Week CXVIII: NYS emergency extended another month as COVID cases continue to decline

— Data from the federal departments of labor and treasury, chart from NYS Comptroller’s Office

New York State’s monthly Unemployment Trust Fund loan balance peaked in 2021 at $10.2 billion but has not declined markedly since.

ALBANY COUNTY — On Tuesday, Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, extended the state’s disaster emergency until July 14.

Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt issued a nine-word statement in response: “Enough is enough. End the state of emergency immediately.”

Hochul’s executive order noted, “New York continues to experience COVID-19 transmission, with the rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions remaining at over 100 new admissions a day.”

Statewide hospitalizations on Tuesday totaled 1,938, down from the peak of 2,724 on May 23 in the latest surge, caused by Omicron subvariants.

While the picture in New York generally improved this week as most of the state has counties with low or medium community levels of COVID-19 — Albany County, for the first time in nearly two months, was deemed “medium” last Friday — most of the nation is seeing an upward trend in cases and in hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The surge caused by Omicron subvariants hit the Northeast first. Now, just seven of New York’s 62 counties remain designated as “high,” meaning masks should be worn indoors in public: Nassau, Suffolk, Orange, Sullivan, Schenectady, Rensselaer, and Clinton.

Nationwide, close to 10 percent of counties are labeled “high” by the CDC, an increase of over 2 percent from last week while close to a third are labeled “medium,” an increase of close to 10 percent.

At the same time, over 57 percent are labeled as having a “low” community level, a decrease of more than 12 percent.


Albany County

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy reported three more COVID-related deaths this week: a woman in her sixties, a man in his seventies, and a woman in her eighties. 

This brings the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 566.

At the same time, in his Friday release, McCoy said, “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 Tuesday 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.

On Tuesday, McCoy reported that the cases per 100,000 of the county’s population is now down to 16.8, continuing the decrease that started on May 19.

This compares with 25.4 last week, 38.2 two weeks ago, 49.6 three weeks ago, 51.2 four weeks ago, 54.2 cases per 100,000 five weeks ago, 43.7 six weeks ago, 37.7 seven weeks ago, 28.3 cases eight weeks ago, 21.1 cases nine weeks ago, and 11.0 cases per 100,000 ten weeks ago.

The state’s count of cases per 100,000 of population, as a seven-day average, peaked at 51.0 on May 11. It is now down to 27.60, a slight drop from 29.89 last week, and a dramatic drop from 41.41 two weeks ago.

Long Island still has the highest rate, at 31.99, down from 38.61 last week, a decrease from 45.7 two weeks ago and 62.72 three weeks ago. The Finger Lakes region has the lowest rate at 9.90 per 100,000 of population.

The less reliable infection rate — the percentage of positive test results — is now at 7.7 percent for Albany County as a seven-day average.

This is down from 8.6 percent last week, 11.6 percent the week before, after a steady climb up: 13.1 three weeks ago, 13.3 percent four weeks ago, 12.2 percent five weeks ago, 10.0 percent six weeks ago, 13.5 percent seven weeks ago, 9.1 percent eight weeks ago, 7.5 percent nine weeks ago, 3.5 percent 10 weeks ago, and 2.6 percent 11 weeks ago.

Statewide, as a seven-day average, the infection rate is 5.47 percent, down a bit from 5.95 percent last week, a decrease from 6.82 percent two weeks ago, and 8.04 percent three weeks ago.

The Southern Tier has the lowest rate at 4.05 percent (which is higher than last week’s lowest regional rate: Central New York was at 4.04 percent and is now at 4.23 percent). Long Island still has the highest rate at 7.39 percent, down from 8.94 percent last week.

Hospitalizations typically lag behind infection rates.

Twenty-eight Albany County residents are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, a dramatic drop from the 41 hospitalized last week. Three of the 28 patients currently hospitalized are in intensive-care units.

Two weeks ago, 48 county residents were hospitalized with COVID, compared to 43 hospitalized three weeks ago,  42 four weeks ago, 51 five weeks ago, 34 six weeks ago, 31 seven weeks ago, 30 county residents eight weeks ago, 21 nine weeks ago, and 13 hospitalized with the virus 10 weeks ago.

So it appears that, after a steady increase for a month and a half, hospitalizations leveled off and are now finally dropping. Also, the governor’s office reports that 45.1 percent of people with COVID-19 hospitalized in the Capital Region were not admitted because of the virus, an increase from 38.3 percent last week.

“As we continue to see our infection rates fall, I’m hopeful that we will see fewer hospitalizations and fewer county residents losing their lives to the virus in the weeks ahead,” said McCoy in his Tuesday press release.

“The number of individuals hospitalized with the virus has dropped from 41 to 28 in just the last week, which is good news,” he went on. “I was also happy to see that the CDC’s designation for community levels of COVID-19 in Albany County was downgraded from high to medium risk recently, joining some of the others in the Capital Region and around the state. If more people get vaccinated and get their booster shots, we can build on this progress.”

One number that has hardly budged for months is the percentage of Albany County residents who have completed their vaccination series: 74.6 percent. So about a quarter of county residents haven’t availed themselves of the free, readily available vaccines.

At the same time, McCoy reports, just 63.9 percent of eligible Albany County residents have received a booster shot.

The CDC reports that statewide, 82.4 percent of New Yorkers age 5 or older have been fully vaccinated.


Kids’ vax

About 18 million children younger than 5 are the only United States residents not eligible for vaccination against COVID-19.

That may change shortly.

On Sunday, the Food and Drug Administration posted its evaluation ahead of the scheduled June 15 meeting of experts who will make recommendations on both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for children.

Both are messengerRNA vaccines like those the companies make for adults.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would involve three doses at one-tenth the strength of the adult shot while the Moderna regimen would be two doses, each at a quarter the strength of the adult shot.

Moderna’s emergency-use request is for children 6 months through 17 years old while the Pfizer-BioNTech emergency-use request is for children 6 months through 4 years of age; Pfizer already has approval for children age 5 and older.

After the FDA makes its recommendation, the CDC will have the final say.


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.


Tests dropped for air travel

At midnight on June 12, the CDC rescinded its requirement for people flying to the United States to either test negative for COVID-19 or show documentation of recovery before boarding an airplane.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has now shifted to a new phase, due to the widespread uptake of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines, the availability of effective therapeutics, and the accrual of high rates of vaccine- and infection-induced immunity at the population level in the United States,” the CDC said in a statement, explaining the change in policy.

“Each of these measures has contributed to lower risk of severe disease and death across the United States,” the statement went on. “As a result, this requirement which was needed at an earlier stage in the pandemic may be withdrawn.

“CDC continues to recommend that those travelers boarding a flight to the U.S. get tested for current infection with a viral test as close to the time of departure as possible (no more than 3 days) and not travel if they are sick.”

The policy could change again, the CDC said, as it “continues to evaluate the latest science and state of the pandemic.”

In its weekly review, the CDC says, “As we head into summer, many people are at much lower risk of serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 because of increased immunity through vaccination or previous infection. Almost 71% of the U.S. population ages 5 years and older has completed their primary COVID-19 vaccine series, and treatments are widely available.

“While this is certainly good news, it is still important to protect yourself and others around you, including those who are at increased risk for severe illness.”

The CDC notes it recently updated its guidance for K–12 schools and early care and education settings, which also applies to summer camps.

“Based on the COVID-19 Community Levels, this guidance gives schools and camps the flexibility to adapt to their changing local situations …. The guidance also provides advice on what to do if an outbreak occurs, regardless of community level,” the CDC says, and advises, “If you’re sending your kids to camp this summer, ask the camp director what steps they are taking to prevent COVID-19.”


Mental health training lacking in school staff

The state’s comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, released an audit this week that covered similar ground to an audit he released in April, showing the lack of mental-health services in schools.

While the current audit, conducted from July 2020 through June 2021 focused on compliance with the SAVE Act, the audit released in April, conducted from July 2018 through August 2021, had focused on meeting the mental-health education required by law.

The Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Act was meant to improve school safety, requiring school districts to develop a comprehensive district-wide school safety plan that addresses crisis intervention, emergency responses, and management. Each district’s plan must include, among other things, policies and procedures for annual school safety training for staff and students.

The current audit sampled 20 school districts and found they did not provide mental health training to all staff for the 2020-21 school year by the State Education Department’s deadline of Sept. 15. However, the COVID pandemic has delayed district training programs.

District training “lacked sufficient content to ensure that staff were, at a minimum, trained on recommended mental health components such as the 10 mental health warning signs, or ‘whom to turn to” and “how to access crisis support and services,’” the audit said.

Six of 20 districts, or 30 percent, either did not offer training or offered training that did not include any of the 12 recommended mental health components.

Fourteen of 20 Districts, or 70 percent, included at least one of the 12 recommended mental health components.

“School personnel are often the first to notice if a student is having mental health challenges, and they need effective training to help them understand the signs and symptoms early on ….,” DiNapoli said in a statement, releasing the audit. “Our nation is facing a mental health crisis, and we need to help our students.”

It is imperative, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, that staff be provided training on warning signs that may be an early indicator of mental health issues and concerns, said DiNapoli, citing the 2021 advisory from the United States Surgeon General on how mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults have been further exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The comptroller’s April audit showed that many school districts in New York lack sufficient staff for mental-health services.

That audit found that, among the three school districts covered by The Enterprise, rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo, with 752 students and three counselors, has the best ratio of counselors at 1:251.

However, BKW employs no social worker, the audit says, and has just one psychologist.

Voorheesville, a small suburban district, has 1,180 students and four counselors for a ratio of 1:295. The district also employs two psychologists for a ratio of 1:590, and one social worker.

Guilderland, a large suburban district with 4,841 students, has 13 counselors for a ratio of 1:372, eight social workers for a ratio of 1:605, and 11 psychologists for a ratio of 1:440 students.

Most of the state’s 686 districts outside of New York City, the audit says, entered the pandemic with mental-health teams that were far short of nationally recommended staff-to-student ratios.


Unemployment Insurance

A report by 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.”


Food help

On Friday, 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.

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