Whalen: ‘The Delta variant has been an unfortunate game-changer’

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen spoke at a press conference Friday.

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said COVID-19 cases in New York State have increased 10-fold since July and now 95 percent of the virus that is sequenced across the state is the Delta variant.

ALBANY COUNTY — The highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 combined with lack of vaccination and waning vaccine effectiveness have produced a fatal surge in Albany County.

That was the message from the county’s executive and health commissioner as they held their first press conference since June 16 on Friday morning.

As the virus subsided, they had ended their once-daily conferences, which started in March 2020 with the county’s first cases of COVID-19.

“The state celebrated with fireworks and people let their guard down,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy of the celebration when then-Governor Andrew Cuomo lifted restrictions in mid-June.

“I never gave up my emergency powers because we were still in a health crisis ….,” said McCoy. “It wasn’t over with and mindset is half the battle.”

McCoy noted levels of transmission now that the county hasn’t seen since February and hospitalizations as high as in March and April.

When McCoy ended his press conferences in mid-June, he was reporting about two new cases of COVID-19 a day. On Friday, he reported 97 new cases. In mid-June, 35 county residents were under quarantine; on Friday, 824 residents were under quarantine.

McCoy also reported the eighth death since Aug. 27: a person in his forties, bringing the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 397.

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said cases in New York State have increased 10-fold since July and now 95 percent of the virus that is sequenced across the state is the Delta variant.

“We believe this is directly responsible for the spread we are seeing,” Whalen said.

The Delta variant was first identified in India in October.

On the national level, Whalen said, “We are facing a pandemic of misinformation and this misinformation causes confusion, causes anxiety, causes stress for all of us and it unfortunately fuels a lot of conspiracy theories and concerns so people feel like they don’t know which way to turn.”

She made a personal promise to share evidenced-based information as the science evolves.

The rapidly changing situation, Whalen said, is unprecedented in public health.

The advice that was given in April, allowing vaccinated people to go without masks, “no longer pertains,” said Whalen, explaining that former advice worked for the Alpha variant.

“The Delta variant has been an unfortunate game-changer,” she said, adding that the virus could mutate further. Wearing masks could prevent that from occurring, said Whalen.

The World Health Organization, she noted, is looking at the latest variant, in South America, which may evade protection from the vaccine.

The variant, known as Mu, was first identified in Colombia in January. Mu is the fifth variant of interest to be monitored by the WHO since March, according to a United Nations report; it has a number of mutations that suggest it could be more resistant to vaccines, the health agency warned, but stressed that further research would be needed to confirm this.

The precipitous rise in COVID-19 cases, Whalen said, includes a rise in “breakthrough infections” — that is, vaccinated people getting sick with the virus. In April, breakthrough cases were very low, she said.

Whalen cited rough data, which shows, of the 1,870 COVID-19 cases in Albany County between Aug. 1 and 31, eight-hundred-and-twenty-six of them were of vaccinated people.

“That is a very high rate of breakthrough ...,” said Whalen. “This is a concern.”


Eight deaths

Whalen went over in detail data from the eight COVID-19 deaths in Albany County since Aug. 27. (Because of privacy and ethical concerns, she gave the data in aggregate form.)

The age range was lower than in the spring surge, with a mean age of 53. The deaths, labeled by decade, showed one in their thirties; two each in their forties, fifties, and sixties; and one in their seventies.

Four were men and four were women. Four were Black, one was Asian, two were white non-hispanics, and one was white with unknown hispanic status.

All but one had medical conditions.

The one who died with no past medical history was unvaccinated — “a person that was young and healthy,” said Whalen.

Four of the eight who died were fully vaccinated with an additional death of a person reported to be vaccinated but the health department couldn’t confirm the vaccination..

Of those four, Whalen said, all were affiliated with congregant settings and one had a prolonged hospitalization for an unrelated health condition.

“The unvaccinated deaths were younger and healthier,” Whalen said.

She noted this was a small set of data — too small to draw conclusions from — but went on, “That data is substantiated nationally in reports we have been issued this month from the MMWR,” a reference to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The data shows the vaccine is still effective against hospitalization and death but we are seeing waning effectiveness of the vaccine over time.”

She stressed of vaccination, “This is the best protection we have …. If you do not get vaccinated, you run a much greater risk of hospitalization and death.”

Whalen also stressed, “Vaccine by itself is not enough.”

In an area like Albany County, she said, where prevalence is high — the county’s infection rate is currently at 5.1 percent — additional strategies are needed: masking and social distancing.



Because of the waning effect of vaccinations, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, following the lead of the Biden administration, has called for booster shots to be administered.

The Biden administration has advocated for people who received messenger RNA vaccines — Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna — to get a third shot eight months after their second shot. Hochul said $65 million will be made available to set up the clinics for administering booster shots.

Currently, the CDC has advised third shots for people who are immunocompromised, such as transplant patients or those actively undergoing cancer treatment; they are to receive a third dose 28 days after their second dose of vaccine.

The timing on booster shots for the general public has not yet been set, Whalen said. Her department is preparing to roll out booster shots by Sept. 20.

Initial vaccination efforts in New York State were handled by the state and later the federal government with mass clinics. Hochul has indicated that booster shots will be handled by local health departments.

Whalen said her hope is to get pediatricians and primary-care physicians to administer the booster shots so people can be vaccinated in places where they normally get health care.

There is still no authorized vaccine for children under 12. Whalen said authorization is likely to come in late fall. “We are preparing for it,” she said.

“I believe a lot of what we are dealing with could have been prevented if we had better uptick of vaccination when vaccination first became available and if people had adhered to the strategies around masking and community mitigation,”said Whalen.

Currently, according to the state’s vaccine tracker, 69.8 percent of Albany County’s 307,117 residents have received at least one dose as have 80.7 percent of residents 18 and older.

Whalen urged unvaccinated residents to get vaccinated. Before the Delta variant, she said, young people were less likely to get sick. “That comfort level is not there anymore,” said Whalen.

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