Week CXXII: NYS urges quick testing, early treatment for COVID symptoms

“Outdoor dining utilizing sidewalks and street space has become a financial lifeline for New York’s restaurants during the global COVID-19 pandemic,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy who sponsored a bill to extend use of municipal space for outdoor dining, which was signed into law this month.

ALBANY COUNTY — As two Omicron subvariants drive up infection rates nationwide, New York state on Monday opened a free hotline for New Yorkers who test positive for COVID-19 but don’t have a health-care provider.

On Tuesday, the state launched a million-dollar media campaign to raise public awareness of treatment options for people who test positive and have symptoms.

“The earlier treatment is started after a positive test result, the better it works at reducing symptoms and preventing more serious illness,” said the state’s health commissioner, Mary Bassett, in a statement. “This new public awareness campaign delivers an important message to all New Yorkers about the need to undergo testing as soon as symptoms appear and to contact their health care provider right away to see which treatment is the best option. Being vaccinated and boosted is still the best protection against COVID-19.”

The problem, though, is more than a quarter of Albany County residents have not completed a vaccination series and just 61 percent of those eligible for boosters have gotten the shots.

The two Omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, together make up the majority of new infections nationwide. And experts now believe that the original vaccines are not as effective against the new subvariants.

Before an expected winter surge of the coronavirus, a committee of experts at the Food and Drug Administration has urged that booster shots be geared to combat subvariants of Omicron.

“This year is a transitional year as we begin the process of strain selection for COVID-19 vaccines that more closely match the currently circulating virus variants,” says an FDA briefing document.

An updated vaccine, it says, “may be particularly important as the 2022-2023 winter season progresses and the risk of another major COVID-19 outbreak increases due to the combination of waning immunity, further evolution of variants, and increased indoor activity.”

Meanwhile, the current summer season has not seen the drastic dip of the past two summers on new cases nor on hospitalizations.

On this July 6, according to the county’s dashboard, 48 cases were reported as a seven-day average. And this year, unlike previous summers, the health department is not tracing every case. Many people take antigen tests for COVID at home and do not report the results so it is likely there are actually many more cases.

For comparison, on July 6 in 2020, Albany County had eight new cases while on July 6, 2021, the county had just one case, as a seven-day average.

Similarly, for hospitalizations of Albany County residents with the virus, this year on July 6, there were 18 hospitalized patients as a seven-day average — six times the number for July 6 in 2020 and again in 2021 when just three county residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 as a seven-day average.

As of July 12, Albany County reports 28 residents are hospitalized with the virus. The county’s COVID-19 death toll now stands at 570.

In South Africa, where the two new subvariants were first identified at the start of 2022, the surge in infections did not cause as many hospitalizations as the original Omicron surge.


Free hotline

The new hotline — 888-TREAT-NY — was launched by the state’s health department after reaching an agreement to use the Virtual ExpressCare platform operated by NYC Health + Hospitals, according to a release from the governor’s office.

“We’ve made real progress in our fight against COVID-19, but as new variants continue to spread it’s important to continue to adapt and expand our efforts to protect New Yorkers,” Governor Kathy Hochul said in the release.

All New Yorkers outside of New York City, regardless of income or health insurance coverage, who test COVID-19 positive, are eligible to be evaluated for treatment by calling 888-873-2869 or completing an evaluation at the NYS COVID-19 ExpressCare Therapeutics Access website, which includes a telemedicine visit.

The hotline is available 24-hours per day, seven days a week and operated by Health + Hospitals staff who have the clinical training to prescribe treatment and referrals if needed.

The telemedicine visit will include a clinical assessment by medical providers who will identify the appropriate COVID-19 treatment plan, which may include a prescription for Paxlovid or Molnupiravir.

These oral antiviral medications have both been proven to decrease hospitalization for those that are at risk for severe disease, the governor’s office said. When given soon after positive COVID-19 diagnosis these antivirals also help fight infection and shorten recovery time.  

New York State is assigned a weekly allotment of both Paxlovid and Molnupiravir — both of which require a prescription — from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Under the agreement, insured patients will be charged a copay amount based on their plan and the state’s health department will cover the costs of the service for those without health care coverage.

More information about COVID treatment options is available online at the state’s website: health.ny.gov/CovidTreatment.


Back to “medium”

The announcement to provide free medical help comes as parts of New York State are seeing an uptick in new cases. Two weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had labeled all but a handful of New York’s 62 counties as having a “low” COVID community level.

Albany County, after briefly being labeled “low,” is now among the 13 counties statewide designated “medium” while six downstate counties are labeled “high”: Richmond, Kings, Queen, the Bronx, Westchester, and Nassau.

Switching the trend from more than a month ago, most of New York and New England are now designated “low” while a majority of the rest of the nation is labeled “medium” (38 percent) or “high” (21 percent).

The two Omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, now make up the majority of new cases in New York State.

For Region 2 (New York and New Jersey as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) at the end of June, the dominant variant had still been BA.2.12.1, at 53.5 percent.

Now the highly transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 are gaining ground. In Region 2, for the week ending July 2, BA.4 made up 14 percent of cases, BA.5 made up 46 percent while BA.2.12.1 made up 38 percent and BA.2 made up 1.8 percent.


Quarantine rule struck down

On July 8, a western New York judge ruled that a state health department regulation allowing isolation and quarantine of people suspected of having a communicable disease violates state law and is therefore null and void.

The rule, said Acting Justice of the Supreme Court of Cattaraugus County Ronald D. Ploetz, merely gives “lip service” to Constitutional due process.

“Involuntary detention is a severe deprivation of individual liberty, far more egregious than other health safety measures, such as requiring mask wearing at certain venues. Involuntary quarantine may have far reaching consequences such as loss of income (or employment) and isolation from family,” he wrote.

The suit was brought by three Republican state legislators — Senator George Borrello and assemblymen Chris Tague and Michael Lawler — along with Uniting NYS against Democrat Hochul, Bassett, the state’s health department, and the Public Health and Health Planning Council. 

The regulation was adopted on Feb. 22, 2022 and was renewed at 90-day intervals through July 20.

“Respondents offered no scientific data or expert testimony why Rule 2.13 was a necessary response to combat Covid-19, but instead contend only that it would provide a quick and nimble approach to combatting the pandemic,” wrote the judge. “Nevertheless, during oral argument of this matter, at a time when we hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, counsel for the Respondents were unable to cite any instance where the procedure set forth in Rule 2.13 was actually utilized.”

He left the door open for the legislature to act, saying the rule is null and void “until the New York State Legislation acts otherwise.”

“The expansive emergency powers that were given to the Executive Branch during the pandemic set a dangerous precedent that was ripe for abuse,” said Borrello in a statement. “That is what occurred here.

“Reluctant to relinquish the unrivaled authority that accompanied New York’s ‘state of emergency’, the governor sought to improperly use the agency rulemaking process as another conduit for unilateral control. If we allowed that to occur unchallenged, it would be inviting further violations of the constitutional separation of powers.”

The case is being appealed and Uniting NYS has launched a campaign, urging citizens to contact the governor and attorney general to tell them "you do not support tyranny."


Outdoor dining

Earlier this month, Hochul signed a bill extending the use of municipal space for outdoor dining to continue helping New York’s restaurants hurt by the pandemic.

Previous legislation signed in July 2021 extended this program for one additional year. The new law extends the outdoor dining program for three additional years, preventing the need for continual renewal.

A survey conducted in January 2022 by the New York State restaurant industry found that 74 percent of operators report sales volume in 2021 was lower than it was in 2019, before the start of the pandemic.

Additionally, 55 percent of restaurant operators have reduced hours of operation on days they opened and 40 percent are closed on days they would normally be open, limiting sales.

“Outdoor dining utilizing sidewalks and street space has become a financial lifeline for New York’s restaurants during the global COVID-19 pandemic,” said bill sponsor Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy in a statement. “Not only has it helped hundreds of small, locally owned businesses remain in business, it’s also proved a popular boon to our local economies and ‘Main Streets.” 


Help for workers

The Workers’ Compensation Board continues its webinar series this week to help workers who believe they contracted COVID-19 on the job, especially those who have missed time from work or are suffering from ongoing or “long-haul” symptoms. Additional dates have also been added.

Each one-hour session provides information on workers’ rights when it comes to filing a workers’ compensation claim and the cash and/or medical benefits they may be eligible to receive.

While the online sessions are targeted toward workers who have lost time from work, have ongoing medical problems, or fall into the category of “long haulers,” the information is relevant to anyone who believes they may have contracted COVID-19 due to an exposure at work. 

Workers have two years from the time they contracted COVID-19 to file a claim.

Registration is not required to attend the hour-long noon webinars on Wednesdays, Aug. 10, Sept. 28, and Oct. 12.

More information on COVID-19 can be found on the board’s website, including information on how to file a COVID-19 workers’ compensation claim.


Aid for marine industries

On July 11, Hochul announced $5.7 million in federal aid is being distributed to New York’s seafood, marine commercial, and for-hire fishing industries. This funding is in addition to $7.4 million in earlier federal aid for a total of $13.1.

Awards distributed now range from $400 to $100,000 with more than half the eligible applicants receiving greater than $17,500. Award amounts were based upon the loss reported by applicants and they received an award of up to 40 percent of their reported loss. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic greatly disrupted the tourism, dining, and recreational industries over these past two years, and New York's marine fishing industries were not immune,” Hochul said in the release. “Fishing industries are vital economic drivers in countless communities across New York State, and the funding provided today is essential to helping sustain jobs and ensure the future prosperity of this industry for generations to come.”

Eligible New York State applicants from seafood distribution, commercial fishing, and marine recreational for-hire fishing businesses are awarded relief based on their reported economic loss experienced in 2020 and 2021 compared to the previous five years. 

The state’s allocation was determined by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries based on the total average annual revenues from New York's fishery-related businesses.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation received 204 applications during the application period, between Dec. 1, 2021 and Jan. 14, 2022. Awards will be distributed to 194 applicants that met state and federal requirements, including demonstrating more than a 35 percent loss in revenue during the eligible time periods.

For those applicants whose applications were denied, the DEC is providing an opportunity to appeal and reserved aid for those that are deemed eligible.

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