Week LXII: To inspire youth vaccination, state sets up scholarship lottery

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
“So we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” says George Manias, president of the FireWolves, as he displays a certificate that will be given to Albany County youths, between the ages of 12 and 15, who get vaccinated against COVID-19. The first 1,000 will get a free ticket to the FireWolves opening game in December.

ALBANY COUNTY — The focus was on youth during Albany County’s 62nd week of battling the coronavirus.

Throughout the week, the state and county offered incentives for residents to get vaccinated. Youth in Albany County are being offered free tickets to a lacrosse game while youth across the state are being offered a chance to win scholarships to state schools.

On Monday, as the infection rate statewide and in Albany County continued to fall, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that, based on the current trajectory of COVID-19, all schools in the state will open in September for full in-person learning.

“Our children lost so much as COVID struck our state. A year of socialization, a year of memories, and even more,” Cuomo said in a statement, making the announcement. “While teachers and school administrators did an incredible job pivoting to remote learning with virtually zero notice, there’s no denying the discrimination students who did not have the right equipment faced.”

He added, “If there is a change in the trajectory of the virus, we will revisit the decision.”

Locally, the Guilderland school district built its $105 million budget for next year to accommodate a full return to in-person classes. Superintendent Marie Wiles said earlier this month that the work next year would be challenging as all grades are expected to be in classrooms every weekday.

“We fully anticipate that, when our students return ... we will unearth many additional needs around their mental and emotional well being,” she said, calling the infusion of state aid this year a lifeline.

This week, Voorheesville’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, Jim Southard, told The Enterprise that the district’s $27 million budget “has enough flexibility built in to achieve full-time in-person education during 2021-22.”

 

Moderna on deck

Currently, only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for youth. But on Tuesday Moderna announced that its vaccine, based on a clinical trial, is effective for 12- to 17-year-olds. The trial resulted in no cases of COVID-19 among fully-vaccinated teens.

The company plans to apply to the Food and Drug Administration in June for authorization to use the vaccine for the younger age group.

 

Pushing vaccine

Cuomo on Wednesday announced the “Get a Shot to Make Your Future” incentive for 12- to 17-year-olds to get vaccinated. Beginning on May 27, vaccinated youth who enter online can be randomly chosen to win a full scholarship to SUNY or CUNY schools, covering both tuition and room and board.

“We’ve seen a 47 percent decline in the number of people coming in for vaccinations. So this is an issue,” said Cuomo, making the announcement in New York City. “Where is the need in terms of vaccination?

“The greatest need is the 12- to 17-year-olds. They are 5 percent of the current COVID tests, but they’re 10 percent of the positivity rate. That’s the highest differential of any age group … Also, that group, 12 to 17, is the lowest percent vaccinated by far in the state.”

A drawing will be held every Wednesday from now until July 7. “People who received the vaccine earlier have a greater chance to win because they are eligible for every drawing every week,” Cuomo said.

While Cuomo was at Jones Beach on Long Island on Monday, pushing “a shot in the park” incentive, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy on Monday offered another sports-related incentive for local youth to get vaccinated.

The first 1,000 county residents between the ages of 12 and 15 who get vaccinated at one of Albany County’s points of dispensing, or PODs, will get a free ticket to an Albany FireWolves game for its upcoming season starting in December.

Founded this year, the FireWolves are a professional box lacrosse team that will play at the county’s Times Union Center. The team, owned by former National Lacrosse League player Oliver Marti, is a member of the East Division of the NLL.

On Friday, McCoy had announced free Albany Empire tickets available for those who get vaccinated at the Vax Block Party at the Times Union Center on May 29.

“One-hundred percent, when we came to Albany, we came with the goal of not only bringing a professional sports team back to Albany but also to give back to our community and officially this is our first initiative,” said George Manias, president of the FireWolves.

Two weeks ago, he said, the FireWolves Foundation was announced and “the Pack that Gives Back” wants “to focus on our kids” by encouraging immunization.

Manias thanked Oliver Marti and the ownership group, “scattered around different parts of the world,” which founded the foundation out of their own pockets, he said.

At Jones Beach, Cuomo told New Yorkers that, if they get vaccinated — with either a first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, or single dose of Johnson & Johnson — anywhere in the state between May 24 and 31, they are eligible to receive a free two-day pass to any New York State Park, valid through September 30, 2021.

“Just so we know,” said Cuomo to the crowd at Jones Beach, “it’s not yet time to fully celebrate. Some people want to say, ‘Well, COVID is over now. It’s over.’ It’s not over. It’s managed; it’s not over. Fourteen people passed away yesterday in the State of New York from COVID. And a troubling trend, the number of vaccinations is dropping off dramatically. We're now doing fewer than 100,000 per day. That’s a dramatic decline, 55 percent decline in how many vaccines that we’ve been doing.”

Last week, the state launched a “Scratch & Vax” lottery with a top prize of $5 million. The $20 lottery tickets are given to New Yorkers who get vaccinated at certain state sites.

On Friday, the coach for the Albany Empire football team, Tom Menas, had also pitched the importance of vaccination. The team’s first home game is being used as a draw for the unvaccinated.

The county will run a COVID-19 vaccination clinic on May 29 at the Beaver Street entrance of the Times Union Center where anyone can get vaccinated — with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson — and also get a free ticket for a future game. A Vax Block Party will be held on the mezzanine with live entertainment and food and drinks for the fully vaccinated.

Menas said that some of his players are vaccinated and some are not. “Some, it’s cultural; some, it’s fear,” he said at Friday morning’s county press conference.

Menas urged, “Don’t think of this as getting this shot for yourself. You’re getting it for people you love,” he said, noting that now he can kiss his aunt and hug his grandson.

Bob Beller, the general manager for the county’s Times Union Center, said that masks will be required inside the center unless a fan is seated in  “a vax zone.” Fans not in a vax zone are allowed to take off their masks to eat or drink, he said.

“There is a requirement to show proof of vaccination,” he said. Either an Excelsior Pass or a vaccination card is acceptable. Unvaccinated fans will be admitted if they show proof of a negative PCR test within 72 hours of a game or a negative rapid test within six hours.

Children will be allowed in a vax section if they are accompanied by a vaccinated adult. “The state is not separating families,” said Beller.

“We’re encouraging vaccination. It’s a great way to stay safe,” Beller concluded.

McCoy noted that the center holds 17,000 people but will be used at 33-percent capacity.

He also went over some problems with the Excelsior Pass, noting confusion surrounding the county where someone lives as opposed to the county where they were vaccinated or the county of the vaccine provider.

McCoy said that vaccinations administered by Mohawk Ambulance, even those given in Albany County, are recorded as Schenectady County. Vaccination rates could actually be higher than what is being reported, he said. “We’re looking into that,” McCoy said.

McCoy also said the app for the Excelsior Pass can be confusing, noting that a full name, not a nickname, needs to be used.

McCoy called on the state to come up with “a state-of-the-art public-information system.” He said, “We should invest in a system that actually works for the people.”

 

Airport vaccination

Starting on Monday, May 24, through Friday, May 28, under a program announced by Cuomo, vaccinations will be provided free of charge at Albany County’s airport to travelers and the general public.

The vaccination site, located in the airport’s baggage-claim area will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Johnson & Johnson vaccinations will be administered by members of the Colonie Emergency Medical Services Department. Free parking up to 30 minutes will be provided in the airport’s short-term parking lot.

 

Memorial Day

Cuomo said this week that the essential workers who died while fighting the pandemic will be honored this Memorial Day.

He directed  flags on state government buildings to be flown at half-staff and state landmarks to be lit red, white, and blue on Sunday, May 30 to honor the essential workers who lost their lives due to COVID-19. Flags will remain at half-staff until noon and landmarks will remain lit on Monday, May 31, for Memorial Day in honor of the service members who lost their lives fighting to defend our country.

The two landmarks in Albany County that will belit are the Kosciuszko Bridge on the Northway and the gateway to Albany International Airport.

“We should remember this past year on Memorial Day, remember the 42,000 New Yorkers who died. 42,000. Remember the 1,000 essential workers who died giving their life, giving their life. Seasons change, but memories have to remain, lessons have to remain,” Cuomo told the crowd at Jones Beach on Monday.

He went on, “Remember how frightening COVID was when it started. Remember how frightened people were. They wouldn't come out of their homes. Walk into a hospital during COVID and it was like you were landing on outer space. People covered with garb, head to toe, face shields. You couldn't even see a person’s eyes or face. They wore name tags with pictures in the hospital, just so the patient could see some humanity.

“Nobody knew how it spread. Nobody knew how, really, it was transmitted. And you had people who showed up every day to fight that disease. It takes a special person to run into a fire to save someone. It takes a special person, when every instinct in your body says, that’s dangerous, don’t go there, run away, it takes a special person to say, ‘No, I'm going in because I think I can help someone.’”

New York State Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt found Cuomo’s order offensive. “That we fly flags at half-staff in honor of our front line workers on Memorial Day weekend would effectively dilute the one time a year that we stop to honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our nation …,” Ortt said in a statement. “If the Governor needs a better grasp of the true meaning of Memorial Day, I suggest he talk to a Gold Star mother or take a stroll through Arlington National Cemetery to gain a better understanding.”

 

Siena poll

A poll by Siena College released on Monday morning found that registered New York State voters think Cuomo should not resign by a 49-41 percent margin, compared to a 51-37 percent majority who said he should not resign last month.

Cuomo’s favorability rating is 44-48 percent, up from 40-52 percent last month. His job performance rating is negative 42-55 percent, from 42-56 percent in April. Right now, 37percent are prepared to re-elect Cuomo if he runs next year, compared to 53 percent who prefer “someone else.”

“By a nearly two-to-one margin, 42-24 percent, voters continue to say that Cuomo has committed sexual harassment, little changed from 44-22 percent last month,” said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg in a release. “Democrats are divided, while Republicans and independents think he hascommitted sexual harassment.

“Overall, when it comes to the job he’s continuing to do during the pandemic, his numbers remain strong thanks to Democrats. On every pandemic measure other than nursing-home data, at least two-thirds of Democrats give Cuomo a positive rating. However, at least 64 percent of Republicans give him negative grades on all the pandemic questions, and independents give him either negative or at best break-even grades,” Greenberg said.

Voters support a law, 62-32 percent,to require college students to be vaccinated for COVID-19 before returning for fall 2021 semester.

By a 69-19 percent margin, voters say the worst of the pandemic is over rather than still to come, up from 60-27 percent in April, 65-23 percent in March, and 46-36 percent in February.

Sixty-six percent of voters now say they have been vaccinated, with another 15 percent planning to. Seventeen percent of voters say they don’t plan to get vaccinated, up from 14 percent last month but still down from 21 percent in March and 25 percent in January.

 

Help for tenants

On Tuesday, Cuomo announced $3.5 billion in assistance for renters and small businesses experiencing financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Applications for the $2.7 billion rental program will be accepted starting June 1 for eligible New Yorkers who are behind on their rent and have suffered financial hardship due to COVID-19.

Administered by the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the New York State Emergency Rental Assistance Program will provide assistance with up to 12 months of past-due rent, three months of prospective rental assistance, and 12 months of utility arrears payments to eligible New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status. The program is expected to serve between 170,000 and 200,000 households.

The small business recovery grant program makes up to $800 million in funding available for small businesses to help them recover. Applications for the program will be accepted starting June 10 for small and micro businesses and small for-profit independent arts and cultural organizations.

Flexible grants up to $50,000 will be made available to eligible small businesses and can be used for operating expenses, including payroll, rent or mortgage payments, taxes, utilities, personal protective equipment, or other business expenses incurred during the pandemic. Over 330,000 small and micro businesses are potentially eligible for this program.

 

Newest numbers

“The numbers are going in a positive direction,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen on Monday morning. “We’re seeing less cases of COVID in the community. We’re seeing higher rates of vaccination.”

She also said more people need to be vaccinated.

According to the state’s vaccine tracker, as of Wednesday evening, 61.1 percent of Albany County’s 307,117 residents have received at least one shot; among those 18 and older, 72.0 percent have received at least one dose.

Statewide, 52.5 percent of New Yorkers have received at least one dose and 44.6 percent have completed a vaccine series; among New Yorkers 18 and older, 64.2 percent have received at least one dose and 55.5 percent have completed a series.

“There is a tremendous amount of misinformation about the vaccines on the internet, on social media,” said Whalen. “Don’t get your information from Facebook. Please get your information from a trusted source.”

She listed physicians and her health department as reliable sources and also said her department is working with a number of school districts.

Whalen also stressed, “Dropping this mask mandate was for those that are fully vaccinated.” That means two week have elapsed since the second shot of Pfizer or Moderna or since the single shot of Johnson & Johnson.

McCoy announced two county residents died this week due to COVID-19: a woman in her seventies on Thursday and a man in his fifties on Tuesday. This brings the county’s death toll to 380.

On Wednesday, McCoy announced, in a release, 12 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the county’s tally to 24,299.

Of the new cases, nine did not have clear sources of infection identified and three had close contact with someone infected with the disease.

The five-day average for new daily positives decreased from 18.4 to 15.4. There are now 105 active cases in the county, down from 108 on Tuesday.

The number of Albany County residents under quarantine decreased to 275 from 297. So far, 79,320 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 24,194 had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 15 recoveries since Tuesday.

There was one new hospitalization overnight, and eight county residents are now hospitalized from the virus — a net decrease of two. There are currently three patients in intensive-care, down from four on Tuesday.

Albany County’s infection rate, as of Tuesday as a seven-day rolling average, was 1.1 percent, according to the state’s dashboard.

Statewide, the infection rate, also as of Tuesday as a seven-day rolling average, was 0.8 percent.

More Regional News

  • “Data show that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected some populations and placed them at higher risk, including those who are medically underserved, racial and ethnic minority groups, and people living in rural communities,” says the CDC, which awarded the state’s health department $34 million to address inequities.

  • Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen warned, “I don’t think we’ve crossed the finish line yet …. I do not believe at this point herd immunity has been achieved and I think that this is something we can continue to work towards.”

  • Flexible grants of $5,000 up to $50,000 will be made available to eligible small businesses and small for-profit independent arts and cultural organizations. The grants can be used for operating expenses, including payroll, rent or mortgage payments, taxes, utilities, personal protective equipment, or other business expenses incurred during the pandemic.

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