Week LXXXII: Hochul expands vaccine mandate, federal support provided for elderly and poor

— Photo from the New York State Governor’s Office

Governor Kathy Hochul on Tuesday announced that the state’s vaccine mandate is being expanded to include staff at the state’s Office of Mental Health and Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.

ALBANY COUNTY — On Friday, Oct. 1, the nation reached a sad milestone of 700,000 officially counted deaths from COVID-19. An estimated 200,000 could have been prevented by vaccination.

Albany County, in its 82nd week of coping with the coronavirus, suffered four deaths from the virus: a person who was at least 100, two people in their seventies, and someone in their fifties.

This brings the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 407.

“Of the 35 Albany County residents who are hospitalized with COVID, 74 percent are not vaccinated, while 26 percent are fully vaccinated,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy on Tuesday, in his daily release of COVID-19 data. “This is the highest percentage of unvaccinated individuals in the hospital we’ve seen yet in our weekly reports.

“Between these numbers and the loss of another county resident to the virus overnight,” he went on,  “we’re reminded how important it is to get the shot to protect ourselves and loved ones from serious illness.”

Between Sept. 26 and Oct. 2,  Albany County identified 622 new COVID infections; among those cases, 294 were vaccinated, 284 were not and for 44 of them, the vaccination status was not provided.

This Tuesday, Oct. 5, Governor Kathy Hochul expanded the vaccine mandate to include staff at the state’s Office of Mental Health and Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.

“We’re seeing a continuation of the Delta variant not abating, and we’re going to stay ahead of this,” Hochul said at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

Displaying a graph that paralleled the surge of last year, she said, “That is what keeps me up at night, seeing that trend, and how we thought we were out of the woods, we were ready to declare victory and all of a sudden it changed. And I’d like to think that that will not happen, but we’re heading into the time of year where people are going indoors, and lots of fun festivals and gatherings and holidays that are important to us.”

She also noted, “Breakthrough infections are trending upward. We’ve seen more cases: 0.8 percent of all cases are breakthrough,” Hochul said of vaccinated people getting infected with COVID-19.

However, unvaccinated people still have 10 times more risk of developing COVID-19 than unvaccinated people.

At midnight on Monday, Sept. 27, a state mandate went into effect, requiring health-care workers in hospitals and nursing homes across New York to be vaccinated. They are not allowed to test out unless they have a medical or religious exemption.

The order that currently sustains religious exemptions will be heard in federal court on Oct. 12. “I’m confident we’re going to win,” said Hochul at a news conference last Thursday.

Hospital and nursing-home workers are being furloughed and let go if they are not vaccinated.

“It was the right thing to do. I will stand by that,” said Hochul.

She conceded, though, “It’s hard to force people to do something that you truly wish they would do voluntarily.”

Hochul explained that, while the state’s Department of Health was able to mandate vaccines for hospitals and nursing-home workers, health-care workers in other settings like prisons or facilities run by the state’s Office of Mental Health are not governed by the state’s health department.

“That being said, we have been working and continue to be working on regulations that would cover all those services being promulgated from the Office of Mental Health and other facilities,” said Hochul. “That is going to happen.”

There is no reason to have an exception, Hochul said. “We will have the legal authority to announce that very shortly …. Testing will not be an option.”

She went on, “I just have to get the regulations to make sure that, when we get the inevitable lawsuit, that we have all the protections and the defenses to make sure we can establish that we did this properly with the right authority. I did not have the right authority under what we did with the hospitals and nursing homes. Otherwise, I assure you I would have.”

On Tuesday, Hochul announced the new directive, requiring staff at the offices of Mental Health and People with Developmental Disabilities to show proof of at least the first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine series by Nov. 1. There is no test-out option.

Ahead of that requirement, staff must submit to weekly testing, if unvaccinated, beginning Oct. 12. 

On Thursday, Oct. 7, another vaccine requirement will take effect — for workers at facilities regulated by the state’s health department, including adult-care facilities, home health agencies, long-term home health-care programs, AIDS home-care programs, hospice care, and diagnostic and treatment centers.

“We are preparing to amass an army of people if necessary,” Hochul said last Thursday, of filling jobs vacated by unvaccinated health-care workers.

While the National Guard has not been deployed, she said that “thousands of student nurses” are available as are “people whose licenses had lapsed because they had retired.”

“So one more step we took this past week was an executive order that suspended for 30 days, the requirement that there be pre-authorization of the medical care for insurance purposes,” Hochul said.

Many licensed health-care professionals, including doctors and nurses, have to spend their time on paperwork, she said. The executive order frees them, if there is a crisis, to “be deployed by their hospital to actually be on the floor and help people.”

Hochul also said that, since she took office on Aug. 24, vaccination rates at hospitals and nursing homes have increased: 77 percent of hospital workers were vaccinated on Aug. 24 and now 92 percent are; 72 percent of nursing-home workers were and now 92 percent are.

On Tuesday, she said, “So we’re seeing that those deadlines have a way of focusing the mind on doing the right thing. We appreciate everyone who’s doing that. We want to talk about our OMH, Office of Mental Health, and OPWDD, the people at disability facilities. We want to make sure that we have safety in those as well.”


Vaccinating youth

Hochul said that vaccination for New Yorkers 18 and older is heading in the right direction, at nearly 85 percent.

“But we were always told last year, when we hit 70 percent, we’re going to be in great shape. And now they keep moving the goal line,” Hocul said on Tuesday. “And now we’re being told about 90 percent is what we have to achieve. So we’re within striking distance, but we have to keep pushing.”

Last Thursday, Hochul had said she was “still not happy with our young people.”

Hochul went on, “I’m not sure what other argument I can make to the parents of these 12- to 17-year-olds, other than: What are you waiting for? Your kids need this.”

She noted that children need other vaccinations in order to enter kindergarten and said she is “just beseeching parents to do what’s right for their kids and not let them be one of those children who end up in a serious condition in a hospital or even worse yet.”

Hochul announced 20 more pop-up vaccination sites, bringing the state’s total to over 120, to reach youth at schools and community centers.

On Tuesday, she said she would be talking to the White House in the afternoon and would ask “when we’re going to be able to get younger children involved.” Currently, Pfizer-BioNTech alone has authorization for vaccinating 12- to 17-year-olds. Pfizer is seeking authorization of its vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.

“Pediatricians, get ready. We want you to start signing up to make sure you have full access to the vaccine,” said Hochul on Tuesday. “So we don't waste a single moment.”

She said that parents would feel more secure having their children vaccinated in a doctor’s office.

Since Hochul took office, she has said keeping young people in school is one of her priorities and that getting people vaccinated is essential.

 Locally, the numbers of COVID-19 cases logged on the State’s COVID-19 Report Card, show more cases now than at the same time during the last school year. As of Oct. 5, Guilderland schools had a total of 32 cases, 29 students, two staffers and one teache ; Vorheesville had 12 cases, 10 students, one teacher, and one staff member; and Berne-Knox-Westerlo had 10, eight students, one teacher, and one staffer.

The latest survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, published on Thursday, Sept. 20, found almost one in four parents of a child attending in-person school (23 percent) say their child has been required to quarantine at home due to a possible COVID-19 exposure since the school year began.

Five months after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine’s use in children ages 12 and over, nearly half (48 percent) of parents of children ages 12 to 17 say their child has received at least one dose of a vaccine, the survey found.

The share of parents who say they want to “wait and see” before getting their 12- to 17-year-old vaccinated has decreased to 15 percent, down from 23 percent in July. Just 4 percent of parents say they will only get their teenager vaccinated “if their school requires it,” and one in five (21 percent) say they will “definitely not” vaccinate their child, similar to the share measured in previous months, Kaiser found.

On Sept. 20, Pfizer announced that clinical trials showed their COVID-19 vaccine was safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11. Kaiser, conducting interviews between Sept. 13 and 22, with the bulk of them before Pfizer’s announcement, found that about a third of parents (34 percent) say they will vaccinate their 5- to 11-year-old child “right away” once a vaccine is authorized for their age group.

About a third of parents (32 percent) say they will “wait and see” how the vaccine is working before having their 5-to 11-year-old vaccinated. Notably, the share who say they definitely won’t get their 5-to 11-year-old vaccinated remains steady at one in four (24 percent).

Parents continue to be more cautious about getting their younger children vaccinated with about one in four (23 percent) saying they will get their child under the age of 5 vaccinated right away once a vaccine is available for that age group and about a third (35 percent) saying they will definitely not get their child under 5 vaccinated for COVID-19.

Many schools are requiring students and staff to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status — in New York State, masks are mandated in schools. A local lawsuit is challenging that requirement.

Overall, Kaiser found, a majority of parents (58 percent) say K-12 schools should require all students and staff to wear masks while at school, 4 percent say they should only require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks, and about a third (35 percent) say schools should have no mask requirements at all.

Seven in 10 parents (73 percent) who are vaccinated for COVID-19 themselves say schools should require all students to wear masks, while about six in 10 unvaccinated parents (63 parents) say there should be no masking requirements at all.

Notably, Kaiser says, mothers are more likely than fathers to say schools should require all students and staff to wear masks (70 percent of mothers as opposed to 42 percent of fathers).


Booster shots

People meeting certain criteria who completed a Pfizer vaccine series at least six months ago are eligible for a third shot. Hochul reported a booster-shot tally on Tuesday: “We’re at about 303,000 and that’s just up from about a week ago, we had a 147,000,” she said. “So, there is interest in these booster shots, which is great.”

Hochul went on to list the categories of people eligible for booster shots, saying, “It’s 65 and older, underlying health conditions, work and live in high-risk settings. That means right now we have about 3 million New Yorkers eligible.”

McCoy reported on Tuesday that Albany County has already overseen 85 booster shots and will be holding more clinics. State sites, like the one at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, also provide free booster shots.

On Friday, Oct. 1, the CDC posted a study showing that side effects from the third Pfizer shot are similar to those after the second shot — this includes mild to moderate arm pain, fatigue, and headaches, all of which typically occur the day after the third shot.

The study reported that 79.4 percent reported local reactions after the booster shot while and 74.1 percent reported systemic reactions.

Also this week, Johnson & Johnson said it would seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration for a second dose for what had been its one-shot vaccination. Moderna is expecting approval this month from the FDA for its booster shot.

On Sept. 24, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had posted a report showing that, among adults in the United States without immunocompromising conditions, vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 hospitalization from March 11 to Aug. 15, 2021, was higher for the Moderna vaccine (93 percent) than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (88 percent) and the J&J vaccine (71 percent).

Antigen tests

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the ACON Laboratories Flowflex COVID-19 Home Test, an over-the-counter COVID-19 antigen test, which can be used at home without a prescription.

“Today’s authorization for the ACON Laboratories Flowflex COVID-19 Home Test should significantly increase the availability of rapid, at-home tests and is expected to double rapid at-home testing capacity in the U.S. over the next several weeks,” the FDA said in a release. “By year’s end, the manufacturer plans to produce more than 100 million tests per month, and this number will rise to 200 million per month by February 2022.”

The FDA stressed that all tests can experience false negative and false positive results and recommended, “Individuals with positive results should self-isolate and seek additional care from their health care provider. Individuals who test negative and experience COVID-like symptoms should follow up with their health care provider as negative results do not rule out a COVID-19 infection.”

The FDA concluded, “We believe at-home diagnostic tests play a critical role in the fight against COVID-19.”


Support for elderly

On Tuesday, Hochul announced about $149 million in federal aid has been distributed to counties statewide to help older New Yorkers meet basic needs, remain in their homes and communities, slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and get vaccinated.

The Capital District, which includes Albany County, received $7.1 million.

New York is pushing to change the Older Americans Act, under which the state and its counties pay about 85 percent of the cost of programs for the elderly with the federal government contributing about 15 percent.

“While this federal share has increased significantly under the American Rescue Plan, Governor Hochul is calling for sustained funding to meet the network’s growing responsibilities as the population of older adults increases,” says a release from Hochul’s office, announcing the federal aid. “The governor’s plan would bring an additional $175 million to New York.”


Meals program

On Monday, Hochul signed a law establishing a statewide Restaurant Meals Program as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, once known as food stamps.

The legislation mandates the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance to apply to the United States Department of Agriculture for approval to authorize the program, which would allow homeless, elderly, and disabled SNAP recipients to use their benefits for prepared or hot food from participating restaurants.

Hochul also announced the launch of a $25 million Restaurant Resiliency Program to provide relief to the restaurant industry, which continues to face severe challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program, proposed by the legislature, will build on the Nourish New York initiative, providing funding to New York’s network of food banks and emergency food providers to purchase prepared meals from New York restaurants and deliver them to families in need. 

Hochul signed the meals-program law at an event at the Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn.

“Today is about feeding people,” said Hochul at the Monday event. “It’s a very simple, basic human need to be fed. And that whole premise of what is a simple proposition that people deserve to have food on their table and little children go to bed, not with their tummies growling, but with a full sense that they have been nourished and they have the ability to continue and do well in school.”

Hochul also announced an increase in SNAP benefits. “So a family of four will see their allotment go from $680 to $835 onto the new plan, which still does not sound like a lot, my friends, but it is something,” she said.

“That’ll bring an additional $1.4 billion from federal funding to New Yorkers,” she went on. “So we are going to allow our homeless, elderly, and disabled SNAP recipients to use their benefits, to purchase prepared and hot food for participating restaurants.”

On Sunday, Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber, in his daily COVID email to town residents, had written, “The nearly 20-month long pandemic has caused a devastating economic impact and heightened food insecurity in our community.

“For more than 40 years, the Guilderland Food Pantry has met this compelling need by providing food and household goods to hundreds of residents and families. I thank you for your generous responses to prior emails which have helped the Pantry in its vital mission. Please consider making a financial donation or donating needed items listed on the Pantry’s website.”


Excelsior Pass Scanner app

On Tuesday, Hochul announced an Excelsior Pass Scanner app — a free companion app for businesses — has been updated to enable the validation of SMART Health Cards from “trusted issuers” outside of New York State based on federal and state COVID-19 guidance.

The app can be downloaded for free by any business or venue in the United States. Other states so far include California, Louisiana, Hawaii, and Virginia.

“We want to support people from other states …,” said Hocuhl at her Tuesday press conference, “to say that, when you come to New York, if you’ve been vaccinated and you have an app on your phone, that we’re going to be the first in the nation that has an app created to validate passes from other states.

“That’s a good news story. The bad news is I think there’s only five other states that have this. So it’s a limited use, but I’m going to be working with our neighbors, especially in the metropolitan area, you know, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey in particular, and making sure that we can have, you know, individuals from their states come into our facilities, come into our theaters, go into our restaurants and be able to have the businesses be able to download this app and be able to check the validation of a vaccine from another state.”

So far, more than 5.6 million Excelsior Passes have been issued, according to the governor’s office; New York residents who were vaccinated in New Jersey or Vermont can now retrieve their proof of vaccination through Excelsior Pass.


Newest numbers

On Wednesday morning, McCoy announced 104 new cases of COVID-19. The county’s five-day average of new daily positive cases is now at 81.8.

According to the CDC, Albany County, like New York State and most of the United States, continues to have a high rate of community transmission. California and Connecticut alone have substantial rates. In both cases, masks are to be worn indoors in public regardless of vaccination status.

Over the last seven days, New York State has had 168 cases per 100,000 population while Albany County has had 196 and the United States has had 206 per 100,000.

According to the state’s dashboard, as of Oct. 4, as a seven-day average, Albany County’s infection rate is 3.5 percent; statewide, the rate is 2.3 percent.

New York City has the lowest rate at 1.3 percent while the North Country has the highest rate at 5.3 percent.

There are now 520 active cases in Albany County, McCoy reported on Wednesday morning, up from 515 on Tuesday. The number of Albany County residents under mandatory quarantine dropped to 770 from 836.

There were two new hospitalizations since Tuesday, and there are still 35 county residents hospitalized with the coronavirus. Eleven of those patients remain in intensive-care units. 

According to the state’s vaccine tracker on Wednesday morning, 71.7 percent of Albany County’s 307,117 residents had received at least one dose of vaccine as had 82.8 percent of residents 18 and older.

Statewide, 71.9 percent of New Yorkers have received one dose while 84.8 percent of New Yorkers 18 and older have. At the same time, 64.2 percent of New Yorkers have completed a vaccine series while 76.0 percent of New Yorkers 18 and older have.

Albany County continues to deliver vaccines to homebound residents, which includes seniors, people with disabilities, those lacking childcare and those with other accessibility issues. Anyone who would like to schedule a time for a vaccine appointment should call 518-447-7198.

Residents may also receive free Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., each week at the Albany County Department of Health at 175 Green Street. Anyone 12 and older is eligible and walk-ins are welcome.

Anyone eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot who would like to receive one from the Albany County Department of Health will be required to provide their vaccination card or the Excelsior Pass Plus in order to view the formula type, lot number, and date of the inoculation. 

The county has scheduled two local clinics to administer booster shots:

— Saturday, Oct. 16, from 10 a.m. to noon at Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School at 1738 Helderberg Trail in Berne; and

— Saturday, Oct. 23, from noon to 3 p.m. at the Albany County Fall Fest at Lawson Lake County Park at 293 Lawson Lake Road in Feura Bush.

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