Week CXXVII: The CDC relaxes rules as Hochul extends state’s disaster emergency

— Graphic from the CDC

The CDC’s new relaxed standards are part of a movement away from institutions enforcing COVID rules — the Albany County Health Department like others in New York State long ago stopped tracking COVID cases — and towards individuals taking their own measures to protect themselves.

ALBANY COUNTY — This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced relaxed standards for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Locally, the Capital Region Jehovah’s Witnesses announced that their 30-month “pandemic pause” — the first pause in over a century — was over and they are returning to their door-to-door ministry.

The Schoharie Valley Singers announced they are returning to in-person rehearsals. For the first time since the pandemic began, vaccinations will not be required for singers, and masks will be optional. 

But also this week, Governor Kathy Hochul quietly extended the state’s disaster emergency through Sept. 12.

Her executive order states that new COVID-19 hospital admissions remain at over 100 per day and says that “the state must pursue a coordinated approach to ensure hospital capacity statewide is able to meet regional needs.”

As of Aug. 11, Albany County is reporting 25.42 county residents are hospitalized with COVID as a seven-day average.

The executive order was criticized by Republican Congressman Lee Zelden, who is running against Hochul for governor and issued a statement saying that “every 30 days, Kathy Hochul unilaterally bypasses the New York State Legislature and extends her self-claimed COVID emergency powers ….”

On Wednesday, Hochul announced the re-launch of #VaxtoSchool, the statewide campaign aimed at increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates among school-aged New Yorkers. Materials for parents and guardians of school-aged children and schools are available at ny.gov/vaxtoschool.

“As children can catch COVID-19 and develop severe disease, and vaccination remains their best protection against the virus and its variants,” said Health Commissioner Mary Bassett in arelease announcing the campaign, “I urge all parents and guardians to get their children vaccinated before they head back to school.”

Also this week, Jill Biden tested positive for COVID. Her husband last month had twice tested positive and twice isolated.

“After testing negative for COVID-19 on Monday during her regular testing cadence, the First Lady began to develop cold-like symptoms late in the evening,” said Jill Biden’s communication director, Elizabeth Alexander, in a statement. “She tested negative again on a rapid antigen test, but a PCR test came back positive.

“The First Lady is double-vaccinated, twice boosted, and only experiencing mild symptoms. She has been prescribed a course of Paxlovid and, following CDC guidance, will isolate from others for at least five days. Close contacts of the First Lady have been notified. She is currently staying at a private residence in South Carolina and will return home after she receives two consecutive negative COVID tests.”


CDC report

On Aug. 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed standards, continuing a trend it had started earlier this year. In February, the CDC had shortened isolation times.

The changes are part of a movement away from institutions enforcing COVID rules — the Albany County Health Department like others in New York State long ago stopped tracking COVID cases — and towards individuals taking their own measures to protect themselves.

People exposed to COVID-19 no longer have to quarantine but people who test positive must still isolate for at least five days and wear a mask around others for 10 days after the start of symptoms, the new CDC guidance says.

The test-to-stay policy for schools, which required regular testing and contact tracing to let staff or students exposed to the virus to stay in school, has been eliminated.

If symptoms develop, though, the CDC still urges testing and staying at home when sick as well as getting vaccinated.

The report also stresses, “Antiviral agents reduce risk for hospitalization and death when administered soon after diagnosis.”

The CDC report says that high levels of immunity and effective prevention and management tools have reduced the risk of severe illness and death. It also says the new protocols are “to limit social and economic impacts.”

“To prevent medically significant COVID-19 illness and death, persons must understand their risk, take steps to protect themselves and others with vaccines, therapeutics, and nonpharmaceutical interventions when needed, receive testing and wear masks when exposed, receive testing if symptomatic, and isolate for ≥5 days if infected,” the report advises.

The CDC goes on, “Therapeutics to prevent severe illness; use of multicomponent prevention measures where feasible; and particular emphasis on protecting persons at high risk for severe illness.”

Continuing the new do-it-yourself approach, the CDC report says, “Current priorities for preventing medically significant illness should focus on ensuring that persons 1) understand their risk, 2) take steps to protect themselves and others through vaccines, therapeutics, and nonpharmaceutical interventions when needed, 3) receive testing and wear masks if they have been exposed, and 4) receive testing if they are symptomatic, and isolate for ≥5 days if they are infected.”

The report outlines five prevention strategies:

— Monitoring COVID-19 Community Levels to guide COVID-19 prevention efforts. 

People are to use information about the current level of COVID-19 impact on their community to decide which prevention behaviors to use and when based on their own risk for severe illness and that of members of their household, their risk tolerance, and setting-specific factors. 

Every week, The Enterprise reports on the community-level designation the CDC has assigned to Albany County. This week, for the seventh week in a row, Albany County is labeled as having a “medium” community level, the middle of three tiers. “Medium” means people who test positive for COVID-19, who are symptomatic, or who have been exposed to the virus should wear masks as well as those traveling on public transportation;

— Nonpharmaceutical interventions.

The CDC’s COVID-19 prevention recommendations no longer differentiate based on a person’s vaccination status because breakthrough infections occur, though they are generally mild, and people who have had COVID-19 but are not vaccinated have some degree of protection against severe illness from their previous infection;

— Testing for current infection.

Diagnostic testing can identify infections early so that infected individuals can take action to reduce their risk for transmitting virus and receive treatment, if clinically indicated, to reduce their risk for severe illness and death.

All people should seek testing for active infection when they are symptomatic or if they have a known or suspected exposure to someone with COVID-19;

— Isolation.

Symptomatic or infected individuals should isolate promptly, and infected people should remain in isolation for five days or more and wear a well-fitting and high-quality mask or respirator if they must be around others.

Infected people may end isolation after five days, only when they are without a fever for at least 24 hours without the use of medication and all other symptoms have improved, and they should continue to wear a mask or respirator around others at home and in public through day 10; and

— Managing SARS-CoV-2 exposures.

The CDC now recommends case investigation and contact tracing only in health-care settings and certain high-risk congregate settings. In all other circumstances, public health efforts can focus on case notification and provision of information and resources to exposed persons about access to testing.

People who have had recent confirmed or suspected exposure to an infected person should wear a mask for 10 days around others when indoors in public and should receive testing at least five days after exposure (or sooner, if they are symptomatic), irrespective of their vaccination status.

In light of high population levels of anti–SARS-CoV-2 seroprevalence and to limit social and economic impacts, quarantine of exposed persons is no longer recommended, regardless of vaccination status. 


Albany County stats

The governor’s office this week reported, on Aug. 16, just one COVID-related death in Albany County, which would bring the county’s death toll from the virus to 580. As of Tuesday, however, the county’s dashboard still reported 579 deaths: 300 females and 279 males.

Albany County’s vaccination rate, which had for months remained stubbornly short of three-quarters of its residents completing a vaccination series, finally hit the 75.0 percent mark this week. Statewide, 78.3 percent of New Yorkers have completed a vaccination series.

Of Albany County residents eligible for a booster shot, 61.7 percent have received them.

Although figures on infection rates are no longer reliable since tracing and tracking systems have been disbanded, the state dashboard shows that Albany County, as a seven-day average, now has 19.3 cases per 100,000 of population, down from 21.8 last week.

This compares with 25.6 cases statewide, down from 30.03 last week. The lowest rate is still in the Finger Lakes at 12.65 per 100,000, down just slightly from last week’s 12.92, while the highest is still on Long Island at 31.82, down from 34.66 per 100,000 last week.

According to the CDC, the vast majority of new cases are caused by the Omicron subvariant BA.5 — over 95 percent in the area that includes New York and New Jersey, up from 87 percent a week ago. BA.4 makes up close to 7 percent of new cases and BA.4 about 4 percent.


Food help

New Yorkers enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will receive the maximum allowable level of food benefits for August, the governor announced on Aug. 15.

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.

“No New Yorker should face the prospect of not being able to provide adequate food to feed their household,” Hochul said in a release, making the announcement. “These added benefits help to alleviate this aching concern for hundreds of thousands of individuals and families still struggling to make ends meet amid the ongoing economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The federally funded program is overseen by the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. Households already near or at the maximum benefit level — $835 for a household of four — will receive a supplemental payment of at least $95. 

OTDA began issuing the emergency supplemental benefits in April 2020 to those SNAP households receiving less than the maximum monthly benefit amount. When New York State’s emergency declaration expired in June 2021, the agency worked with the federal government to secure the maximum allotment for all SNAP households until the expiration of the federal declaration of a public health emergency, which was extended until October and will enable OTDA to continue issuing these benefits through November.

New Yorkers continued to rely heavily on SNAP this spring, with more than 1.6 million households, including more than 2.8 million New Yorkers, throughout the state enrolled in the program in June. While SNAP recipients statewide dropped slightly from May, they were up 1.4 percent over June 2021, the governor’s office said, highlighting the continuing demand for these  benefits.

About 14 percent of the state's population relied on SNAP benefits last year according to a recent study. More than half of recipient households were families with children and about 48 percent included an adult over the age of 55 or a person with a disability. 

New Yorkers interested in enrolling can check their SNAP eligibility, as well as apply online, by going online to mybenefits.ny.gov.


Help for children

Also this week, Hochul announced the distribution of $44.4 million in federal pandemic funds to help struggling New Yorkers with children to cover back-to-school and early life nutritional expenses.

The Pandemic Emergency Assistance Fund will provide New Yorkers on public assistance with one-time payments of $214 for each child ages 3 to 17 and $150 for each child younger than 3 in their household.

“Hardworking New York families are still feeling the economic toll of the pandemic,” Hochul said in a release, announcing the funding. “As New Yorkers prepare to send their children back to school this fall, these one-time payments will help struggling families across the state pay for education supplies and other household expenses that may otherwise pose a burden on their household budget.”

Simultaneously, OTDA will be distributing $150 to public-assistance households for each child that is 3 years old or younger to assist them with infant nutrition costs. The agency anticipates distributing $5.1 million to roughly 34,300 eligible children.

The Pandemic Emergency Assistance Fund was created as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 with the intention to assist needy families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Public assistance provides monthly grants to help low-income individuals and families meet basic needs, such as housing. This program helps more than 500,000 New Yorkers who may be temporarily unemployed or unable to work, as well as very low-wage workers, and children.

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