Week LXXIII: Transmission and infection rates climb, no county directives are issued

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

A white-tailed fawn nestles in a Guilderland field. A recent study from the United States Department of Agriculture, studying deer over a decade, found that 40 percent of the white-tailed deer sampled in Michigan, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania in 2021 had antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

ALBANY COUNTY — Confusion reigned during the county’s 73rd week of coping with COVID-19 as caseloads climbed both nationally and locally, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.

On Sunday, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Albany County has crossed over the line from “moderate” to “substantial” transmission of COVID-19, which triggers the new CDC guidance that even vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in public.

The state has issued no directives on whether this guidance must be followed, with the governor saying it is up to individual municipalities to decide.

As of Wednesday, Albany County — still in the substantial transmission zone — had issued no directives.

Throughout the week, the Capital Region has had the highest infection rate of any of the state’s 10 regions.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Letitia James released the long-anticipated report investigating allegations of sexual harassment by Andrew Cuomo. The 165-page report found that Cuomo had broken state and federal laws, harassing 11 women by “among other things, engaging in unwelcome and nonconsensual touching as well as making numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women.”

Prominent Democrats, including the president, as well as Republicans called for Cuomo’s resignation as state legislators discussed impeachment. Cuomo’s lawyer, Rita M. Glavin, released a position statement, saying that the attorney general’s report “ignored key facts and pieces of evidence that undermine many of those allegations, and the press conference confirmed that this ‘investigation’ had a predetermined outcome regardless of all the evidence.”

Cuomo responded on Tuesday afternoon with a taped video, saying he had tried to help one of the victims, a survivor of sexual assault. “They ascribe motives I never had … I was trying to help; obviously I didn’t,” he said. He further said groping a woman’s breast “never happened” and he displayed many pictures of himself hugging and kissing a wide variety of people.

Cuomo also said people trying to score political points “discredit the legitimate sexual harassment victims. He concluded he would not be “distracted” from his job — “the COVID beast” is not dead yet, Cuomo said, and work must be done to re-open the state.

Since allegations were first raised in February, Cuomo ignored calls for his resignation and continued to hold frequent events — largely without press questions, unlike his earlier daily COVID-19 briefings — for various announcements on COVID-19 vaccination sites, reopening venues, rebuilding, and most recently requirements for vaccination.

Monday was his last such event.

 

Substantial transmission

Albany County and all of the counties surrounding it — except for Greene County — were labeled by the CDC, as of Wednesday evening, as having substantial transmission of COVID-19.

The CDC has set four categories for transmission: low, moderate, substantial, and high. “Substantial” means 50 to 99 cases per 100,000 population. Both “substantial” and “high” trigger the new CDC guidance.

The Enterprise emailed Mary Rozak, spokeswoman for the county executive, on Sunday, the day Albany County crossed over the line to substantial transmission, to ask if the county would implement any mandates and also to ask if Albany County is tracking the number of Delta cases or the number of vaccinated residents who have been infected with COVID-19 and what the percentages are.

On Monday, Rozak responded with this statement from the county’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen: “Since the start of the pandemic, our response to COVID-19 has been driven by science and data. CDC guidelines call for masking of all individuals indoors, vaccinated or not, when a ‘substantial’ designation is reached. Albany County has currently reached this designation.

“Over 62 percent of Albany County residents are fully vaccinated and we continue to encourage county residents who have not yet been vaccinated to do so. Data continues to show vaccination decreases the risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death. We encourage people to follow the CDC guidelines and we will continue to evaluate the data and respond appropriately.”

Rozak then commented on the difficulties in obtaining data on COVID-19 variants and on whether vaccinated residents are getting infected.

The state’s health department, she said, “does a random selection of testing for the Delta variant. Not all positives are sent for advanced testing to determine what variant the positive is. It is expensive to do this so they don’t do it for every case. That may change but not anything we’ve been informed of, at this time. We are not informed of individual variants within our county, ” Rozak said in an email on Monday morning.

  She went on, “As for number of positives that have been vaccinated, it is not a matter of just pressing a button. Each case would have to be looked up in a separate vaccine database. Not to mention, those who were vaccinated outside the state or by a facility that didn’t enter the data into the State vaccine database would show as not being vaccinated. We will try to see what we can come up with.”

As of Wednesday evening, New York State had just two counties labeled “low” transmission: Orleans and Yates. Most of the state is labeled “moderate” while five counties have “high” transmission: Nassau on Long Island, and Kings (Brooklyn), New York (Manhattan), Queens, and Richmond (Staten Island) in New York City.

The southern states remain the states with the highest transmission rates but the CDC reports vaccination rates there are now increasing although the percentage of vaccinated residents still lags behind most of the rest of the nation.

The Delta variant accounts for the majority of new cases in the United States, with nearly twice the rate of contagion as earlier COVID-19 variants. The Delta variant was first identified in India last October.

 

Barnstable study

A study conducted in Barnstable County in Massachusetts, posted to the CDC website on July 30, shows a large number of “breakthrough infections” — people who were vaccinated testing positive for COVID-19 — associated with public gatherings in Provincetown in July.

Large gatherings in Provincetown attracted thousands of tourists from across the United States. “Persons with COVID-19 reported attending densely packed indoor and outdoor events at venues that included bars, restaurants, guest houses, and rental homes,” the study said.

Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of the 469 infected people in the Barnstable study were vaccinated and 79 percent of them had symptoms, with the most common being a cough, headache, sore throat, myalgia, and fever.

The vaccine was effective in that only a handful of the people infected with COVID-19 were hospitalized and none died.

Testing identified the Delta variant in 90 percent of specimens from 133 patients.

On July 27, the CDC had recommended that all people, including those who are fully vaccinated, should wear masks in indoor public settings in areas where COVID-19 transmission is high or substantial.

Findings from the Barnstable County “suggest that even jurisdictions without substantial or high COVID-19 transmission might consider expanding prevention strategies, including masking in indoor public settings regardless of vaccination status, given the potential risk of infection during attendance at large public gatherings that include travelers from many areas with differing levels of transmission,” the study said.

 

COVID in deer

White-tailed deer — about 30 million combined live in every state in the contiguous U.S. —  appear to be contracting the coronavirus in the wild, according to research done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The study is posted on a preprint website, which means the research has yet to be peer reviewed.

“Antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 were detected in 40% of wild white-tailed deer sampled from four U.S. states in 2021,” the study says. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.

Blood samples were analyzed from more than 600 deer in Michigan, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania over the past decade. The presence of antibodies means that deer likely had encountered the virus and then fought it off, according to a National Geographic article about the study, which says the risk of deer spreading the disease to humans is low.

 The animals didn’t appear sick, so they probably had asymptomatic infections, the USDA surmised, but the study suggests a secondary reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 has been established in wildlife in the U.S.

 

Eviction

On Friday, the United States Department of Agriculture extended, through Sept. 30, the eviction moratorium for homeowners of properties financed or guaranteed by USDA.

“Actions like the one we’re announcing today are part of President Biden’s strategy to ensure a stable and equitable recovery from the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and will provide continued protection for thousands of individuals and families in rural America,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Justin Maxson in a statement, making the announcement.

Beyond Sept. 30, the USDA will continue to support homeowners experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic by making loss mitigation options available to help keep them in their homes. Homeowners and renters can visit www.consumerfinance.gov/housing for information on their relief options, protections, and key deadlines from federal agencies.

The USDA reminded servicers on Friday that the Single Family foreclosure moratorium would expire on Saturday, July 31. After that, no new foreclosure filings should occur until homeowners are reviewed for new options to reduce their payments and stay in their homes.

While the national eviction moratorium for renters ended on July 31, the New York State Legislature extended the COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2020 through Aug. 31, 2021. It prohibits evictions and puts various tenant protections in place.

On Friday evening, the secretaries of the USDA, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, and the Treasury together issued a statement, saying the foreclosure-related eviction moratoria have been extended until Sept. 30, 2021.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium is in place until July 31st, but the Supreme Court’s ruling made clear that CDC cannot extend the moratorium past its current expiration date,” said the joint statement. “In light of that decision, the Biden-Harris Administration is taking steps to protect renters at risk of eviction.”

The statement instructs the owners and operators of federally-assisted and financed rental housing to “make every effort to access Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) resources to avoid evicting a tenant for non-payment of rent. These resources are available in every state, and many counties and cities are also running local programs.”

The statement goes on, “Owners and operators of federally-assisted housing are stewards of important public resources and should access rental assistance both to prevent unnecessary human suffering and to protect the public investment in affordable housing.”

In Albany County, 15 percent of tenants are behind on rent with the average rent owed of $3,303, according to a New York Times analysis.

The Albany County Department of Social Services continues to host informational sessions to educate residents, check their eligibility, and help them sign up for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

The federally funded program is for renters who have experienced financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding will be available to New Yorkers for up to one year of back rent, three months of future rental assistance and up to one year of owed utility payments.

All allocations will be sent directly to landlords or property owners on behalf of the tenants. There are no immigration status requirements to qualify for the program. Households eligible for rental arrears may also be eligible for help paying utility arrears at the same rental unit.

An informational session is scheduled for the Hilltowns on Monday, Aug. 2, at 2:30 p.m. at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school at 1738 Helderberg Trail in Berne.

 

Boosting child care

On Friday, Cuomo announced that New York State will administer nearly $1.1 billion in federal funding directly to child-care providers to help stabilize the industry and enable more parents to return to the workplace fulltime.

The funding — available through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act — will provide direct support to child-care programs and help replenish losses experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The New York State Office of Children and Family Services will manage the grant funding. Funding applications will open Wednesday, Aug. 4.

“The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the critical role child care plays in supporting children, families, and businesses,” said Children and Family Services Commissioner Sheila Poole in a statement. “Throughout the pandemic, some child-care programs remained open to serve the families of essential workers who could not stay home. As more people return to work, child care is foundational to reopening our state’s economy.”

OCFS will award more than $10 million in technical assistance funds to 35 child-care resource and referral agencies and other key stakeholders to support child care providers in accessing and implementing the stabilization grants.

 

Shots required

On Monday, Cuomo added to the list of workers who will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Labor Day or else be tested weekly.

Workers at the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City and at the Port Authority in New York and New Jersey join New York State workers, which Cuomo announced last week, in the requirement.

Nine new vaccination sites will open, including one at the Empire State Plaza’s concourse in Albany.

Cuomo had also announced on July 28 that patient-facing employees in state-run hospitals are required to be vaccinated by Labor Day.

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Monday that 70 percent of adults in the United States had received at least one dose of vaccine — just about a month after the Fourth of July goal set by President Joe Biden.  By Wednesday that percentage had crept up to 70.1 percent.

Not quite half of the total United States population (49.7 percent) is fully vaccinated.

The Capital Region continues to have the highest infection rate of any of the state’s 10 regions, at 3.86 percent as of Tuesday, as a seven-day average. The lowest rate is in the North Country at 2.39 percent.

Statewide, as of Tuesday, as a seven-day rolling average, Albany County’s infection rate is 4.3 percent, according to the state’s dashboard. Statewide, the infection rate is 2.7 percent.

Forty-one new COVID-19 cases were reported Wednesday morning, in a release from County Executive Daniel McCoy who also reported 210 active cases in the county , 382 residents under quarantine, and that eight residents are hospitalized with the virus.

As of Wednesday, 67.0 percent of Albany County’s 301,117 residents had received at least one dose of vaccine as had 77.8 percent of residents 18 and older, according to the state’s vaccine tracker. Statewide, 63.4 percent of New Yorkers have received at least one shot and 57.3 have completed a series.

The county will be holding a vaccination clinic at the Altamont Fair, from noon to 7:30 p.m., Aug. 17 to 22, and another clinic at the Medusa Fest on Route 351 in Rensselaerville on Aug. 28 from 1 to 4 p.m.

 

Up to local governments

At an event in New York City on Monday, Cuomo stressed how quickly the Delta variant of the virus spreads. He said hospitalizations in New York State had doubled over the past month and the number of new cases had increased four-fold.

He also stressed the effectiveness of vaccination.

“If you are vaccinated, you’re less likely to catch it. And you’re very unlikely to be hospitalized,” said Cuomo. “When you look at the infection rate among those who are fully vaccinated: four out of 100,000. Unvaccinated: 17 over 100,000. Fourfold increase. Hospitalization if you’re vaccinated: 0.19 per 100,000. Unvaccinated: 1.25 per 100,000.”

He also noted, “Vaccinated people can spread the Delta variant. This is the fact that caused the CDC to change their position quickly.”

With the first wave of the pandemic, in March of 2020, Cuomo used a state of emergency to issue executive orders. Currently, with no state of emergency declared, he said,  “Local governments are now trying to figure out how to deal with the local guidance.”

Cuomo on Monday urged private businesses and school districts to require vaccination.

“Private businesses, I am asking them and suggesting to them: Go to vaccine only. Go to vaccine-only admission,” he said.

He also said, “I believe school districts should say today: Teachers, vaccine, or test, if you are in a CDC high risk area, the red or the yellow zones …. If you want to teach my kids, I think you should be vaccinated. If you want to take care of my mother in a nursing home, I think you should be vaccinated.”

Later on Monday, New York State United Teachers, a union with 600,000 members, put out a statement, saying, “We would support local efforts to encourage more vaccinations, such as through programs that require that those who are not vaccinated get tested on a regular basis. But it’s critical that districts come up with plans to make testing available on-site and at no cost. What we have not supported is a vaccine mandate.”

Cuomo also urged required vaccination for “all health-care workers in all private hospitals who are front-line workers.”

On Wednesday, Albany Medical Center announced that all employees are required to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. The policy extends to physicians, nurses, college and support staff, contractors and any of the medical center’s 10,000 colleagues with clinical or nonclinical responsibilities.

Frontline staff at Albany Med began being vaccinated on Dec. 14, 2020 and now more than 80 percent of its employees are fully vaccinated, according to a release from Albany Med.

“We continue to care for COVID patients, the majority of whom are not vaccinated,” said Albany Med President Dennis P. McKenna in the release. “My colleagues have worked so hard to protect each other and the people we serve, and we must continue to lead by example. I thank all my colleagues for their untiring efforts and urge every member of our workforce — and our neighbors in the community —t o get vaccinated. The vaccine is safe. It will put the pandemic behind us.”

Cuomo concluded on Monday, “Right now this is all up to local governments. If they don’t act, then we'll be where we were last year where it becomes a statewide emergency and the state is going to have to act.”

More Regional News

  • New York State’s first-ever pollinator survey, conducted over a three-year period, found, by conservative standards, that 38 percent of the state’s native pollinators are viable to be wiped out of the state completely, and that it could be as high as 60 percent of species when considering those that are known only by historical records.

  • Most counties in New York State, including Albany County, are now under a drought watch — the first of four levels of state drought advisories, which are watch, warning, emergency, and disaster. No mandatory restrictions are in place under a state drought watch.

  • ALBANY COUNTY — The Albany County Soil and Water Conservation District has awarded over $145,000

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