County’s community level reduced to ‘medium,’ down from ‘high’

— Map from the CDC

Just seven of New York’s 62 counties now remain designated as “high,” meaning masks should be worn indoors in public: Nassau, Suffolk, Orange, Sullivan, Schenectady, Rensselaer, and Clinton.

ALBANY COUNTY — For the first time in almost two months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have labeled Albany County as having a “medium” — as opposed to a “high” — community level of COVID-19.

Just seven of New York’s 62 counties now remain designated as “high,” meaning masks should be worn indoors in public: Nassau, Suffolk, Orange, Sullivan, Schenectady, Rensselaer, and Clinton.

At the same time, Albany County Executive, in his Friday release on the virus, announced two more COVID-related deaths: a woman in her sixties and a woman in her eighties. This brings the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 565.

“While this virus is clearly still a threat — especially for those with weakened immune systems and underlying health conditions — our metrics continue to move in the right direction. Average cases per 100,000 are still on a downward slope, now the lowest I’ve reported since April 13, and hospitalizations are also declining,” McCoy reported in the release.

“Additionally,” he went on, “the wastewater monitoring system at our North and South Wastewater Treatment Plants in Albany are showing decreasing levels of the coronavirus, which means we will continue to see decreasing levels of infections in the coming weeks, as this is a leading indicator.”

Scientific studies have shown that the genetic material of the virus causing the disease can be detected in the feces of up to 40 percent of people who are infected.

The state website reporting wastewater metrics said on Friday that the most recent samples, taken on June 6, show a decreasing trend.

At Albany County’s North Plant, which serves an estimated 109,426 people, there has been a 21 percent decrease over two weeks, the site says. At the county’s South Plant, which serves an estimated 80,922 people, there has been a 26 percent decrease in the last two weeks.

Both sites are labeled as having “substantial to high levels.” The county has a population of about 317,000.

Wastewater samples collected and analyzed on April 4 in Albany had shown a 32 percent spike in COVID-19 intensity over a two-week period, which presaged the surge in COVID cases caused by Omicron subvariants.


Food help

On Friday, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that all New Yorkers enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps and now known as SNAP, will receive the maximum allowable level of food benefits for June.

All households participating in SNAP, including those already at the maximum level of benefits, will receive a supplemental allotment this month, resulting in a roughly $234 million infusion of federal funding into the New York State economy, according to a release from the governor’s office.  

 “Far too many households continue to grapple with food insecurity, and in many instances these struggles are a direct result of the economic toll inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hochul said in the release. 

The emergency assistance supplement is provided to all households, including those that ordinarily receive the maximum allowable benefit per month on SNAP, a federally funded program overseen by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. Those households already near or at the maximum benefit level — $835 for a household of four — will receive a supplemental payment of at least $95.

Areas outside of New York City have observed a steady rise in the number of SNAP recipients since August 2021. As of April, about 1.1 million people living outside of the five-county metropolitan areas were part of a SNAP household. 


Moderna touts new booster

On Wednesday, Moderna released new clinical data on a booster shot designed to target the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The new booster dose “increased neutralizing geometric mean titers (GMT) against Omicron approximately 8-fold above baseline levels,” the company said.

“We are submitting our preliminary data and analysis to regulators with the hope that the Omicron-containing bivalent booster will be available in the late summer,” said Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer of Moderna, in  a statement. “Taken together, our bivalent booster candidates demonstrate the power of Moderna’s mRNA platform to develop vaccines that meet immediate, global public health threats.”

However, the coronavirus is evolving so quickly that many experts think vaccines in the United States, which require human clinical trials, won’t keep up with the changes.


Unemployment Insurance

A report by the state’s comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, released on Friday, said challenges continue for New York’s Unemployment Trust Fund.

“Devastating job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led to a record number of unemployment insurance (UI) claims in New York and other states,” the report explains. “Benefits paid through such claims are part of the safety net, and are financed with federal and state payroll taxes collected from employers.”

In September, the comptroller’s report showed New York’s fund did not have enough funds to pay the surging claims, and began to borrow from the federal government, starting in May 2020.

“While many states had to borrow from the federal government to support UI claims, New York is one of only seven states or territories with UI funds that continue to be in debt to the federal government, and the size of the outstanding loan balance — $8.1 billion — is second only to California,” the current report says.

“In May 2022, New York State paid $1.2 billion of its federal loan, but New York’s UI debt has remained stubbornly high despite steady employment gains and State tax rates that have already increased to maximum permissible levels,” the report continues. “If New York’s outstanding balance is not fully repaid by November 10, 2022, interest costs will mount, as will the federal portion of employers’ 2022 tax bills. Absent any significant federal or State action, employer costs will continue to grow, potentially impeding the State’s employment recovery amid growing economic uncertainty.”

As employment has improved statewide over the last year, fewer people have required benefits. Since last April, the state has added more than 1.5 million jobs, recovering 77 percent of jobs lost.

New York State’s unemployment rate peaked in May 2020 at 16.5 percent and has since declined to 4.5 percent.

Even though regular unemployment benefit payments decreased by almost $10 billion in 2021 and tax collections increased by more than $1.1 billion, the June 10 comptroller’s report says, total benefit payments remained greater than total tax collections, at $4.4 billion compared to $3.2 billion.

“As a result, New York’s UI fund continues to draw loans from the federal UTF,” the report says. “In 2021, the size of these loans decreased by almost two-thirds and repayments increased more than tenfold compared to 2020. Nevertheless, repayments have not yet been sufficient to significantly address the high level of borrowing required in 2020 and the State UI fund continues to draw advances in 2022.”


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