Week LXVI: County leaders honor the dead, grieving, and working as they close out last press briefing

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen called the 70-percent mark an important milestone.

ALBANY COUNTY — On Wednesday morning, the day after Governor Andrew Cuomo, with great fanfare, announced COVID restrictions were lifted, Albany County’s executive, Daniel McCoy, and health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, held their last pandemic press briefing.

In a measured and ceremonial session, each of them thanked their staff as well as the residents of Albany County.

“It’s been challenging but rewarding,” said McCoy.

New Yorkers on Tuesday had met the mark of 70 percent of residents 18 or older having received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine series.

“We are there because of everybody that rolled up their sleeves and did the right thing by staying home,” said McCoy.

In Albany County, he reported, 74.5 percent of adult residents have received a first shot while 58.1 percent of all residents have been fully vaccinated.

Whalen called the 70-percent mark an important milestone and said, “To get here has been a herculean task, which many people have contributed to … It has taken a community-level response, the likes of which we have never seen.”

Whalen also said, “We have seen the horrible effects that this has wrought in other parts of the world and in other parts of the country. And what we as a county really worked for is to prevent hospital surge capacity and we were successful in that.”

But, 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.”

She reiterated that the vaccines are “safe and effective” and cautioned that, as there is yet no authorization to vaccinate children younger than 12, there is still a need, for those who are not vaccinated, to protect the vulnerable by hand-washing, mask-wearing, and staying socially distant.

One county resident — a woman in her seventies — died this week and another death, from last December, was reported, bringing the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 385.

“We have to remember the 385 people that passed away …’” McCoy said at the start of Wednesday’s briefing. “It’s been a long 461 days.” He solemnly recalled “the people that died of loneliness, the people that died of natural causes of life and had no one around them.”

McCoy went on, “And I think of the overdoses and the drugs and the relapses … because of what we went through … and the children that had mental-health issues …. It has been a difficult time. It has been a challenging time … It has been a lot of trials and tribulations for the businesses.”

McCoy reiterated some of his recurring themes on the importance of partnerships and working together and how the pandemic was “a marathon, not a sprint.”

He named a long list of partners, including state officials; leaders of other municipalities; the National Guard that got food to people who needed it; mosques, temples and churches; medical centers and services; United Way; school administrators; local businesses; county workers and nursing-home staff; and the media for being “here every day …. so people stay calm and can be informed.”

In turn, Daniel Lynch, the deputy county executive, thanked McCoy and Whalen for their “steady voice of leadership.”  And then McCoy presented Lynch and Whalen with good-citizen awards.

McCoy said the 15 months of dealing with the pandemic had been “a lot harder” than his 15-month tour in Iraq as a member of the National Guard. Here, in Albany County, he said, “You still have to be everything to everyone.”

He concluded, “Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls our life …. It’s time now to start transitioning to the new world.”


“Worst to first”

Cuomo’s event in New York City on Tuesday had been far more celebratory and self-congratulatory. Fireworks lit the sky Tuesday night at the Empire State Plaza in Albany and landmarks, like the State Education Building, shone in blue and gold, the state colors.

As plaques were presented to a slew of essential workers — from doctors and firefighters to teachers and restaurant workers — Cuomo praised their sacrifice and contributions.

“You know who beat COVID? The people of New York beat COVID. The courage of New Yorkers beat COVID. The individual strength beat COVID,” said Cuomo.

While at the start of the pandemic, Cuomo recalled, he told most New Yorkers to stay home, the essential workers, he said, had to go out to their jobs to keep other people safe.

Giving one example, he went on, “Not you, nurse. You have to go into the hospital and dress in a moon suit because we don’t know how deadly this virus is and we don’t know how it transfers. You have to go and put your life at risk and your family’s life at risk because you have an obligation to show courage, to save others.”

Cuomo also said the journey is not over. “We still have to manage COVID,” he said. “As the health professionals will tell you, we’re still watching these variants of interest. We still have to be careful.”

Cuomo recounted New York’s history of having the “highest infection rate on the globe — and we were alone and it was frightening.” He went on, “Streets deserted, Times Square deserted. People leaving New York.”

Cuomo said, “We went, literally, from worst to first. Not only do we have the lowest COVID positivity rate in the United States of America, we have hit 70 percent vaccination.

“It is the national goal and we hit it ahead of schedule. What does 70 percent mean? It means that we can now return to life as we know it. We have the highest vaccination rate in this state.”

Cuomo also said, “That’s not to say that 70 percent is the end, we want to do better than 70 percent, but it is an important milestone and we’re going to keep pushing to do more.”

Andrew Joyce, chairman of the Albany County Legislature, a Democrat like Cuomo, put out a statement on Tuesday congratulating county partners for working together to reach the milestone.

“From the moment this vaccine was available, our members and staff worked very hard to get it to where it was needed the most. It was through their efforts, and those of our County Executive, our Department of Health and our amazing Medical Reserve Corps that we are able to celebrate this milestone today,” said Joyce.

Robert Ortt, the Senate Republican leader, in his Tuesday statement, recognized both frontline workers and small businesses that provided paychecks in difficult times.

“Instead of taxpayer funded firework shows celebrating his own lack of leadership, the governor should mark this occasion by ending the state of emergency and reinstating the legislature as a co-equal branch of government,” said Ortt. “Only then can we fully repeal unnecessary restrictions like mask mandates for school children.”



The state’s health guidance and New York Forward industry specific guidelines — including social gathering limits, capacity restrictions, social distancing, cleaning and disinfection, health screening, and contact information for tracing — are now optional for retail, food services, offices, gyms and fitness centers, amusement and family entertainment, hair salons, barber shops and personal care services, among other commercial settings.

Unvaccinated people continue to be responsible for wearing masks, in accordance with federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consistent with the state's implementation of the recent CDC guidance, masks are still required for unvaccinated individuals.

Further, the state’s health guidelines continue to be in effect for large-scale indoor event venues, pre-K to grade 12 schools, public transit, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, nursing homes, and health-care settings per CDC guidelines.

The state’s COVID restrictions remain in effect for large-scale indoor event venues — now defined as indoor venues that hold more than 5,000 attendees.

Consistent with the state’s implementation of the CDC guidelines, proof of vaccination can be used to eliminate social distancing and remove masks for fully vaccinated people.

People over the age of 4 who are not vaccinated or whose vaccination status is not known must continue to present proof of a recent negative diagnostic COVID-19 test result and wear masks within the venue. However, social distancing can be reduced or eliminated between tested attendees, allowing venues to reach 100 percent capacity in all sections.

With the removal of the state’s minimum standard for reopening, businesses are free to lift all or some restrictions, continue to adhere to the state’s archived guidance, or implement other health precautions for their employees and patrons

Businesses are also authorized to require masks and six feet of social distancing for employees and patrons within their establishments, regardless of vaccination status. Any mask requirements that businesses choose to implement must adhere to applicable federal and state laws and regulations, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The CDC federal mandates obviously continue for pre-K schools and public transit and health-care settings,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “But the state mandates have been lifted.”

Marie Wiles, superintendent for the Guilderland Central School District, underlined this in an email she sent to “GCSD Families” on Tuesday evening.

“We are aware that today, June 15, many state-mandated Covid restrictions were lifted,” she wrote. “However, the state’s health guidelines for several settings, including Pre-K to 12 schools remain unchanged at this time. 

“The Guilderland Central School District will continue Covid protocols and mask wearing in accordance with our approved school district Reopening Plan, including at all end of academic year celebrations, such as graduations and moving-up ceremonies.

“Please keep in mind that until we are given official guidance from the NYS Department of Health, the current Covid health and safety practices in our school buildings remain in place. District mask policies include requirements for mask use on school buses, in classrooms, and in school hallways. Face masks are no longer required to be worn when students are outside, including when participating in outdoor sports.”


Ratings rise

Earlier in the week, on Monday, Cuomo made a slew of COVID-related announcements.

Reacting to S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings raising New York’s credit outlook, he 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, 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 on Monday, 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.

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 on Monday.

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, a clinic was held at Coeymans Landing Park 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.


Opioid deaths spike

On Monday, 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, starting on June 14, provides 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

McCoy on Tuesday morning announced just two new cases of COVID-19, neither with a clear source of infection, bringing Albany County’s tally to 24,386.

The five-day average for new daily positives decreased from 3.2 to 2.8. There are now 16 active cases in the county, down from 21 on Tuesday.

The number of Albany County residents under mandatory quarantine decreased to 35 from 47. So far, 79,930 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 24,370 tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of six recoveries since Tuesday.

There were no new hospitalizations overnight, and five county residents still remain hospitalized from the virus. There are still two patients currently in intensive-care units, unchanged from Tuesday.

According to the state’s dashboard, the infection rate for Albany County, as of Tuesday, as a seven-day rolling average, was 0.2 percent.

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

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