Week LXXXIII: Travel bans to be eased, vax for kids ‘inevitable,’ injunction issued for religious exemptions to mandate

— Still frame from governor’s Oct. 13 press briefing

“To practice what I preach, I’m going to get a flu shot,” said Governor Kathy Hochul at her Wednesday morning press conference. And she did.

ALBANY COUNTY — From Wednesday, Oct. 6, through Tuesday, Oct. 12, Albany County, in its 83rd week of dealing with COVID-19, lost a resident to the virus on each of those seven days. The county’s COVID-19 death toll now stands at 414.

This week also brought welcome news on travel bans being eased, and a court injunction allowing religious exemptions for health-care workers who were mandated to get vaccinated.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced that, come November, fully vaccinated foreign travelers from Mexico and Canada will be able to come to the United States. Almost 19 months ago, the borders were closed to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

At a press briefing Wednesday morning, Governor Kathy Hochul called the border opening between Canada and the United States “very, very good news,” citing communities along New York’s border that had been divided.

In conversations with the White House on Tuesday, Hochul said, she had been told the raising of the ban would be coordinated with international traffic on flights.

Hochul also said she had received confirmation that authorization of COVID-19 vaccine for children is “inevitable” and it’s “just a question of timing.”

“Pediatricians, start getting ready,” she urged, noting the vaccine would be available in “smaller batches” to accommodate parents who want their children vaccinated in doctor’s offices. Hochul also said talks are underway with school districts.

Asked if there would be a state mandate for children to be vaccinated to attend school, Hochul responded, “My default position is to trust the parents to do the right thing.”

She said she would then monitor data to “see how effective it is.”



Also on Tuesday, a federal judge decided that New York State could have overreached by barring religious exemptions in its mandate for health-care workers to be vaccinated. Judge David N. Hurd of the Northern District of Utica ruled that, until the case is finally decided, employers must grant religious exemptions.

Hochul, who had done away with the exemption allowed by former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Aug. 18 directive, called Hurd’s decision “disappointing” at Wednesday’s press briefing and said she was working on an appeal.

“We believe it works,” she said of the mandate. “It has a dramatic effect.”

Hochul displayed quotes from what she termed “a broad representation” of religious leaders, urging people to get vaccinated.

She cited figures comparing the percentage of health-care workers that had been vaccinated on Aug. 24, the day she became governor, compared to now: Nursing-home workers went from 71 to 92 percent receiving at least one dose; hospital workers went from 77 to 96 percent; and workers at adult-care facilities went from 77 to 95 percent.

Hochul said that vulnerable patients deserved to have confidence that those caring for them would not infect them with COVID-19. “My responsibility,” Hochul said, “has always been to protect the people of this state.”

She acknowledged the importance of personally held religious beliefs but concluded, “We also have a public-health objective, which is overriding.”

On Sept. 13, seventeen unnamed health-care workers had filed a complaint, saying they held sincere religious belief that they “cannot consent to be inoculated . . . with vaccines that were tested, developed or produced with fetal cell line[s] derived from procured abortions.”

The case is being argued by lawyers from the Thomas More Society, a conservative Catholic law firm based in Chicago, which has fought abortion and same-sex marriage through lawsuits and also filed cases as part of Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“The question presented by this case is not whether plaintiffs and other individuals are entitled to a religious exemption from the State’s workplace vaccination requirement,” Hurd wrote in his 27-page decision. “Instead, the question is whether the State’s summary imposition … conflicts with plaintiffs’ and other individuals’ federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their individual employers. The answer to this question is clearly yes.”

Hurd cites “longstanding federal protections for religious beliefs” and says the plaintiffs and others “will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief.”

He writes, “To reiterate, these conclusions have nothing to do with how an individual employer should handle an individual employee’s religious objection to a workplace vaccination requirement. But they have everything to do with the proper division of federal and state power.”


DOH studies vaccine effectiveness

On Monday, the state’s health department released a new study it says addressed “one of the most critical questions regarding COVID-19 — the extent to which vaccine effectiveness is declining and whether these changes are due to waning immunity or other factors such as the predominance of the Delta variant.”

Expanding on the work of the health department’s earlier vaccine effectiveness study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August, the new study concludes that declines in vaccine effectiveness for cases may have been driven primarily by the Delta variant or factors other than immunological waning, such as reduced use of masks.

In contrast, vaccine effectiveness for hospitalizations remained high, with modest declines limited to Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna recipients 65 years of age and older. This finding supports targeted booster dosing recommendations, the health department says.

The health department researchers used statewide linked immunization, laboratory testing, and hospitalization databases to calculate vaccine effectiveness over time, involving nearly nine million New Yorkers 18 years of age and older. The study looked at people vaccinated in January through April 2021 and examined their levels of new diagnosed infections and hospitalizations from May to August 2021, compared to people who never received a vaccine.

Lead study author Dr. Eli Rosenberg said in a statement, “The findings of our study support the need for boosters in older people in particular, and we encourage them to seek out a booster shot from their health care provider, pharmacy, or mass vaccination site. We saw limited evidence of decline in effectiveness against severe disease for people ages 18 to 64 years old. While we did observe early declines in effectiveness against infections for this age group, this appears to have leveled off when the Delta variant became the predominant strain in New York. Together, this suggests that ongoing waning protection may be less of a current concern for adults younger than 65 years.”

Hochul said on Wednesday that so far, across New York State, 447,811 booster shots had been administered.


Home health-care problems

While the mandate for workers in hospitals and nursing homes to be vaccinated took effect on Sept. 27, starting on Oct. 7, workers in home-care agencies, hospices, and adult-care facilities had to be vaccinated.

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

Hochul said at her press conference on Wednesday that the workforce reduction as a result of the mandates was 3 percent, with 0.5 percent still waiting to get vaccinated. She added, “It is still a fluid number.”

The Home Care Association of New York State released a report last month, sampling 189 home-care agencies of the 1,500 in the state on the impact of the mandate.

“In this survey sample alone, 894 home care nurses are projected to resign and, if they each carry an average caseload of 20 patients, this would directly impact and/or compromise the care of approximately 17,880 home care patients after October 7, 2021,” the report said.

In addition to the 894 registered nurses, the report also listed 901 administrative staff, 235 therapists, and 10,442 aids as resigning rather than getting vaccinated.

The report said the projected loss could be “catastrophic during an ongoing and worsening workforce crisis.”

Roughly 12 percent of the respondents were from the Capital Region. The Sept. 21 report found that 79 percent of nurses were vaccinated, 87 percent of therapists, 63 percent of aids, and 72 percent of administrative staff were vaccinated.

The vast majority of agencies — 140 out of 189 — had not required vaccination prior to the state mandate.


Help for landlords

In September, in an emergency session, the state legislature — on the heels of the Labor Day expiration of the federal moratorium on evictions —  passed a moratorium on residential evictions in New York State through Jan. 15, 2022. 

The law set aside $125 million to help landlords with tenants who decline to participate or have vacated the residence with arrears. 

That state funding is now available to landlords that couldn’t participate in the New York State Emergency Rental Assistance Program due to a federal requirement for tenants to participate in the application process, Hochul announced on Thursday.

The Landlord Rental Assistance Program provides up to 12 months of past-due rent to landlords.

Eligible landlords must own units leased at or below 150 percent of fair-market rent for their location and must have documented the rental arrears accumulated after March 1, 2020. Priority is given to those landlords owning a building with 20 or fewer units and who apply within the first 45 days of the program’s opening date on Oct. 7.   

Landlords that have applied to the state's rental assistance program can complete an application for state funding through their existing account in the online portal or create a new account. More information can be found at otda.ny.gov/lrap.

So far, the program has approved more than 63,000 direct payments to landlords, totaling $804 million in assistance. New York State has now obligated or paid $1.8 billion in rental assistance, ranking the state first nationally in obligated funding and among the leaders in direct payments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which tracks the state-by-state implementation of ERAP.

New York State’s ERAP provides approved tenants with eviction protection even if a landlord does not provide the information necessary to issue a payment or declines the awarded arrears.

Last month, Hochul sent a letter to the United States Treasury Department requesting additional funding for New York's Emergency Rental Assistance Program due to its shrinking balance and a continuing need for assistance throughout the state.


Newest numbers

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said in his Wednesday morning press release as he reported the death of a resident in their nineties, “It has now been seven days in a row that there has been a new death caused by complications from the virus.”

Two of the residents who died this week were in their forties; one each in their sixties, seventies, and eighties; and two were in their nineties.

“This comes at a time when we’re seeing the number of new vaccinations slow down,” said McCoy. “Over the last week, there were only 845 additional county residents who got at least the first dose, compared to the last week of September when 1,209 individuals went and got the shot,” said McCoy.

 This week, the state reached a milestone of 85 percent of its adult residents having received at least one dose of vaccine, which Hochul on Wednesday termed “quite extraordinary.” However, she went on, “We don’t rest on our laurels … Let’s hit 90.”

In Albany County, 72 percent of residents have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, and 66 percent have been fully vaccinated. The first-dose vaccination rate for county residents 18 and older is 83 percent.

According to records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported by the state, the ZIP codes in Albany County with the highest rate of vaccination are 12211 in Albany at 91.7 percent, 1259 in Slingerlands at 89.4 percent, and 12054 in Delmar at 86.8 percent.

The lowest rates in the county are 12222 in Albany at 8.9 percent, 12946 in Coeymans Hollow at 33.9 percent, and 12120 in Medusa in Rensselaerville at 46.6 percent.

In Berne, at 12023, the rate is 53.2 percent; in Preston Hollow, at 12469, the rate is 54.0 percent; in Clarksville, at 12041, the rate is 54.8 percent; in East Berne, at 12059, the rate is 60.0 percent; in Westerlo, at 12193, the rate is 60.4 percent.

In Feura Bush, at 12067, the rate is 61.6 percent; in Rensselaerville, at 12147, the rate is 68.4 percent; in Altamont, at 12009, the rate is 71.7 percent; in Guilderland, at 12084, the rate is 73.7 percent; and in Voorheesville, at 12186, the rate is 83.3 percent.

On Tuesday, McCoy reported that, among the 39 county residents then hospitalized, 6 percent are unvaccinated while 38 percent have gotten vaccinated. 

Between Oct. 3 and 9, he said, the Albany County Health Department identified and analyzed 506 new COVID infections, finding 49.6 percent were not vaccinated, 45.6 percent were fully vaccinated, and 4.7 percent refused to answer or the vaccination status was unknown.

Hochul said on Wednesday morning that the breakthrough infection rates — COVID-19 cases in vaccinated people — were up just slightly from 0.8 percent last week statewide to 0.9 percent this week. Hospitalizations for breakthrough cases remained low at 0.06 percent.

On Wednesday morning, McCoy reported 89 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the number of active cases in the county to 477, up from 470 on Tuesday. The number of Albany County residents under quarantine increased to 889 from 845.

There were three new hospitalizations since Tuesday, and there are now a total of 34 county residents hospitalized with the coronavirus – a net decrease of five. Eight of those hospital patients are now in intensive-care units, down from nine yesterday.

Albany County, like New York State, is still labeled by the CDC as having a high rate of community transmission, the worst of four categories. Five states — California, Illinois, Alabama, Massachusetts, and Connecticut — now have a “substantial” rate of transmission, the second worst, while the rest of the states are labeled as “high.”

Both ratings trigger mask-wearing indoors in public regardless of vaccination status.

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