Week CXIX: Kids under 5 can now be vaccinated against COVID — but will they?

— Photo from Albany Medical Center
First shot: The first recipient of a COVID-19 vaccine for children younger than 5 did not flinch when he got his shot on June 21 at the Albany Medical Center Pediatric Group.

ALBANY COUNTY — The only Americans now ineligible for vaccination against COVID-19 are babies younger than six months old.

On June 17, the federal Food and Drug Administration gave both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines emergency use authorization for children from six months to 5 years of age, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promptly followed suit.

The United States has about 18 million children younger than 5.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on June 18 hailed the decision as a “major milestone” and said the vaccines are “safe and effective.”

“We are working with states, localities, pediatricians’ offices, children’s hospitals, pharmacies, and other trusted health care providers to ensure equitable access to the vaccine for our nation's youngest kids,” said Becerra in a statement.

“We know that many families are trying to decide what is right for them,” Becerra went on, “and we encourage everyone seeking further information to talk to a doctor or health care provider to get the facts. COVID-19 vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from severe illness, hospitalizations, and death.”

However, a May 4 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation — taken when the youth vaccine approvals were expected but not yet authorized — found that only about one in five parents, 18 percent, of children under age 5 were eager to get their child vaccinated right away, while more than twice that many, 38 percent, said they plan to wait a while to see how the vaccine is working for others.

About 27 percent said they will “definitely not” get their child vaccinated and 11 percent said they will only do so if they are required.

Over half of parents of children in this age group, 56 percent, said they do not have enough information about the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness for children under age 5.

By contrast, most parents of older children feel better informed, with three-quarters of parents of teens and two-thirds of parents of kids ages 5 to 11 saying they have enough information about vaccine safety and effectiveness for their age group.

Still, among parents of 5- to 11-year-olds, who have been eligible for vaccination since October, about four in 10, or 39 percent, say their child has gotten vaccinated while 12 percent say they will get their child vaccinated only if they are required for school and 32 percent say their child will definitely not get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Most parents of 12- to 17-year-olds say their teenager has been vaccinated — 56 percent, fairly steady since January — while 31 percent say they will “definitely not” get their teen vaccinated and 4 percent say they will only do so if they are required.

Just as the youngest New Yorkers are eligible for vaccination, the state is shutting down its 10 mass vaccination sites by the end of the month.

The state site at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland will permanently close at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, June 24, according to the state’s health department.

New York State, though, is making preparations to boost vaccination rates among children under the age of 5, according to a June 15 release from the governor’s office; vaccine providers across the state have already placed preliminary orders for 39,000 doses.

The state’s health department is “working to ensure providers across the state will be able to request additional doses, as well as developing a comprehensive statewide paid media campaign to encourage vaccinations that will launch this summer,” the governor’s office said.

On Tuesday, the Albany Med Health System started vaccinating the newly eligible children and sent out a picture of a boy getting the center’s first shot.

“Although COVID-19 infection in young children is frequently mild, it is not always so and can lead to hospitalization and even death,” said Rebecca Butterfield in a release from Albany Med. Butterfield, who serves on the Guilderland School Board, is division chief of General Pediatrics at Albany Med.

Hospitalizations for children under the age of 5 were five times higher nationally during the peak of the Omicron variant in January 2022 than during the Delta variant peak in September 2021, according to Albany Med.

“Vaccination against COVID-19 infection can greatly reduce the risk of serious illness,” Butterfield said.

The vaccine also is recommended for children who have already had COVID-19, said Danielle Wales, associate professor of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Albany Med, in the release.

“Immunity from naturally contracting COVID tends to be short-lived,” Wales said. “Getting the vaccine can offer protection against future variants.” She added that, due to recommended times in between doses, it’s important to not delay in starting vaccination for young children.

On Sunday, the FDA had posted its evaluation ahead of the scheduled June 15 meeting of experts who then made 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 involves three doses at one-tenth the strength of the adult shot for children 6 months to 4 years old. The first and second doses are to be given three to eight weeks apart with an eight-week wait before the final dose.

The Moderna regimen is for two doses, each at a quarter the strength of the adult shot, for children aged 6 months to 5 years. The doses are to be administered four to eight weeks apart.

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

The two doses of Pfizer for children 5 and older are to be administered three to eight weeks apart.


Albany County

This week, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy reported another COVID-related death — of a man in his fifties. This brings Albany County’s death toll from the virus to 567.

“The virus can still be dangerous for some, especially the unvaccinated, older residents and those with underlying health conditions,” said McCoy in his release on Friday. “Having said that, there continues to be room for optimism.

“The number of residents currently hospitalized with the virus is now back down to where it was on April 22 and average COVID cases per 100,000 is down to levels we haven’t seen since April 4.

“Additionally, the wastewater surveillance data from the North and South wastewater treatment plants in Albany once again are showing decreasing levels of COVID intensity over.”

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 14, show a “decreasing” trend.

At Albany County’s North Plant, which serves an estimated 109,426 people, there has been an 8-percent decrease over two weeks, the site says; last week, there had been a 21-percent decrease over two weeks. At the county’s South Plant, which serves an estimated 80,922 people, there has been a 2-percent decrease over two weeks; last week, there had 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 Albany County’s most recent seven-day average of COVID cases per 100,000 of population is down to 14.0, continuing the decrease that started on May 19.

This compares with 16.8 last week, 25.4 two weeks ago, 38.2 three weeks ago, 49.6 four weeks ago, 51.2 five weeks ago, 54.2 cases per 100,000 six weeks ago, 43.7 seven weeks ago, 37.7 eight weeks ago, 28.3 cases nine weeks ago, 21.1 cases 10 weeks ago, and 11.0 cases per 100,000 eleven 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 24.48, continuing to decline from 27.60 last week, 29.89 two weeks ago, and a dramatic drop from 41.41 three weeks ago.

New York City now has the highest rate at 32.47 per 100,000 while the Finger Lakes region has the lowest rate at 8.70, down from 9.90 per 100,000 of population last week.

The less reliable infection rate — the percentage of positive test results — is now at 7.0 percent for Albany County as a seven-day average.

This is down from 7.7 last week, 8.6 percent two weeks ago, and 11.6 percent three weeks ago, after a steady climb up: 13.1 four weeks ago, 13.3 percent five weeks ago, 12.2 percent six weeks ago, 10.0 percent seven weeks ago, 13.5 percent eight weeks ago, 9.1 percent nine weeks ago, 7.5 percent 10 weeks ago, 3.5 percent 11 weeks ago, and 2.6 percent 12 weeks ago.

Statewide, as a seven-day average, the infection rate is 5.18 percent, down a bit from 5.47 percent last week. It was 5.95 percent two weeks ago, a decrease from 6.82 percent three weeks ago, and 8.04 percent four weeks ago.

The Southern Tier has the lowest rate at 4.00 percent, down a bit from last week’s 4.05 percent. Long Island still has the highest rate at 7.80 percent, up from 7.39 percent last week, which was down from 8.94 percent the week before.

Hospitalizations typically lag behind infection rates.

Twenty-nine Albany County residents are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, one more than last week but a dramatic drop from the 41 hospitalized the week before. Four of the 29 patients currently hospitalized are in intensive-care units.

Three weeks ago, 48 county residents were hospitalized with COVID, compared to 43 hospitalized four weeks ago, 42 five weeks ago, 51 six weeks ago, 34 seven weeks ago, 31 eight weeks ago, 30 county residents nine weeks ago, 21 ten weeks ago, and 13 hospitalized with the virus 11 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 40.6 percent of people with COVID-19 hospitalized in the Capital Region were not admitted because of the virus, a decrease from 45.1 last week, which itself was an increase from 38.3 percent the week before.

On Friday, in his now twice-weekly COVID release, McCoy did not report, for the first time since vaccine was available a year-and-a-half ago, on the percentage of county residents who have been vaccinated.

For months, the number hasn’t budged: A quarter of county residents are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The state’s health department reported on Tuesday that 74.6 percent of the county’s population has been fully vaccinated while 61.7 percent of those eligible have been boosted.

For the second week in a row, Albany County has been designated by the CDC as having a “medium” community level of COVID-19. For nearly two months, like most of the rest of the state, Albany County had been designated as having a “high” level — meaning masks should be worn indoors in public.

Now, the majority of the state is designated as “low” with a handful of “medium” counties. Only Long Island’s two counties — Suffolk and Nassau — are labeled as having a “high” community level.

Meanwhile, across the nation, the CDC has designated about 10 percent of the counties as “high,” close to 30 percent as “medium,” and about 60 percent as “low.”


Priorities shift

Views on the pandemic are shifting nationwide.

Americans are more likely now than at any point over the past year and a half to say their lives are completely back to pre-pandemic normalcy, according to a recent Gallup poll.

In May 2021, a majority of Americans said for the first time that the better advice for healthy people is to lead their normal lives as much as possible to avoid interruptions to work and business rather than staying home to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19. That majority grew from 56 percent in May to 65 percent in June.

Currently, one in five Americans say their lives are completely back to normal while 58 percent say their lives have somewhat returned to normal. Another 21 percent say they are not yet back to where they were before the pandemic began. The latest readings are similar to those taken last summer before the Delta variant surge in cases.

According to the recent poll, while 34 percent of adults in the United States now say the pandemic is over in the U.S., 66 percent say it is not.

As has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic, Gallup says, Americans’ views of its trajectory diverge sharply along partisan lines.

Just as Republicans are much less likely than Democrats to worry they will get COVID-19, they are also much more likely than Democrats to say the pandemic is over. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans believe the pandemic is over compared to 10 percent of Democrats; 45 percent of independents say the pandemic is over.

A year ago, a Gallup poll showed 57 percent of Republicans believed the pandemic was over, as did 35 percent of independents, and just 4 percent of Democrats.

Despite an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the U.S., Gallup says, Americans are feeling more optimistic about the trajectory of the pandemic.

“This latest wave of optimism that the end of the pandemic may be in reach is higher than last summer prior to the arrival of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in the U.S.,” the poll analysis says. “That optimism was short-lived last summer. It remains to be seen how the pandemic plays out in the coming months.”

Another Gallup poll this May looked at what Americans consider the most important problem facing the nation.

Currently, just 2 percent of Americans consider the coronavirus to be the most important problem, which is down from 13 percent in February, 20 percent in January — and 45 percent in April 2020

The fastest growing concern is inflation. In January, 8 percent of Americans marked inflation as the top problem facing the country. That grew to 10 percent in February, 17 percent in March, and 18 percent in May. Mentions of inflation as the top problem are holding at their highest point since 1984.


Utility bill credits

On July 16, Governor Kathy Hochul announced $567 million is being made available to low-income households statewide to pay off past electric and gas bills.

“It’s unacceptable that far too many New Yorkers are at risk of having their lights shut off for failure to pay their utility bills due to financial problems caused by the pandemic,” Hochul said in a release, announcing the program. “To address this, I partnered with the State Legislature to appropriate $250 million toward reducing the burden of utility arrears.

“Today’s action by the Public Service Commission builds on the budget appropriation and is a major step forward to help vulnerable New Yorkers maintain their utility services while they get back on their feet.”

All state assistance available for utility bills will be coordinated to ensure maximum benefits to ratepayers and to avoid duplication of efforts, the governor’s office said. This includes relief available to low-income customers from the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program to reduce unpaid utility bills, estimated at $100 million, coupled with $250 million from the New York State budget appropriation directed to utilities to eliminate pandemic-related unpaid utility bills for low-income households. 

Utility shareholders have provided more than $36 million in contributions to benefit ratepayers. The bill credit program is estimated to cost the major utility ratepayers $181 million after they are allocated their share of the budget appropriation, and customer credits and shareholder contributions that reduce the program cost are applied.

This one-time, low-income utility bill credit, which will be applied to affected customers’ bills by the utilities, requires no action by existing low-income customers enrolled in the EAP to receive the benefit.  The bill credit is expected to be applied to customers’ accounts by Aug.1.

Any newly eligible low-income customer that enrolls in EAP before Dec. 31, 2022 will be included in the bill credit program.


Surplus sanitizer

On June 15, State Senator Joseph Griffo, a Republican from Rome, wrote to Hochul about the more than 700,000 gallons of New York State Clean sanitizer “that currently sits unused at the New York State Preparedness Training Center in Oriskany.”

Griffo wrote that the state was “considering ways of disposing of this sanitizer, including shipping it out of state to be incinerated.”

He suggested instead using waste-to-energy conversion facilities to “transform the sanitizer into heat, electricity and other sources of power.”


More jobs

On June 16, the state’s Department of Labor released May figures showing private-sector jobs statewide increased over the month by 0.3 percent — for a total of 27,000 new jobs bringing the total to 7,970,300. At the same time, private-sector jobs increased nationwide by 390,000.

This was the fifth consecutive month the unemployment rate declined in New York State, the labor department said. From May 2021 to this May, the unemployment rate fell from 7.0 percent to 4.1 percent.

Statewide, the unemployment rate inched down from 4.5 percent to 4.4 percent. In New York City, the rate fell from 6.4 percent to 6.2 percent.

Upstate, the unemployment rate remained at 3.1 percent, maintaining the lowest rate on record for the region. Current records date back to 1976.

In the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, private-sector jobs increased by 12,600 or 2.8 percent. Albany County’s unemployment rate is 2.8 percent.

The over-the-year change once again was greatest for the leisure and hospitality industry, which saw an increase of 22.9 percent.

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