Week LXXXVIII: Gov sounds alarm on virus spikes, rural areas less vaccinated

— File photo from Doug Myers, Albany County Airport Authority
On Monday, Governor Kathy Hochul spoke at the airport, saying it will receive $28.6 million in federal funds, some of which will modernize runways.

ALBANY COUNTY — Governor Kathy Hochul sounded the alarm during a COVID-19 briefing in Buffalo on Tuesday.

“We are seeing the spikes go up ...,” she said. “And a lot of it’s concentrated in our rural areas … There is a direct correlation between people being vaccinated and the infection rate.”

Among the state’s 10 regions on Tuesday, the infection rate in Western New York, at 8.52 percent, was second only to the Finger Lakes at 8.73 percent.

New York City had the lowest infection rate at 1.41 percent. The Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, was at 5.80 percent as a seven-day average.

“And this is why we have such a high alarm here,” said Hochul to the crowd at the Delavan Grider Community Center in Buffalo. She noted that a week ago just one of the state’s 10 regions had a transmission rate of more than 50 per 100,000 but now five regions are over that threshold.

“This Delta variant took us all by surprise,” said Hochul. “It’s raging. It is still out there and still virulent.”

As cold weather, forcing people indoors, and holiday gatherings draw near, Hochul said vaccination becomes imperative. “So this is the warning,” she said. “The warning is going out loud and clear today.”

The rubric of vaccination rates being lower in rural areas holds in Albany County as well, according to the state’s tracker, reported by ZIP code.

As of Tuesday night, for people getting at least one shot, Coeymans Hollow has a rate of 47.5 percent; South Bethlehem, 58.1 percent; and Medusa, 68.3 percent. Clarksville and Berne were in the seventies while Preston Hollow and Westerlo were in the eighties.

Meanwhile, Delmar, Slingerlands, Guilderland Center, Voorheesville and Altamont ZIP codes all have populations in which more than 99 percent have received a vaccination.

This may in part explain why the rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo school district, with about 780 students, has more COVID cases this school year, 38, than the much larger suburban Voorheesville district, which has roughly 1,200 students and has had 32 cases, according to the state’s tracker as of Wednesday.

The two neighboring districts have had roughly the same number of ill students, predominantly in the age group where vaccine wasn’t available until recently (26 students at BKW compared to 27 at Voorheesville) but BKW has had twice as many ill teachers (4 compared to 2) and more than twice as many ill staff members (8 compared to 3).

Hochul, at the Buffalo briefing, said, “People getting the virus are the younger people now; they’re not immune to this.” She also reported that 47 percent of people 65 and older have had a booster shot.

Hochul leapt over current federal guidance to urge people living in high-transmission areas to get booster shots. 

“Here’s the news flash ...,” she said. “This part of the state is a high-transmission area. …. Anyone who lives in these areas and feels risk, that they’re at risk of catching this virus, they should go get a booster.”

According to current federal guidance, people who initially were vaccinated with Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna are eligible for the booster shots after six months if they are 65 or older or if they are 18 or older and live in a long-term care setting, have underlying medical conditions, or work in a high-risk setting.

People who received the one-shot Johnston & Johnston are eligible for a second shot, a booster, after two months.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has allowed a mix-or-match approach so that the booster shot can be the same as or different from the original shots.

Last week, Pfizer-BioNTech asked the Food and Drug Administration to expand eligibility for boosters to all fully vaccinated adults. And this week health officials in New York City urged all vaccinated adults to get boosters and asked health-care workers to provide them.

The FDA is expected to authorize Pfizer booster shots for all vaccinated adults as early as Thursday, The New York Times reported on Tuesday, and the CDC’s committee of vaccine experts is set to meet on Friday, Nov. 19, to discuss the matter.

 

Long COVID

Another alarm was sounded, without a speech, on Tuesday when the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open released a review of 57 studies, comprising more than 250,000 survivors of COVID-19, showing more than half suffered aftereffects that were prevalent longer than six months after their exposure to the virus.

This included survivors who initially had no symptoms or mild cases as well as patients who had severe cases.

Most prevalent were lung issues, neurologic disorders, mental-health disorders, functional mobility impairments, and general and constitutional symptoms were chest imaging abnormality, followed by difficulty concentrating, generalized anxiety disorder, general functional impairments, and fatigue or muscle weakness. Other frequently reported symptoms included cardiac, dermatologic, digestive, and ear, nose, and throat disorders.

Forty-five of the studies, or 79 percent, came from high-income countries like the United States. The long-term aftereffects “occur on a scale that could overwhelm existing health care capacity, particularly in low- and middle-income countries,” the report said.

Persistent symptoms — lasting more than six weeks — have been reported in 19 percent of fully vaccinated individuals, the report said.

The report recommends “one-stop multidisciplinary clinics … to avoid multiple referrals to different specialists and encourage comprehensive care.”

 

Federal funds

Hochul spoke at Albany County’s airport on Monday before taking off for Washington, D.C. to be at the White House for the signing of the infrastructure bill.

“I was invited by President Biden along with a select number of governors from states that will be recipients of this funding,” said Hochul. “This is a $1.2 trillion generational opportunity to transform infrastructure in America. And I feel like this is long overdue ….”

She said that New York State will be getting more than $14 billion for roads and bridges, $10.5 billion for transit systems, $3 billion for clean water, and $100 million for continued broadband deployment as well as “hundreds of millions of dollars for climate resiliency projects across the state.”

Hochul also said, “This is an investment for New York State families. This means that parents do not have to worry about the safety of the water that comes out of the tap for their babies and children to drink …. This is about quality-of-life issues.”

The Albany International Airport, where she spoke, is getting $26.8 million, said Hochul.

Hochul also said that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help New York create thousands of jobs across the state.

“This is an opportunity in this post-pandemic world to let people know, get the skills, go into apprenticeship programs, get trained,” she said. “There’s jobs waiting for you to help rebuild this great state after we were knocked down so far.”

Finally, Hochul said, “I’ll be on speed dial with Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans, someone we’re going to develop a very close relationship, and to make sure that everyone understands how important this is.”

Landrieu is the senior advisor for the Infrastructure and Jobs Act; he took office when the bill was signed into law on Monday.

 

Help for tenants

Also on Monday, Hochul announced the legal-service providers who will be awarded portions of $25 million in federal funding to offer free legal assistance and comprehensive housing stability services.

The awardees will use the money to help renters avoid eviction in areas of the state outside of New York City where access to free legal aid is not available to meet the need of these renters. Residents of New York City already have access to free legal representation in housing court to help avoid eviction. 

The legal assistance is aimed at helping both tenants and landlords resolve rent-related disputes and maintaining tenants’ housing stability. 

Locally, these grants were awarded:

— $4,076,178 to the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York to serve the Capital Region and parts of the North Country; and

— $5,591,018 to the Legal Services of the Hudson Valley to serve the Hudson Valley.

Each provider, the governor’s office said, has extensive experience working with vulnerable populations and is easily accessible to renter households in the regions they serve.

Additionally, the selected service providers will work with other local organizations to ensure that their services are broadly available to help those most in need.

Earlier this week, Hochul announced that the state has requested $996 million in additional federal funding from the U.S. Department of Treasury for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

These funds, if awarded, would cover projected need over the next four months, based on already-submitted applications, as well as a portion of projected need for tenants living in publicly subsidized housing, according to a release from the governor’s office. 

New York State recently surpassed $1 billion in direct payments to landlords and has now fully obligated its $2.4 billion in funding — less than six months after first taking applications. The program stopped accepting new applications on Nov. 14 in most parts of the state, including in Albany County.

 

Shots for kids

On Saturday, Hochul announced 10 state mass vaccination sites are now open to 5- to 11-year-olds, including the site at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, on the upper level where Lord & Taylor used to be located.

Children in that age group are now allowed to get a modified amount of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; it’s a two-shot regimen.

“We’ve had more than 140,000 kids ages 5 to 11 get their first dose,” Hochul announced at Tuesday’s briefing in Buffalo.

The Guilderland school district is partnering with Albany County’s health department to host a vaccination clinic at Guilderland Elementary School, from 4 to 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 22 with follow-up appointments on Dec. 13.

Doses will be available for 5- to 11-year-olds as well as for those 12 and older. Booster shots will also be administered. Appointments are required.

 

$750 million for health coverage

Last Wednesday, Nov. 10, Hochul announced that the Biden-Harris Administration’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as CMS, will be making $750 million in additional American Rescue Plan funding available for New York’s Essential Plan.

“If we are going to put an end to this pandemic, we need to make sure all New Yorkers have access to affordable, reliable health care coverage ...,” said Hochul in a statement, announcing the federal funds. “The additional $750 million in federal funding to support our Essential Plan will help us further boost coverage in New York and bring us closer to our goal of achieving health equity.”

New York’s Essential Plan is a state-administered health-insurance program that covers individuals and families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but for whom private insurance premiums are too costly.

Since the Essential Plan began in 2015, enrollment has increased three-fold — it currently has 925,000 enrollees, according to the governor’s office.

Collectively, New Yorkers are saving $1 billion in health care costs in 2021 by being enrolled in Essential Plan compared with the cost of Qualified Health Plan coverage. 

New York is one of only two states — Minnesota is the other — to take advantage of a provision of the Affordable Care Act that gave states the ability to create Basic Health Programs. The Essential Plan has been instrumental in cutting New York’s uninsured rate from 10 percent to 5 percent since 2013.

 

Job losses at nursing homes

Also last Wednesday, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, representing more than 14,000 nursing homes and assisted living communities across the country, released a report showing long-term facilities are suffering from the worst labor crisis and job loss than any other health-care sector.

Nursing homes alone have seen employment levels drop by 14 percent or 221,000 jobs since the beginning of the pandemic.

While hospitals, physicians’ offices, outpatient care centers and other health care facilities have reached or surpassed pre-pandemic staffing levels, nursing homes and assisted-living communities are still experiencing substantial job losses according to the latest October employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The organization released a survey of long-term care providers earlier this year showing that the labor crisis is worsening with 86 percent of nursing homes and 77 percent of assisted-living providers saying their workforce situation has gotten worse in recent months.

The survey showed that 58 percent of nursing homes are limiting new admissions and 78 percent of nursing homes are concerned workforce challenges might force them to close.

 

“Profound impact” on churches

Also this week, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research released a study, including 2,074 survey responses from 38 Christian denominational groups from mid-June to the end of August 2021, looking at how the pandemic is affecting congregations.

“These findings from the summer clearly show that the pandemic has had a profound impact across the religious spectrum, and that some churches are faring better than others,” said principal investigator Scott Thumma in a statement, releasing the report. 

Research shows 80 percent of churches are now offering hybrid services with both in-person and remote options, while only 15 percent are solely worshipping in person. However, during the height of the pandemic when people around the country were experiencing severe isolation over half of the churches surveyed (54 percent) reported completely discontinuing fellowship events, rather than moving them online.

Over 30 percent of congregations saw the need for food assistance, counseling and spiritual demands grow over the course of the pandemic. Forty-one percent of congregations also saw their giving increase to help meet this growing demand.

The survey also found the majority of clergy (62 percent) encouraged parishioners to get vaccinated and 28 percent of congregations welcomed medical personnel to address their membership.

 

Court closed

Guilderland Town Court temporarily suspended in-person sessions on Monday and Thursday nights because of confirmed COVID-19 cases within the court office, according to the town’s website.

In-person court sessions are canceled for Nov. 18 and 22.

The court will remain open virtually and for limited in-person business opportunities from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, the notice said.

 

Newest numbers

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy on Wednesday announced another death from COVID-19, bringing the week’s death tally to six.

Three men died on Wednesday, Nov. 11: one in his fifties, one in his eighties, and one in his nineties.

On Monday, Nov. 15, two women — one in her nineties and the other who was over 100 — died of the virus.

On Tuesday, Nov. 16, a woman in her fifties died of COVID-19.

Albany County’s death toll from the virus now stands at 436.

Between Nov. 7 and 13, a total of 676 new COVID infections were identified in Albany County, McCoy reported on Tuesday. Of those, 341 were vaccinated, 271 were not, and 64 refused to respond.

Of the 38 residents hospitalized with COVID on Tuesday, 50 percent are fully vaccinated, 3 percent are partially vaccinated, and 47 percent are not vaccinated. The average of this weekly reporting dating back to Aug. 14 now stands at 37.2 percent fully vaccinated, 2.5 percent partially vaccinated, and 60.3 percent unvaccinated.

“To clarify today’s data on the vaccination status of COVID hospitalizations, with the vast majority of Albany County residents — nearly 75 percent — having received the first or both doses of the vaccine — it is inevitable that we will have a growing share of vaccinated individuals in the hospital,” McCoy said in Tuesday release, announcing the latest numbers.

“However,” he went on, “what we are also seeing are a high concentration of those who are vaccinated in the hospital with serious underlying health conditions, while the unvaccinated who are hospitalized are far less likely to have one of these potentially life threatening conditions.

 “We’ve said from the start that the vaccine is not 100-percent effective, and unfortunately it cannot prevent all of the potential damage of COVID-19. However, the science is clear — getting the shot will dramatically reduce your chances of serious illness and death, and we strongly encourage parents to vaccinate their children and for adults to get the shot if they haven’t already.”

On Wednesday, McCoy reported that 74.1 percent of all Albany County residents have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, and 67.3 percent have been fully vaccinated. The first-dose vaccination rate for the county’s adults is now up to 84.5 percent.

McCoy also announced 104 new cases of COVID-19. The county’s five-day average of new daily positive cases is now up to 90.8.

There are now 599 active cases in the county, down from 616 on Tuesday. The number of county residents under quarantine increased to 1,064 from 1,050.

There were two new hospitalizations since Tuesday, and there are now a total of 31 county residents hospitalized with the coronavirus — a net decrease of seven. Six of those hospital patients are in intensive-care units.

“As we continue to deal with the highly contagious Delta variant and given the waning efficacy of the vaccine over time, we need more people to get vaccinated and to get a booster shot,” McCoy said in his Wednesday release. “As Governor Hochul said yesterday, any adult who feels they’re at risk of getting infected with COVID and has already been vaccinated for six months — especially as we approach the holiday season and winter months — should go get a booster to ensure they’re protected from this horrible virus.”

More Regional News

  • Two more Albany county residents — a man in his sixties and a woman in her eighties — died of COVID-19 on Wednesday, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy reported on Thursday morning. This brings Albany County’s death toll from the virus to 495.

  • “We will no longer be doing contact tracing because the numbers of new daily positive cases is too high to keep up with in a time sensitive way,” Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen wrote in an email Wednesday morning, answering Enterprise questions. “We ask that those who test positive notify those who have been around them so they may take appropriate action,” Whalen said.

  • “While New York as a whole is showing signs of statewide COVID infections possibly hitting their peak, that is clearly not the case for Albany County as we report nearly 1,600 new positive cases in a single day, the highest increase we’ve ever experienced since the pandemic started nearly two years ago,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy.

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