Week CXXIX: New boosters are to combat Omicron subvariants, state labor study will look at pandemic’s impact on women

— Photo from NYS Governor’s Office
On Women’s Equality Day, Governor Kathy Hochul, right, announced that Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, center, will oversee a study to examine the impact of COVID-19 on women in the workforce and explore equitable solutions. Starletta Smith, left, who directs the YWCA of the Greater Capital Region, spoke with passion about the hardship women endured during the pandemic when many had to choose between being employed and caring for their children.

ALBANY COUNTY — The Biden administration plans soon after Labor Day to release COVID-19 vaccines that have been designed to combat the now-dominant Omicron subvariants.

The hope is to offer the new booster shots before an increase in cases that, for the last two years, has occurred as people move indoors for cooler weather and schools resume classes. The current death toll nationwide has leveled off to about 390 deaths each day.

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna submitted applications to the federal Food and Drug Administration, seeking emergency authorization of the new booster shots, which had not been through human trials.

On Wednesday, the FDA authorized use of the vaccines “as a single booster dose at least two months following primary or booster vaccination.”

The “updated boosters” contain two messenger RNA components of the virus, one of the original strain and the other one in common between the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the Omicron variant of the virus, the FDA explained in a release.

“The COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, continue to save countless lives and prevent the most serious outcomes (hospitalization and death) of COVID-19,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, M.D., in the release. “As we head into fall and begin to spend more time indoors, we strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to consider receiving a booster dose with a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to provide better protection against currently circulating variants.”

Moderna’s booster is meant for people 18 and older while the Pfizer-BioNTech booster is for those 12 and older. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is to meet on Sept. 1 and 2 to review the efficacy of the new boosters.

Some concerns have been raised about the accessibility of the new shots since many places have closed down the government-run centers that administered the initial vaccinations. The majority of the new shots are expected to be administered at pharmacies.

Albany County’s health department still offers COVID vaccination at its offices at 175 Green St. in Albany. Vaccinations for those 5 to 11 years old are provided Tuesday and Thursday while vaccinations for those 12 and older are provided Monday through Friday; appointments are strongly encouraged, according to the county’s website.

The county’s site also lists free vaccine clinics at the Albany Public Library - Arbor Hill/West Hill Branch at 148 Henry Johnson Boulevard, from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 7, 14, 21, and 28.

While the federal government is to provide COVID-19 vaccinations at no cost to recipients, the money for covering vaccination for the uninsured in some cases has dried up. The need for updated vaccination has become important as other measures to quell the spread of the virus, such as masking or quarantining, have been relaxed.

“COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are leveling off from their rise over the summer,” says the most recent COVID weekly review from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, posted Aug. 26. “We can help prevent these numbers from increasing again by staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations.

In Albany County, as of Aug. 29, the county’s dashboard shows 25.57 county residents hospitalized with COVID, as a seven-day average, slightly down from 26.43 a week ago but up from 23.14 two weeks ago.

Two years ago, on Aug. 29, 2020, the seven-day average for hospitalized Albany County residents was under 9 but it rose rather steadily to a peak of 175.7 with the holiday season, on Jan. 22, 2021.

On Aug. 29 last year, the seven-day average was just under 24 but it, too, rose, crescendoing with the original Omicron surge when, at its peak, in January 2022, the seven-day average reached 121.7 hospitalized county residents.

No new COVID-related deaths were reported in Albany County this week; the county’s dashboard still tallies the death toll at 580 — 280 males and 300 females.

“The good news,” the CDC’s weekly review continued, “is that 77% of adults over age 18 years have received a primary series at this point. The not-so-good news is that only half of booster-eligible adults have gotten a booster, and only 34% of adults ages 50 years and older have gotten a second booster. Vaccine effectiveness can decrease over time, but boosters restore protection, including against serious illness.”

In Albany County, 75.1 percent of residents have completed a vaccination series — a percentage that has hardly budged for months — and 61.7 percent of eligible county residents have gotten a booster shot, according to the state’s dashboard.

Most of Albany County’s COVID-related deaths, 58.4 percent, have been of people age 75 and older. Only 4 percent have been of people younger than 50.

For the ninth week in a row, Albany County, in its 129th week of dealing with the pandemic, continues to be labeled by the CDC as having a “medium” — the middle of three levels — community level of the virus.

Over 27 percent of the counties nationwide are labeled “low” while nearly 43 percent are, like Albany county, labeled “medium,” and almost 30 percent are designated as having “high” community levels.

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 17.3 cases per 100,000 of population, down slightly from 17.9 a week ago, and from 19.3 two weeks ago and 21.8 l three weeks ago.

This compares with 21.09 cases statewide, down from 23.0 last week, 25.6 two weeks ago, and 30.03 three weeks ago.

The lowest rate is still in the Finger Lakes at 12.42 per 100,000, down slightly from 12.09 last week, 12.65 two weeks ago, and 12.92 three weeks ago, while the highest is still on Long Island at 25.07, which is a large jump up from last week at 16.75, but still down from 31.82 two weeks ago and 34.66 per 100,000 three weeks ago.


Moderna sues

Also this week, on Aug. 26, Moderna sued Pfizer and BioNTech for patent infringement based on the messenger RNA technology that both of their vaccines use. Complaints were filed in both the United States, where Pfizer is based, and in Germany, where BioNTech is based.

Moderna is not trying to have the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the first approved for COVID-19, removed from the market nor is it seeking damages for sales before March 8, 2022 nor for financial gains for vaccines being used in developing countries.

Rather, Moderna is claiming to have invested heavily in creating the mRNA technology, a platform it says it is using in four medical areas – infectious diseases, immuno-oncology or cancer, rare diseases, and autoimmune disease.

“We are filing these lawsuits to protect the innovative mRNA technology platform that we pioneered, invested billions of dollars in creating, and patented during the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Moderna Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Bancel in a release from the company, citing patented work from 2015 and 2016.

“Outside of AMC 92 countries,” said Moderna Chief Legal Officer Shannon Thyme Klinger in the release, referring to the 92 low- and middle-income countries where Advanced Market Commitment was promised, “where vaccine supply is no longer a barrier to access, Moderna expects Pfizer and BioNTech to compensate Moderna for Comirnaty’s ongoing use of Moderna’s patented technologies. Our mission to create a new generation of transformative medicines for patients by delivering on the promise of mRNA science cannot be achieved without a patent system that rewards and protects innovation.”

In response, BioNTech issued a statement saying, “BioNTech’s work is original, and we will vigorously defend against all allegations of patent infringement … It is an unfortunate but rather regular occurrence that other companies make allegations that a successful product potentially infringes their intellectual property rights, even more so here after witnessing the historic accomplishments of a vaccine like Comirnaty.”


College loans

Also this week, President Joe Biden extended until Dec. 31 the pandemic pause on college loan payments that started in March 2020 while also announcing in an Aug. 24 tweet, “In keeping with my campaign promise, my Administration is announcing a plan to give working and middle class families breathing room as they prepare to resume federal student loan payments in January 2023.”

Students who went to college on Pell grants — which make up 60 percent of borrowers, most of whom come from families with incomes under $30,000 — are to have $20,000 of their college debt forgiven while all others are to have $10,000 forgiven.

The program applies only to individuals earning less than $125,000 annually or who live in households earning under $250,000 annually.

“If you have undergraduate loans, you can cap repayment at 5% of your monthly income,” the Biden tweet said.


CDC: 80% of kids have had COVID-19

New data from the CDC indicates that many more children — close to 80 percent — have had COVID-19 than previously thought. The survey covered children from six months to 17 years old. Reinfections were not included.

Blood drawn from children at commercial laboratories for conditions unrelated to COVID-19 — for example, testing for cholesterol or for lead — showed that, among the 26,725 blood samples taken in May and June, almost 80 percent had an antibody produced by the body only in response to infection, not in response to a vaccine.

If this percentage were applied nationwide, the CDC calculates, at least 57 million children were infected with the coronavirus by the end of June, which was four times the cumulative total of cases reported then.

Since levels of these antibodies are usually undetectable after a year, the number of infected youth is probably higher.

The levels vary from state to state. For New York State, the CDC reports that, from May 2 to June 25, 83.6 percent of youth up to age 17 had antibodies. For neighboring Vermont, the rate was 51.8 percent.

“Traditional methods of disease surveillance do not capture all COVID-19 cases because some are asymptomatic, not diagnosed, or not reported,” explained an April 2022 report posted by the CDC.

“These findings illustrate a high infection rate for the Omicron variant, especially among children,” the report concluded, stressing that having the antibody “should not be interpreted as protection from future infection.”

“Vaccination remains the safest strategy for preventing complications from SARS-CoV-2 infection, including hospitalization among children and adults,” the report said. “COVID-19 vaccination following infection provides additional protection against severe disease and hospitalization. Staying up to date with vaccination is recommended for all eligible persons, including those with previous SARS-CoV-2 infection.”


“Vital” farms

A report released this week by the state’s comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, showed that, while the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown led to job losses across almost all industries in New York, the agricultural sector was among the most resilient.

Agriculture lost only 1 percent of jobs in 2020 compared to a statewide annual employment loss of 8.7 percent. Both employment and wages in the farming sector grew in 2021 to reach new highs.

“In addition to the growth in employment and wages in the sector, local farms contributed to the food security in their communities during the COVID pandemic as disrupted supply chains left shelves empty in many places,” said DiNapoli in a statement, releasing the report. “Agriculture, particularly the family farm, is vital to New York’s health and economy.”

Milk is the state’s largest agricultural commodity, ranking fifth nationally in sales. New York is also among the top producers of other products, including maple syrup, wine, and grapes.

Roughly 9 percent of the state’s agricultural receipts come from crops grown for animal feed.

There are over 33,000 farms in New York with nearly 23 percent of the total land area in agricultural use, according to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

In 2021, agriculture in New York produced roughly $3.3 billion in gross domestic product and paid close to $1 billion in wages as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The comptroller’s report notes that much of the income earned on farms recirculates back into the farmer’s community. In addition to local taxes and the wages paid for farm workers, this includes supporting local businesses and services, making farming an engine of their local economies.


Labor study will look at COVID’s impact on women

On Friday, Aug. 26, Governor Kathy Hochul, during an event at the University at Albany, announced that the state’s labor department will examine the impact of COVID-19 on women in the workforce and explore equitable solutions.

She made the announcement on Women’s Equality Day, which recognizes the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote.

“It was a big deal because women had been denied this right to participate in democracy since the beginning, the founding of our nation up until then,” said Hochul.

About the labor department report, she said, “And boy, this pandemic was cruel for women.”

Hochul went on, “We’re going to peel back every dynamic, and let’s look at not just in the workplace, but what happened to women when the decisions were made to have all the kids go home and learn remotely? Wow. Wow, what a mistake that was ….

“I want to get to the bottom of this. I want to hold hearings. I want to get testimony. I want to hear from women who’ve been affected. I want to hear from their employers. I want to hear from everybody on how we make sure we lift women up and never ever again go back to this dark place where women in this state and this nation bore the brunt of a global pandemic.”

The state’s labor commissioner, Roberta Reardon, who will oversee the study, said, “When women are not part of our workforce, we are literally leaving money on the table. It damages our economy and it bruises our culture.”

Reardon also described her own experience of metaphorically opening a door and not seeing another woman and then either walking away from a great opportunity or feeling “like I had to armor up to be able to go into that room or I was not seen.”

She concluded, “That should never happen again … it’s just not right.”

Reardon said that taking “a closer look to see what the real story is” will lead to implementing “real solutions right now.”

Starletta Smith, who directs the YWCA of the Greater Capital Region, spoke with passion about the hardship women endured during the pandemic when many had to choose between being employed and caring for their children; they had to decide whether to pay the rent or put food on the table.

Smith oversees a program that cares for homeless women and their children and said that needed mental-health services were shut down and domestic violence increased.

Smith, who had been executive director for just three months when the pandemic hit, said, “Everyone was looking to me for answers, consistency, and comfort … I was not going to let these women down or myself.”

She concluded with a challenge for New York State: “Join us on our mission to break these cycles of oppression on women because we understand the system that divides, impoverishes, and destroys us cannot stand if we do.”


Child-care aid

On Tuesday, Hochul, with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in New York City, launched a statewide multi-media campaign to help ensure eligible families get child-care assistance.

Eligibility was expanded this month to include families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which is up from 200 percent, extending eligibility to an estimated 394,000 young children throughout New York.

As of September, a family of four earning up to $83,250 is now eligible for child-care assistance; previously, the threshold had been $55,500 or less.

“The shortage of affordable child care in our state is nothing short of a crisis,” said Gillibrand in a release from the governor’s office, announcing the program. “We have to do more to support our families and our child care workers. That’s why I’m proud to have fought to pass the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act, legislation that is now delivering millions in federal funding to New York’s child care providers and making care more accessible and affordable for those who need it.”

Hochul also announced expanded eligibility for a second round of federally funded Child Care Provider Stabilization grants. As of Tuesday, all school-age child-care programs and more than 900 providers that were licensed by Jan. 1, 2022 can apply for these grants.

As part of the state budget, $343 million was allocated for the stabilization grants, with 75 percent of the funding dedicated to workforce support. These grants can be used to provide wage increases, bonuses, tuition reimbursement and contributions to staff retirement plans and health insurance costs.

To date, more than $152 million in stabilization grants has been approved for 7,788 providers across the state in the second round of funding, the release said. This includes $108 million in bonuses or increases in wages; $8 million in contributions to staff retirement plans supplementing any employer contribution; $6.4 million in contributions towards staff health insurance costs; $4.2 million in mental health supports and services for staff; $9.7 million in supplemental educational advancement or tuition reimbursement; and $15.7 million for other eligible expenses.

Last year, more than $900 million were distributed to child-care providers, “representing a historic investment in early childhood care and education,” the governor’s office said.

Eligible parents and providers may access more information here.

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