Week CXXVIII: CDC to regroup, state relaxes protocols for back to school

— Map from the New York State Department of Labor
The highest rates of unemployment in New York State continue to be in New York City.

ALBANY COUNTY — The week started with the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, acknowledging that, after a review, the agency found it did not respond adequately to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She called for an overhaul that would make the agency more quick and more clear in its responses.

“For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for Covid-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” Walensky wrote in the email to the 11,000 agency staffers. “My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness.”

Later in the week, on Monday, Governor Kathy Hochul held a press conference that covered monkeypox, polio — and COVID-19 protocols for the return to school, following the CDC’s latest guidance.

Meanwhile, Albany County, in its 128th week of coping with the coronavirus, continued, for the eighth week in a row, to be labeled by the CDC as having a “medium” — the middle of three levels — community level of the virus. 

About a third of the counties nationwide are labeled “high” and about a quarter are labeled “low” — including great swaths in New York and New England and all of Nevada.

Albany County suffered two COVID-related deaths this week — the first reported by the governor’s office on Aug. 17 and the second on Aug. 23 — which would bring Albany County’s COVID death toll to 582; however, as of Tuesday, the county’s dashboard reported 580 deaths: 300 females and 280 males.

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 17.9 cases per 100,000 of population, down from 19.3 last week and 21.8 l two weeks ago.

This compares with 23.0 cases statewide, down from 25.6 last week and 30.03 two weeks ago. The lowest rate is still in the Finger Lakes at 12.09 per 100,000, down slightly from 12.65 last week and 12.92 two weeks ago, while the highest is still on Long Island at 16.75, down from 31.82 last week and 34.66 per 100,000two weeks ago.

According to the CDC, the vast majority of new cases are caused by the Omicron subvariant BA.5 — about 88 percent in the area that includes New York and New Jersey. BA.4.6 makes up about 8 percent of new cases, BA.4 about 3.5 percent, and AA.2.12.1 about 0.5 percent in that region.

According to the state’s dashboard, 75.1 percent of Albany County residents have completed a COVID vaccination series compared to 88.2 percent statewide.

Also, 61.7 percent of Albany County’s eligible population have received booster shots.

As of Aug. 22, Albany County’s dashboard shows 26.43 county residents hospitalized with COVID, as a seven-day average, up from 23.14 a week ago.

The governor’s office on Tuesday reported 26 percent of Capital Region patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were admitted for other reasons.


Back to school

At her first press conference dealing with COVID-19 in more than a month, Hochul on Monday laid out back-to-school protocols following the relaxed guidelines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had put out the week before.

She noted that statewide COVID cases, as a seven-day average, now are at about 22 per 100,000 of population, down from 35 a month ago and from 381 at the peak of the Omicron surge in January. About 2,3000 New Yorkers with COVID are currently hospitalized.

A year ago, when Hochul was “brand new on the job,” she recalled schools had to observe social distancing, quarantining after exposure to the virus, and testing negative to stay in school.

“It was confusing, very frustrating, stressful, the unknown, fear of the unknown, because this was the first fall when our expectation was that everybody went back to school,” Hochul said.

This year’s landscape is different, she said, adding, “We’re expecting it to be a much, much easier year for parents and for schools.”

The biggest changes in CDC guidelines, which The Enterprise detailed last week, as applied to schools are these:

— Quarantine

The CDC no longer recommends quarantining when someone is exposed to COVID-19 except in high-risk congregate settings like nursing homes. However, anyone who has been exposed, regardless of vaccination status or history of previous COVID infection, is to wear a well-fitting mask or respirator for 10 days and get tested at least five days after close contact or sooner if symptoms develop.

“The days of sending an entire classroom home because one person was symptomatic or tested positive, those days are over,” said Hochul;

— Sick or symptomatic

The CDC still recommends that people who are sick stay home so any student or staff member with symptoms of respiratory or gastrointestinal infections such as a cough, fever, sore throat, vomiting, or diarrhea should stay home.

As soon as COVID symptoms start, testing should be undertaken.

Those at risk for getting very sick should consult with a health-care provider as soon as they test positive. People without a doctor can call 1-888-TREAT-NY for free;

— Isolation

People who have tested positive or are waiting for test results should stay home. If someone tests positive but has no symptoms, that person has to isolate for just five days.

If someone had symptoms, they can stop isolating on the fifth day only if they have been fever-free, without fever-reducing medication, for 24 hours and symptoms are improving.

People should wear a mask for 10 days after ending isolation.

Antigen testing is not required to end isolation but some schools may allow test-based strategy to potentially shorten the length of time for post-isolation mask use.

Last March, Hochul had lifted the state mask requirements for schools.

She said at Monday’s press conference that there are some circumstances in which schools may want to do screening tests for such high-risk activities as wrestling or singing close together in a choir.

She noted that, in the past two years, since the advent of COVID-19, “Numbers tend to spike in the fall, the weather gets colder, people congregate more.”

Hochul added, “And this fall, we’re really hoping the doors are open, not just to schools, but to offices after Labor Day.”

Hochul said tourists have returned to New York City and restaurants are crowded but urged, “We’d love to see everybody going back in their offices or at least on a hybrid situation.”

Throughout the press conference, she stressed the importance of vaccination and particularly urged parents to get their children vaccinated. Fewer than 40 percent of children aged 5 to 11 have completed a vaccination series.

All school children age 5 and older are eligible for a booster shot.

Hochul also stressed the importance of testing. She said one test kit per child will be available at the start of the school year “but schools can request additional kits,” she said.

New York State has over 14 million kits in inventory, Hochul said, and has procured another 6 million.

She also said, “We want to make sure every New Yorker has access to medical assistance and treatment should they contract the virus.”

Currently, Hochul said, 40 percent of the state’s pharmacies have received therapeutics from the federal government as well as 44 state sites. “But,” she stressed, “there has to be equitable access to this or this system doesn’t work.”

The state’s hotline, launched in July, has so far received over 1,700 calls, resulting in 1,100 visits for treatment, Hochul said.

With the Fall Action Plan underway, Hochul said, she hopes “maybe we won’t need a winter plan.”


Comptroller finds more problems

with school mental-health services

This week, the state’s comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, released a report showing New York City public schools have understaffed mental-health teams, have too few available services, and lack adequate oversight by the city’s department of education.

“Now is the time to double-down on mental health supports for youth — schools are critical partners in this work, and it is imperative that they step up efforts to emotionally support students,” said DiNapoli in a statement releasing the report.

In April and June, DiNapoli had examined mental health education and resources in schools statewide.

His April report cited the American Psychological Association,’s findings that over 80 percent of teens experienced more intense school-related stress due to COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2020, mental health emergency room visits rose 24 percent among 5- to 11-year-olds and 31 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds, the report said, adding that, in December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning of an urgent mental health crisis among America’s youth.

Most of the state’s 686 districts outside of New York City entered the pandemic with mental health teams that were far short of nationally recommended staff-to-student ratios, the April audit showed.

The recommended ratio for school counselors is one for every 250 students; for school social workers is one for every 250 students; and for school psychologists, is one for every 500 students.

Locally, the audit showed:

— Berne-Knox-Westerlo, with 752 students, has three counselors for a ratio of 1:251, very close to the recommendation; no social workers and one psychologist for a ratio of 1:752, both well below the recommendation;

— Guilderland, with 4,841 students has 13 counselors for a ratio of 1:372; eight social workers for a ratio of 1:605 — both well below the recommendation; and 11 psychologists for a ratio of 1:440, which is much better than the recommended ratio; and

— Voorheesville, with 1,180 students, has four counselors for a ratio of 1:295; one social worker for a ratio of 1:1,180; and two psychologists for a ratio of 1:590 — all less than recommended.

DiNapoli’s June audit sampled 20 school districts — none of them local — and found they did not provide mental-health training to all staff for the 2020-21 school year by Sept. 15, as required by State Education Department regulations.

Eighteen of 20 districts, or 90 percent, either did not offer mental-health training or provided training that lacked some or all the recommended components, including how to access crisis support and recognizing warning signs such as obsessive-compulsive, psychotic, and eating disorders.

“School personnel are often the first to notice if a student is having mental health challenges, and they need effective training to help them understand the signs and symptoms early on,” DiNapoli said in a statement, releasing the report. “Failure to do so can have devastating consequences for students, staff, families and communities.” 


Help for the addicted

On Aug. 22, Hochul announced up to $20 million is available to help providers of addiction services that have been hurt by the pandemic.

“New Yorkers continue to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in all aspects of daily life, including addiction treatment,” Hochul said in a statement, announcing release of the federal funds. “Like far too many New Yorkers, my family has lost a loved one battling with addiction, and this funding will be integral in helping treatment providers continue their crucial work. My administration will continue our work to support providers to help New Yorkers who need it most.”

“Our providers have done heroic work, remaining open and operational, despite the numerous obstacles created by COVID-19,” said Chinazo Cunningham, commissioner of the state’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports, which will administer the funds. “This funding will help to stabilize our system and allow our providers to continue to provide life-saving care and services for some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”

Many addiction services providers faced significant financial stress during the pandemic as they met the challenges imposed by the public health crisis, according to a release from the governor’s office. These added expenses included an increase in telehealth services, meeting COVID-19 safety protocols, and other workforce challenges related to the pandemic. 

In addition, the ongoing opioid and overdose epidemic continues to impact communities across New York State. The result has been a dual health crisis that is straining resources in addiction services. 

Funded through the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant award authorized by the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriation Act of 2021, the initiative will offer addiction services providers an opportunity to resume programs interrupted by the pandemic and sustain or enhance existing programs and services. The goal is to allow these providers to continue offering care to those seeking treatment.

New Yorkers struggling with an addiction, or who know someone struggling, can find help by calling the state’s toll-free, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week HOPEline at 1-877-8-HOPENY (1-877-846-7369) or by texting HOPENY (Short Code 467369). 

Available addiction treatment including crisis/detox, inpatient, residential, or outpatient care can be found at FindAddictionTreatment.ny.gov or through the NYS OASAS website

For help filing an appeal for a denied claim, contact the CHAMP helpline by phone at 888-614-5400 or email .


Jobs steady

On Tuesday, the state’s labor department released preliminary unemployment rates for July that showed they had held steady statewide from June at 4.4 percent.

The report notes that, since the rates are not seasonally adjusted, the most valid comparisons are from year to year. The Albany-Schenectady-Troy area in July 2021 had an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent compared to this July with a rate of 3.2 percent.

Albany County, the report says, has an unemployment rate of 3.3 percent for July 2021.

Nearby Saratoga County has one of the lowest rates at 2.8 percent. The counties that make up New York City continue to have high rates with the Bronx the highest at 9.1 percent.

Albany County had 150,600 people employed in July 2021 and now has 155,300, an increase of 4.7 percent.

At the same time, the labor department reports, Albany County had 7,300 people unemployed in July 2021 and now has 5,400 unemployed, a decrease of 1.9 percent. So the unemployment rate, year to year, decreased from 4.6 percent to 3.3 percent.


$500M for small biz

Hochul this week announced that New York State was awarded $501.5 million in federal funds to support programs for small businesses, with emphasis on those still struggling from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and helping traditionally disadvantaged small businesses succeed in the post pandemic economy. 

In a transcript Hochul released of a call with the White House, she said, “Everyone knows, no state was harder hit during the pandemic than the State of New York, particularly the city of New York, but we are a very diverse state. Many people do think of New York as just the skyscrapers of Manhattan, when in fact we have a very rural area as well.”

Through Empire State Development, the state is establishing a suite of programs that will match federal support to the critical needs of the state’s small businesses, including these:

Capital Access Program

$29.4 million to provide portfolio insurance to lenders that make loans to small businesses to incentivize the expansion of loaning to these entities;

Affordable Debt Programs

$106.1 million Capital Loan Fund to provide long-term capital investments via debt instruments and credit structures.

$55.5 million Small Business Revolving Loan Fund to address inequitable capital access, and to address gaps facing new companies, underbanked communities, and small businesses which are more likely to be minority-owned.

$47 million New York Forward Loan Fund to make flexible, low interest loans to small businesses and not-for-profit organizations, through participating Community Development Financial Institution lenders.

$22 million Bonding Guarantee Program to provide surety bonding to reduce risks associated with bonding for small businesses.

$22 million Contractor Financing Revolving Loan Fund to provide needed funding to contractors in need of matching dollars to secure federal, state, and local contracts; and

Equitable Venture investments

$102 million Emerging and Regional Partner Program Fund to support the growth and establishment of diverse, emerging, and regional private sector fund managers.

$52 million Community and Regional Partner Program Fund to provide selected accelerators with funds that will be leveraged with private dollars to invest in New York State start-up companies.

$30 million Pre-seed and Seed Matching Fund Program to continue to support high growth start-up companies at the earliest stages of their growth and development.

$35 million New York State Innovation Venture Capital Fund an investment program with more than 40 portfolio companies — 65 percent of which are founded or led by women and/or minorities. SSBCI funds would further capitalize this direct investment fund program.

Over the next 90 days, Empire State Development will be establishing additional program criteria and guidelines, with formal program-specific application processes announced in the fall. More information is online at esd.ny.gov/ssbci.

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