Week XXVI: Infection rates remains low but worries arise about ‘after-effects of COVID’

Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, a longtime education advocate — shown here having a map signed for visiting local libraries — was among those Wednesday standing in front of the State Education Building in Albany, calling for higher taxes on the wealthy to be directed toward high-need school districts. 

ALBANY COUNTY — There was good news and bad news during Albany County’s 26th week of battling the coronavirus. The good news is that the infection rate at both the county and state levels remains low. This has led to more venues being allowed to open and to some restrictions being lessened.

On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the 33rd straight day with a COVID-19 infection rate statewide below 1 percent. Also on Wednesday, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy announced eight new confirmed cases — the daily count did not top 13 all week long and there were no new coronavirus deaths this week in Albany County.

“The bad news is we have after-effects of COVID, social after-effects,” said Cuomo, speaking to the press on Tuesday. “We have economic issues. We have quality-of-life issues. We have increasing crime issues. We have habitability issues.”

Friday, on the eve of Labor Day weekend, the state’s comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, announced there is “a daunting path ahead for the state to climb back to pre-recession employment levels.”

Statewide, DiNapoli said, 28 percent of jobs lost through the pandemic in March and April have been regained through July. “For New York City, the picture is even more troubling,” said DiNapoli; the city has regained 17 percent of its lost jobs.

DiNapoli also announced that the New York State and Local Retirement System employer contribution rates for the State Fiscal Year 2021-22 will increase from 14.6 percent to 16.2 percent of payroll for the Employees’ Retirement System and from 24.4 percent to 28.3 percent of payroll for the Police and Fire Retirement System.

For several years, employer-contribution rates had remained flat or decreased.

Cuomo for months has been saying that New York State needs $30 billion over two years in federal funds to recover from being so hard hit by the pandemic. Without the federal funds, Cuomo has repeatedly said, the state will need to make 20-percent cuts in its aid to local governments and schools.

Congress took its summer break without passing a fifth coronavirus stimulus package and, although legislative sessions have started again, there has been no agreement on funds. The HEROES Act, passed by the Democratic House in May continues to languish.

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act would deliver about $1.3 billion in local government funding to Capital Region communities as well as $58 billion for America’s public schools.

“The Republican Senate doesn’t want to fund state and local governments and that’s the sticking point,” Cuomo said on Tuesday.

The 20-percent cut hit home as state funding for schools was withheld just as schools across New York were reopening. The poorest school districts have been the hardest hit, causing plans for in-person learning to be upended as staff is cut.

On Wednesday, Assembly members Patricia Fahy and John McDonald held a press conference in front of the State Education Building in Albany, calling for higher taxes on the wealthy to be directed toward high-need school districts. 

The New York State United Teachers on Wednesday called on the governor and legislature to stop the reductions in state aid.

“In the absence of the federal government finally doing what’s right, the state needs to step in and prevent the decimation of our public education system at a time when needs are higher than ever before ...,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta in a statement. “Simply put, New York needs a bigger pie, which state leaders can create by asking the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share toward public services like education.”

The poorest 10 percent of school districts receive some 80 percent of their funding from the state, while the richest 10 percent of districts receive only 10 percent of their funding from the state, according to NYSUT, which calculates that, over the course of the school year, the poorest 10 percent of districts would be in line to lose $847 million in state aid ($3,779 per pupil) with 20-percent cuts made across the board, while the richest 10 percent would lose $42 million ($458 per pupil).

“Families across our Capital Region found out this week that their kids won’t be learning in person this year, not because we can’t figure out how to teach them safely, but because our local budgets have been depleted by this ongoing global pandemic and they don’t have the resources to open their doors,” said Congressman Paul Tonko in a statement, calling upon the Senate “to act immediately to advance this rescue plan to protect our children and their future.”

McCoy said on Friday that an initiative is underway in Albany for volunteers to help the schools. 

“They got cut … real bad,” he said of schools. “They are scrambling to reimagine.”

McCoy had had Kaweeda Adams, superintendent of Albany City Schools, speak in July about her plans for reopening, which have now been drastically cut as scores of workers are being laid off.

“We need volunteer organizations now more than ever,” said McCoy on Friday. “We need parents to help out, teach.”

McCoy also said, “We need to address … what are we going to do when schools are shut down.” He asked of students, “Are they going to be home learning or out on the streets … continuing this awful violence?”

Albany has had more than 100 shootings this year.

McCoy urged county residents, “especially people out of work” to avail themselves of “a unique opportunity” to help schools. Anyone who is interested, he said, can go online to ServeAlbany.org.

 

Opening up

On the good-news side, more venues were permitted to open this week. Malls in New York City, the last of the state’s 10 regions to reopen, can open at half capacity, Cuomo announced last Thursday. On Wednesday, he said restaurants in New York City will be able to serve patrons indoors, at 25-percent capacity, starting Sept. 30.

Also this week, state guidelines for visitors at adult-care facilities were revised to allow visits after 14 days, rather than the original 28 days, from the last new confirmed COVID-19 case of a staff member or resident.

“The policies announced today by the Department of Health are thoughtful and truly safeguard residents, staff and visitors while allowing in-person resident visitation in adult care facilities. We are hopeful that a similar plan will soon be implemented for skilled nursing facilities,” said Stephen Hanse in a statement on Wednesday. Hanse heads a statewide association representing over 425 long-term care facilities. 

Also this week, Cuomo announced guidelines for casinos and video-lottery-terminal facilities to open on Sept. 9 with a 25-percent occupancy limit. The State Gaming Commission will be deployed to monitor casinos and ensure strict enforcement of the guidelines.

Fahy this week released a letter signed by 16 of her colleagues, calling for movie theaters to open, stating that 42 states have allowed a limited reopening of movie theaters and that locally-owned theaters are a critical part of downtowns and local economies.

The legislators’ letter to the governor answers various concerns that have been raised about theaters reopening. For example, it says an average movie runtime is 96 minutes while restaurateurs plan on allowing between 105 and 120 minutes for diners.

Also, the letter says, unlike restaurant customers, theater-goers will wear masks and will be seated to face in the same direction rather than facing each other. The letter also goes over the air systems typically used in theaters with separate filtration units for each screening room, lobby, and bathroom.

 

Vaccines

Cuomo, in a conference call with the press last Thursday, questioned the efficacy of vaccines being rushed into production to ward off the coronavirus disease 2019.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently issued guidelines to all 50 states on how to ship, mix, store, and administer vaccines labelled only as A and B to health-care workers and other priority groups.

Some health experts have raised concerns about the public using a vaccine before the drug has completed the final, third, phase of clinical trials, which typically involves tens of thousands of participants.

“The president says he’s going to have a vaccine,” said Cuomo last Thursday. “CDC is talking about a vaccine in early November. How convenient. It’s going to be an Election Day miracle drug. Some people are concerned that the vaccine may wind up being hydroxychloroquine,” said Cuomo, alluding to Donald Trump’s false claims that the drug meant to treat malaria, which Trump claimed to be taking himself, could prevent contraction of COVID-19.

The Food and Drug Administration later warned that hydroxychloroquine could cause serious heart problems for COVID-19 patients after which regulations from various states and medical boards restricted its use.

 Cuomo said on Thursday that the state’s health department will be reviewing “all the protocol and research by the FDA and whatever federal authorities say … before we recommend New Yorkers take any vaccine.”

 

Keeping track

Last Thursday, the state’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker, sent a letter to all of New York’s school districts, informing them of new reporting requirements and of the state’s new dashboard.

Daily, New York’s more than 700 districts will have to supply data on the number of staff and students who have tested positive for COVID-19. The districts must also provide a link to the daily dashboard on their websites with information updated daily. 

“On schools reopening, many of the school districts have testing protocols that will be in place as part of their plans,” Cuomo said in his conference call with the press on Thursday. “Those plans I said from the beginning are only as good as their implementation. Parents and teachers are obviously concerned about schools reopening. They should be.

“As I said, we’ve seen a lot of problem situations with colleges. Colleges have complicating factors with the socialization but the congregation will be a constant … As soon as the school district gets their testing report on a daily basis, they must send the state that information as well as whoever they send it to, the county, the local board of education, and that information will be posted online as soon as we get it so parents, teachers will know how many tests were conducted and what the results of those tests are.”

Cuomo concluded, “I hope this will give teachers and parents some confidence that the plans are being implemented and, if the plans aren’t being implemented, we want to know that also, right? Because if there’s a problem, the sooner you find out about the problem, the better.”

On Tuesday, Cuomo announced the launch of The COVID-19 Report Card to track testing and infections, in real time, for every school.

Similarly, on Sunday, Cuomo and Jim Malatras, the new chancellor of the state university system, announced the launch of a COVID-19 case tracker dashboard for SUNY’s 64 colleges and universities.

The centralized dashboard is to provide real time, up-to-date information on COVID-19 cases, testing, and quarantine and isolation space availability across the system to more efficiently monitor, respond to, and contain the virus.

“Nationwide, 108 colleges have already reported more than 100 cases,” Cuomo told the press on Tuesday. “In New York, we have a problem, SUNY Oneonta, Cornell, Buffalo, Hofstra, Oswego, Colgate, Fredonia. That's all across the state ... it goes from Long Island all through upstate. So this is going to be a problem. I am telling you that. One of the lessons we learned is just anticipate what’s happening and be ready for it.”

Colleges and universities, trying to  stay afloat financially, have been criticized by some health-care experts for having students back on campus and then sending them home when they become ill with COVID-19.

“It’s the worst thing you could do,” said Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s leading infectious-disease expert, on NBC. “When you send them home, particularly when you’re dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection.”

After more than 500 SUNY Oneonta students tested positive for COVID-19, the campus stopped in-person teaching and sent the students home.

 

Voting

On Tuesday, Cuomo announced a public awareness campaign to inform New Yorkers of their options for voting in November’s election: voting early; voting absentee; or voting in person on Election Day, Nov. 3.

Cuomo issued an executive order requiring boards of elections develop a plan to allow a registered voter to drop off a completed absentee ballot at a board of elections, early voting location, or Election Day voting location, without requiring they wait in line with in-person voters, to help minimize delays during in-person voting and promote contactless voting.

Plans must be submitted to the State Board of Elections by Sept. 21 and made publicly available in the county board of elections office and on their website when submitted.

Absentee ballots can be dropped to county boards of elections offices as soon as voters receive their ballot; at any early voting location between Oct. 24 and Nov. 1; and at polling locations on Election Day. 

Most New Yorkers can now request an absentee ballot under a new law expanding eligibility to all voters who have concerns regarding COVID-19. More information is available at ny.gov/earlyvote.

 

Protecting progress

“What is our priority going forward? Protect the progress we’ve made,” said Cuomo to the press on Tuesday.

To protect the progress New York has made, travel requirements continue as does enforcement of guidelines, particularly at bars and restaurants. Also, to reduce barriers to COVID-19 testing, emergency regulations for health insurers are being extended.

Last Thursday, Alaska and Montana were added to the list of states and territories where a travel advisory is in effect. On Tuesday, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia were added while Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands were removed. People traveling from listed places have to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in New York State.

“We now have 35 high-risk states in this country, which is incredible,” said Cuomo in making the announcement. “We’re entering a new, different post-Labor Day phase. After Labor Day, people start to get back to work, schools are opening, activity is increasing, colleges are opening, you see traffic starting to increase. So we have to keep that in mind as we move forward and we need to remain vigilant and smart so that we don’t backslide.”

Throughout the week, Cuomo continued to report on the bars and restaurants checked by the State Liquor Authority and State Police Task Force, listing those with violations — all of them downstate. He continued to urge local police to enforce regulations.

Also, Cuomo announced on Wednesday that the state’s Department of Financial Services would extend emergency regulations that require health insurers to waive cost-sharing associated with emergency room visits and with these in-network services: telehealth visits, outpatient provider office visits, urgent-care-center visits, and laboratory tests when the purpose of the visit or test is to diagnose COVID-19.

Cost-sharing is waived for in-network telehealth services for any healthcare service covered under a policy, including mental health and substance use disorder treatment, until Nov. 9.

In March, when the pandemic devastated New York, insurers were directed to waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 testing and telehealth services.

 

Newest numbers

As of Wednesday morning, Albany County has 2,592 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of eight since Tuesday.

Among the new cases, six had close contact with someone infected with the virus, one is a healthcare worker or resident in a congregate setting, and one did not have a clear source of infection detected at this time.

There are 315 county residents under quarantine, down from 353 on Tuesday.

The five-day average for new daily positives has decreased to 5.8 from 6.8. There are now 54 active cases in Albany County.

So far, 10,205 county residents have completed quarantine. Of those who completed quarantine, 2,538 of them had tested positive and recovered.

Fourteen county residents are currently hospitalized due to the virus, with one in an intensive-care unit. The county’s hospitalization rate remains at 0.5 percent.

More Regional News

  • “The focal issue for the legislature is we don’t want to become the dumping ground for New York State or for the Northeast,” says William Reinhardt, who chairs the county legislature’s Conservation, Sustainability and Green Initiatives Committee and who sponsored the Clean air Act.

  • The spike of COVID-19 cases at UAlbany can be traced back to athletes and to off-campus housing in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany, said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy.

  • Speaking to young adults, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said on Tuesday, “You’re spreading it to people that can end up in the hospital or worst-case scenario, end up passing away.”

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