albany County, like most of New York State, continues to be labeled by the CDC as having a “high” level, meaning masks should be worn indoors in public, the statewide case rate has declined every day this past week — on Tuesday, the rate was the lowest it had been since May 6.

This week, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy reported six county residents suffered COVID-related deaths: a woman in her forties, a woman in her seventies, a woman in her eighties, and three men in their eighties.

That brings the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 562.

“These individuals are unfortunate reminders that this virus is still a danger for many, but especially for those who are not vaccinated, and those with underlying health conditions and weakened immune systems,” said McCoy in his Tuesday release. “I continue to urge people to stay vigilant, to take precautions whenever possible, and to get vaccinated and boosted if you haven’t already.”

A quarter of Albany County residents have not completed a vaccination series — a percentage that hasn’t budged for months. At the same time, a quarter of the county residents eligible for a booster shot have not received one.

The CDC has tracked data that shows, from January 2021 to March 2022, Americans 18 and older who were unvaccinated were about five times more likely to be hospitalized than those who were up to date on vaccinations. Also, Americans age 12 and older who were unvaccinated were 17 times more likely to die from COVID-19.

Deaths typically lag behind hospitalization and infection rates.

Forty-three county residents are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, with five of them in intensive-care units.

This compares with 42 last week, 51 two weeks ago, 34 three weeks ago, 31 four weeks ago, 30 county residents five weeks ago, 21 county residents hospitalized six weeks ago, and 13 hospitalized with the virus seven weeks ago.

So it appears that, after a steady increase for the last month and a half, hospitalizations are leveling off. Also, the governor’s office reports that 37.5 percent of people with COVID-19 hospitalized in the Capital Region were not admitted because of the virus.

Similarly, the rate of COVID cases per 100,000 of population appears to be leveling off and even decreasing. McCoy reported in his Tuesday COVID release that Albany County has 49.6 cases per 100,000 as a seven-day average.

This compares with 51.2 last week, 54.2 cases per 100,000 two weeks ago, 43.7 three weeks ago, 37.7 four weeks ago, 28.3 cases five weeks ago, 21.1 cases six weeks ago, and 11.0 cases per 100,000 seven weeks ago.

Statewide, the seven-day average is 45.36 per 100,000 — a decrease from last week’s 50.50. Long Island has the highest at 62.72 and Central New York has the lowest at 22.44 cases per 100,000 of population.

The less reliable infection rate — the percentage of positive test results — is now at 13.1 percent for Albany County as a seven-day average.

This is down just slightly from last week’s 13.3 percent after a steady climb up: 12.2 percent two weeks ago, 10.0 percent three weeks ago, 13.5 percent four weeks ago, 9.1 percent five weeks ago, 7.5 percent six weeks ago, 3.5 percent seven weeks ago, and 2.6 percent eight weeks ago.

Statewide, as a seven-day average, the infection rate is 8.04 percent, up slightly from last week’s 7.66 percent. New York City has the lowest at 6.32 percent and Western New York the highest at 14.61 percent.

The CDC map this week shows most counties in New York, like Albany County, are colored orange for a “high” community level. Eight counties — Saint Lawrence, Hamilton, Cayuga, Madison, Cortland, Sullivan, and Tockland — are colored yellow for “medium” while just one, Orange County, is colored green for a “low” community level of COVID.


CDC updates booster advice

Last Thursday, the CDC expanded eligibility of COVID-19 vaccine booster doses to everyone 5 years of age and older.

The CDC, according to a May 19 release, now recommends that children ages 5 through 11 years old should receive a booster shot five months after their initial Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination series.

Since the pandemic began, more than 4.8 million children in that age group have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while 15,000 have been hospitalized and over 180 have died. “As cases increase across the country, a booster dose will safely help restore and enhance protection against severe disease,” the release said.

“Vaccination with a primary series among this age group has lagged behind other age groups leaving them vulnerable to serious illness,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in a statement. “With over 18 million doses administered in this age group, we know that these vaccines are safe, and we must continue to increase the number of children who are protected.”

“Boosters are doctor-recommended, widely available, free, and safe, and we need as many eligible New Yorkers to take advantage of this life-saving tool,” said Governor Kathy Hochul in a statement last Thursday. “When we protect ourselves, we protect our families and our neighbors. We’re in this together, New York.”

At the same time, on May 19, the CDC strengthened its recommendation that those 12 and older who are immunocompromised and those 50 and older should receive a second booster dose at least four months after their first.

“Over the past month we have seen steady increases in cases, with a steep and substantial increase in hospitalizations for older Americans,” the release said. “While older Americans have the highest coverage of any age group of first booster doses, most older Americans received their last dose (either their primary series or their first booster dose) many months ago, leaving many who are vulnerable without the protection they may need to prevent severe disease, hospitalization, and death.”

“With cases increasing,” said Walensky, “it is important that all people have the protection they need, which is why, today, CDC has also strengthened another booster recommendation. Those 50 and older and those who are 12 and older and immunocompromised should get a second booster dose.”


Shots for younger kids on the horizon

There is hope that the only Americans not eligible for vaccination against COVID-19 — the very youngest — may soon be eligible.

Pfizer and BioNTech said in a release on Monday that three doses of their COVID vaccine in children aged 6 months up to 5 years old​​ “was found to elicit a strong immune response, with a favorable safety profile.”

Vaccine efficacy was 80.3 percent., the companies said.

“Our COVID-19 vaccine has been studied in thousands of children and adolescents, and we are pleased that our formulation for the youngest children, which we carefully selected to be one-tenth of the dose strength for adults, was well tolerated and produced a strong immune response,” said Albert Bourla, chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer, in a statement.

“We are preparing the relevant documents and expect completing the submission process to the FDA this week, with submissions to EMA and other regulatory agencies to follow within the coming weeks,” said Ugur Sahin, M.D. who is the chief executive officer and co-founder of BioNTech, in a statement, referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency. 

In February 2022, the companies started a rolling submission for emergency use authorization of their COVID-19 vaccine in children 6 months to under 5 years of age, following a request by the FDA. At that time, the release notes, a two-dose series was determined to be well-tolerated in this age group.

Two doses of vaccine, however, proved not to be effective in preventing infection with the Omicron variant so the companies turned to testing a three-dose regimen.

At the same time, Moderna — the other company that has produced a messenger RNA vaccine — is seeking emergency authorization from the FDA for its children’s vaccine against COVID-19.

On Monday, May 23, the FDA revised the dates of the upcoming Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee meetings because of the new data and expected submissions of emergency use authorization requests.

On June 14, the FDA and its advisory committee of external experts are to discuss Moderna’s emergency-use request for children 6 through 17 years old.

Then, the next day, June 15, Moderna’s emergency-use request for 6 months through 5 years of age will be considered along with the  Pfizer-BioNTech emergency-use request for 6 months through 4 years of age.

The original schedule also included a committee meeting to discuss whether the SARS-CoV-2 strain composition of COVID-19 vaccines should be modified, and if so, which strain or strains should be selected for the fall of 2022.


Omicron subvariant dominates nation

This week, the CDC noted that the BA.2.12.1 subvariant of Omicron is now dominant among COVID cases nationwide, at 58 percent. In March, the high number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in Central New York led the state’s health department to investigations that determined the first reported instances in the United States of significant community spread of the two new subvariants of Omicron.

In April, the health department announced the emergence of BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1, subvariants of Omicron. The health department said then that there is no evidence of increased disease severity by these subvariants.

The subvariants have been estimated to have a 23 percent to 27 percent growth advantage above the original BA.2 variant.

The original Omicron variant, BA.2, now makes up 39 percent of new cases nationwide with other Omicron variants at under 4 percent. The once-dominant Delta variant now makes up 0 percent of new cases.

In the New York-New Jersey area, BA.2.12.1 now makes up 78 percent of new cases while the original Omicron, BA.2, makes up 21 percent and another Omicron variant makes up under 2 percent.


Nursing homes are short workers

“The labor shortage is so severe within the lon- term care industry that many facilities have been forced to limit the admission of new residents or close altogether,” according to a release from the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, which represent more than 14,000 nursing centers and assisted-living communities.

The association cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing long-term care facilities have lost more than 400,000 employees since the start of the pandemic and also references a recent report from the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, showing skilled nursing and residential care facilities lost over 145,000 workers between December 2020 and December 2021, while hospitals lost 45,000.

The association also cites a report from Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, projecting a shortage of 3 million low-wage health workers in the next five years. “The nation’s health depends on the well-being of our health workforce. Confronting the long-standing drivers of burnout among our health workers must be a top national priority,” Murthy is quoted as saying.

The association opposes proposed unfunded mandates but supports the Building America’s Healthcare Workforce Act introduced earlier this month. The bill would expedite the process for temporary nurses’ aids to become certified nursing assistants.

“This legislation will prevent further devastating job losses, in turn protecting access to care for our nation’s seniors,” said Holly Harmon, a registered nurse and senior vice president of Quality, Regulatory and Clinical Services for the association, in a statement.


Sales-tax collections up

Local government sales-tax collections were up by 15.7 percent in April compared to the same month in 2021, according to an analysis released by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli this week.

Overall, local collections totaled $1.7 billion, up $232 million from April of last year.

“While local sales tax collections in April were strong throughout most of the state, the continued rise in the price of goods and services has increased the cost of doing business for many local governments,” DiNapoli said in a statement, releasing the report.

Albany County was up 25.5 percent. Schenectady County was the only county to see a decline, down 12.6 percent in April.


Unemployment declines

On May 24, the state’s labor department released preliminary unemployment rates for April that shows New York State’s unemployment rate decreased from 4.6 percent in March to 4.5 percent last month.

For the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, the rate went from 4.7 percent in April 2021 to 2.7 percent this past April.

The unemployment rate for Albany county last month was 2.7 percent.

New York State’s private-sector jobs increased by 411,400 or 5.5 percent, over the year in April 2022, which exceeded the 5.2 percent increase in the number of private-sector jobs nationwide.

The April decrease was the fourth month in a row that the unemployment rate decreased for the state.

New York City’s unemployment rate was unchanged over the month at 6.4 percent.  OUtside of New York City, the unemployment rate decreased from 3.2 percent to 3.1 percent. This is the lowest level on record — records go back to 1976 — for the third consecutive month.

The number of unemployed New Yorkers decreased over the month by 4,900 — from 428,700 in March to 423,800 in April 2022.

The biggest gain by far, of 24.6 percent, was in leisure and hospitality jobs. This was followed by a gain of 5.9 percent in professional and business services.

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