County gets $6.6M for COVID testing in schools

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen called this week “a major transition” for her department, which will no longer conduct the large-scale PODs, or points of dispensing, as had been its hallmark.

ALBANY COUNTY — As the county’s COVID-19 infection rate remains low and its vaccination rate climbs steadily upward, “We’re coming out of it,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy at his Monday morning press briefing.

He had held daily briefings at the height of the pandemic, then twice weekly, and now even less frequently.

Monday’s session was bursting with good news: Albany County received over $6.6 million, which will fund COVID-19 testing in schools, and the county was one of eight to receive a top award for its early mobile testing that served minority communities.

At the same time, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a slew of COVID-related announcements on Monday.

Reacting to S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings raising New York’s credit outlook, Cuomo said in a statement, “Coupled with a decade of fiscal integrity preceding the pandemic, an economic recovery that’s beating expectations thanks to our nation-leading vaccination programs, and hard fought-for federal funding, New York State is today emerging from this unprecedented crisis on firm financial footing. I’m encouraged to see these efforts recognized by the major credit rating companies, who today upgraded our state’s fiscal outlook to ‘stable.’”

Cuomo also announced $2.2 billion in food assistance for New York schoolchildren. And he announced the state fair, held annually in Syracuse, will reopen in August at 100-percent capacity. He also announced the second phase of a $40 million global campaign to revive the state’s tourism industry.

And, as the state nears the 70-percent threshold of vaccination, which Cuomo set earlier to lift most restrictions, he announced a further incentive for vaccination: an unlimited seven-day public-transportation pass. The Capital District Transportation Authority is one of the participating providers.

School testing

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal Department of Health and Human Services distributed $30 billion to states from which New York’s health department allocated $6.6 million to Albany County.

Following President Joe Biden’s lead, McCoy said, the funds will be used “to make sure kids are back in the classroom.” With the funds, he said, schools will be able to test for COVID-19 without raising taxes or diverting money from other programs.

“I wish we had this last year for schools when we were in the heat of it,” said McCoy.

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said, “The money we have been awarded is going to require a bit of planning … We’re in a shifting landscape and don’t really know as yet what the landscape vis-à-vis COVID will be in the fall but we want to ensure that we have systems in place that will allow in-person learning.”

The funding will be used for public, private, and charter schools as well as for programs run by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

Whalen said that the pandemic, and the remote learning that followed, put a disproportionate burden on families and particularly on women. She said it was important to get children back in school, the environment in which they learn best, which is also important for their mental health.

The goal will be to provide appropriate and immediate access to testing if it is needed to control COVID-19 cases in schools. While the approach overall is comprehensive, Whalen said, her department will work with school districts in the county so that it is “chiefly localized.”

Gold award

Albany County has been awarded the Gold Innovative Practice Award from the National Association of County and City Health Officials for its program — the first in the state — to provide mobile testing that prioritized minority and underserved communities.

“The neighborhoods that were hit the hardest weren’t getting what they needed,” said McCoy.

The recognition comes with a $7,000 award.

While the state ran a drive-through testing clinic at the uptown University at Albany, many residents of inner-city neighborhoods had no means to get there. So the county partnered with the Whitney M. Young Jr. Health Center to provide neighborhood walk-up testing sites.

David Shippee, the president and chief executive officer of Whitney Young, credited an “incredible level of partnership” with McCoy’s team; Whalen and her health department; and Albany County’s sheriff, Craig Apple, and his staff, which maintained an “orderly presence.”

He noted that the center, which was founded 50 years ago in Arbor Hill, had tested over 7,000 people and has now vaccinated over 8,000 people, the majority being people of color.

Shippee sees the work during the pandemic as “a bedrock foundation for a lot of other great work.”

“We learned a lot we can do outside of the regulatory framework,” he said, giving the example of vaccinating an 82-year-old grandmother when she brought in a child to be vaccinated. Such an approach is needed to achieve health equity, Shippee said. “A lot of great work can happen if we can only use a little ingenuity,” he concluded.

Whalen agreed.

She praised her department’s “fruitful collaboration” with Whitney Young. “We have a mutual mission to promote health equity,” she said, naming diseases besides COVID-19 like diabetes and asthma that disproportionately afflict minority communities.

“Having the ability to be creative within the public health sphere really shows us the work we can get done,” said Whalen.

Although public health is not one-size-fits-all, she said, “We have to be able to meet people where they live and this is an important highlight of how we were able to do this.”

Vaccination shifts

Whalen called this week “a major transition” for her health department, which will no longer conduct the large-scale PODs, or points of dispensing, which had been its hallmark.

At last Thursday’s county POD, 200 second doses were administered but only six first doses.

“We won’t be doing that again in the foreseeable future,” said Whalen.

As of Monday, the county had administered or reallocated nearly 70,000 first and second doses.

The focus going forward, Whalen said, will be to “vaccinate people where they live, work, and pray.”

On Saturday, 20 first doses and 39 second doses of vaccine were administered at the Capital District Latinos POD.

On Wednesday, June 16, from 4 to 7 p.m., a clinic will be held at Coeymans Landing Park at 2 Westerlo St. in Ravena.

On Friday, June 18, a clinic will be held from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. at a Juneteenth Block Party at the corner of Broad and Alexander streets in Albany.

The county continues to give shots and to answer questions about the vaccine at its health-department offices at 175 Green St. in Albany from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday. Anyone 12 or older is eligible and no appointment is needed.

The county also continues to vaccinate homebound residents, such as the elderly, people with disabilities, or those lacking childcare. Residents may call 518-447-7198 to schedule an appointment.

All vaccinations are free.

McCoy said he had heard from a resident who had been billed. “If you get a bill, you should not pay it … No one should be charging you for a vaccine,” he said.

Residents without insurance who were vaccinated at a doctor’s office can have their doctor send any outstanding charges to the Coverage Assistance Fund created by the Biden administration.

McCoy also said residents who were billed could contact the State Attorney General’s Office at 1-800-771-7755 or the Department of Financial Services at 1-800-342-3736.

As of Monday night, according to the state’s vaccine tracker, 63.7 percent of Albany County’s 307,117 residents had received at least one dose of vaccine; 74.3 percent of residents 18 and older had received at least one dose.

Statewide, 55.7 percent of New Yorkers had received one dose and 67.4 percent of New Yorkers 18 and older had; 49.2 percent of New Yorkers had completed a vaccination series as had 60.2 percent of New Yorkers 18 and older.

Opioid deaths spike

McCoy said of the pandemic, “One of the things hit the hardest …. was people with addiction.”

So far this year, there have been 37 confirmed opioid deaths in Albany County with another 13 suspected cases awaiting toxicology reports, which McCoy termed “alarming.” Fentanyl, he said, was present in 89 percent of the deaths.

He noted that in 2020, with the economic shutdown, Albany County suffered 99 opioid deaths, up from 62 in 2019 and 50 in 2017.

“We’ve gone backwards,” said McCoy, stating “Our opiate task force will be regrouping at the end of the month.”

McCoy lauded a bill passed recently by both houses of the state legislature, which requires any funding that comes to New York from settlements with drug companies be used for addiction treatment, and recovery and prevention services.

He criticized the short period that insurance often covers for treating addiction. “You’re not going to recover in three to 10 days,” said McCoy. He also criticized how early settlement money had been swept into the state’s general fund rather than being earmarked to help addicts. “You have the money grab,” he said.

McCoy went on about the recently passed legislation, “Hopefully, the governor will sign it so this money will go to the people who need it … so people can get their life on track and get moving forward.”

Free ride

Following lottery tickets for money and a lottery for a free college education, the state is now offering public-transportation passes to inspire vaccination.

Anyone who receives their first dose of Pfizer or Moderna or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at any provider in New York State between June 15 and July 14 and presents proof of vaccination at a participating transportation redemption center no later than July 14 will receive an unlimited seven-day public transportation pass for a participating provider’s transit network.

Albany’s CDTA is among the six participating public transportation systems, which provided a combined 46 million trips in 2019.

Help with food

New York is offering an estimated $2.2 billion in federal food assistance for children who were unable to access free school meals due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Administered by the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program will, starting today, June 14, provide eligible students $132 in food benefits for each month they fully participated in remote learning and $82 in food benefits for each month they participated in hybrid learning during the 2020-21 school year.

About 2.5 million children throughout the state are enrolled to receive free school meals during the 2020-21 academic year. Families will not need to apply for the benefits, which will be distributed in two phases: One beginning now and extending through late July that will cover fall semester benefits; and another beginning sometime in late July and extending through August that will cover spring semester benefits.

Eligible children who are in families that are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, will see their benefits posted to that household’s regular EBT card. The households of all other eligible children will receive a letter informing them of their benefit availability and how to access them.

Children under the age of 5 who are part of a SNAP household will be eligible for P-EBT food benefits to replace meals missed due to the closure of childcare facilities during the pandemic. These benefits will cover closures since October 2020.

The families of children who received P-EBT cards by mail for the first-round last year will see the latest round of benefits posted to the same card if they are still eligible. If they no longer have these cards, they may request a replacement by contacting the automated P-EBT helpline at 1-888-328-6399.

Newly-eligible students who are not part of a SNAP household or in a family receiving Temporary Assistance will be issued a P-EBT card by mail along with instructions on how to activate it.

School priorities

The Alliance for Quality Education released a report on Monday summarizing the results of a survey gathering feedback on how Black and Latinx families, students, and educators would like to see local school districts invest the $12 billion that New York State’s schools are slated to receive in federal funding through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations and the American Rescue Plan Act over the next three years.

School districts are required by the Rescue Plan to have a plan for the funding posted on their websites by July 1. The Rescue Plan funding requires school districts to go through a public engagement process to show how stakeholders, including families, educators, and students, want the funding to be spent. 

“Even though the public engagement process is required, very often it does not include the voices of the most marginalized populations of our public school system,” states a release from the alliance, announcing the report.

The report, titled “We Demand: How New York’s Communities Want to Use New Federal Aid to Public Schools,” includes results from over 1,000 respondents from across New York State on their top priorities selected from a list of allowable uses of the new federal funding. The top five priorities respondents identified were to:

— 1. Provide more mental health support;

— 2. Lower class sizes;

— 3. Set up and maintain strong technology access for every student;

— 4. Invest in broader school infrastructure; and

— 5. Offer high quality summer learning programs.

Newest numbers

“The numbers are looking good,” said Whalen. “We are seeing decreased cases in the community, decreased hospitalizations, and we are seeing increased numbers of individuals who are being vaccinated.”

Albany Medical Center on Monday expanded its guidelines for visitors, citing “a significant decrease in the regional rate of coronavirus cases, which is currently below 1 percent.” Albany Med, as of Monday, is allowing two visitors to a patient in three-hour morning and evening sessions.

As of Sunday, as a seven-day rolling average, the infection rate for Albany County was 0.3 percent, according to the state’s dashboard.

Statewide, also as of Sunday, as a seven-day rolling average, the infection rate was 0.4 percent.

On Monday morning, McCoy announced just two new cases of COVID-19, both of whom had close contact with someone infected with the disease. This brings the county’s tally to 24,382.

The five-day average for new daily positives decreased from 4 to 3. There are now 24 active cases in the county, down from 29 on Sunday.

The number of Albany County residents under quarantine decreased to 50 from 61. So far, 79,903 residents have completed quarantine. Of those who completed quarantine, 24,358 of them had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 6 recoveries since Sunday.

There was one new hospitalization overnight, and three county residents still remain hospitalized from the virus. There are now two patients currently in intensive-care units, up from one yesterday.

On Saturday, McCoy had reported that another county resident, a woman in her seventies, had succumbed to COVID-19, bringing the county’s death toll to 384.

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