County starts planning for vaccine while dismissing herd-immunity strategy

— Still frame from Nov. 19 Albany County press conference

“Total nonsense” is how Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, described a herd-immunity strategy to defeat COVID-19, according to a report displayed by Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy on Thursday.

ALBANY COUNTY — As the county continues with its second wave of COVID-19 — 94 new cases were reported Thursday morning — the county executive and health commissioner warned against reports on social media that herd immunity is a solution.

Daniel McCoy, during his morning press briefing, held up a report in which Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, called a herd-immunity strategy “total nonsense.”

Resuming normal life would result in a huge death toll, experts say. So far, over a quarter of a million of Americans have died f COVID-19. To achieve the low end of the percentage of people infected — 60 to 90 percent — to achieve herd immunity, another half-million people would die.

“It would have a deadly effect,” said McCoy.

Last month, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said that vaccination is the only acceptable form of herd immunity. He noted, for example, that herd immunity to prevent the spread of measles requires about 95 percent of the population be vaccinated while, for polio, the threshold is about 80 percent.

“In other words, herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it,” he said. “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic.”

Ghebreyesus went on, “Seroprevalence surveys suggest that, in most countries, less than 10 percent of the population have been infected with the COVID-19 virus. Letting the virus circulate unchecked therefore means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death.”

He concluded, “Allowing a dangerous virus that we don’t fully understand to run free is simply unethical. It’s not an option.”

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said that herd immunity is not the answer and that countries that have adopted the strategy have seen “catastrophic mortality rates” as well as surge issues in hospitals. 

“They have had to backtrack on this idea,” she said.



Whalen said her department is “very busy” tracking the increased cases, working with schools to prepare for 20-percent testing if Albany County should be declared a yellow zone, and planning for vaccine receipt.

“We have said since Day One this would continue until there was a safe, effective, and widely available vaccine,” said Whalen. “But there’s another part to that, too. We’re going to need to do a lot of work and communication so we have confidence in a vaccine.”

Both Pfizer and Moderna in the last two weeks have announced vaccines that are entering the third and final stage of testing but polls have shown that about half of Americans are wary of being vaccinated.

“In New York State, the governor is convening a task force to look at vaccine safety,” said Whalen.

She added, “I can give you my personal guarantee that I would not recommend a vaccine that I would not take myself.”

Whalen said she has been communicating with groups including the New York State Association of Counties, which on Thursday hosted a webinar that included federal, state, and local public-health experts who discussed how the vaccine will be distributed across the state.

County health departments pledged that they are “prepared to help our state and federal partners distribute the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is ready to deploy,” according to a release from the association.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been critical of the Trump administration’s plan for distribution, which he says isn’t robust enough to handle the volume of vaccinations and would jeopardize testing, which uses the same system; lacks adequate funding; is unfair to poor Black and brown communities; and could be used to depart people.

The White House has denied the latter claim.

The situation has been complicated by President Donald Trump refusing to let his team work with or inform the Biden transition team.

New York State announced a vaccination distribution plan in mid-October that put vulnerable populations, like nursing-home residents, and essential workers, like nurses and doctors, first in line to get vaccinations.

“It is likely we will not have widespread dissemination of the vaccine until the spring and early summer,” said Whalen on Thursday morning. “So this means we do need to continue to embrace the difficult challenges we have lived with daily since the beginning of March.”

She concluded, “I again appreciate the cooperation of all of you that understand the gravity of this.”

McCoy echoed the need for residents to stay the course in following protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

He likened it to the feeling he got “downrange.”

“The hardest thing when you’re in a combat zone in the military, you get this numb feeling,” said McCoy, who serves in the National Guard. “You kind of think you’re superman and you kind of forget the hazard zone you’re in because you feel like you’re invincible.”

He said that people shouldn’t be numb to a new daily count of 94 COVID-19 cases.

“We need buy-in ...,” McCoy said. “We need your help to get through this …. We need … to make small sacrifices for the greater good.”


Newest numbers

Statewide, the positivity rate, based on Wednesday’s test results, was 2.72 percent. That included the over-tested micro-cluster areas at 4.11 percent.

Some of the zones have changed as COVID-19 cases declined and restrictions could be lifted while other zones have been added.

“Remember the concept of the micro-cluster zones,” said Cuomo in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “Targeted restrictions but targeted restrictions so you don’t disrupt the economy in areas when you don’t need to distribute the economy. It’s also a warning sign for that community.”

Albany County has stayed just under the metrics that would make it be designated a yellow zone — the least restrictive of the red, orange, and yellow designations.

The Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, has a current seven-day average of 2.31 percent. The lowest positivity rate among the state’s 10 regions is the Southern tier at 1.14 percent followed by the North Country at 1.75 percent. Western New York has the highest seven-day average at  4.85 percent.

As of Thursday morning, Albany County has 4,760 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 94 new cases, McCoy announced.

Of the 94 new cases, 27 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, five reported out-of-state travel, 53 did not have a clear source of infection identified at this time, and nine are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings.

McCoy noted that more than 56 percent of the people who tested positive couldn’t say where they contracted the disease.

He again stressed that information used by the health department for contact tracing is confidential.

“This information would never be used to prosecute someone or used against them,” he said. “You definitely have my word on that. You just need to be truthful.”

Bethlehem Supervisor David Van Luven noted in an Instagram post on Thursday, “Bethlehem had 49 reported positive cases this morning, nearly twice our peak numbers in April.” He called on residents to follow protocols.

Currently,  1,941 county residents are under quarantine, up from 1,881. The five-day average for new daily positives dropped to 76.4 from 87. There are now 776 active cases in the county, up from 720 on Wednesday.

So far, 19,896 Albany County residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 3,984 had tested positive and recovered.

Forty-four county residents are hospitalized with 10 of them in intensive-care units. The county’s hospitalization rate has gone down to 0.92 percent from 0.94 percent.

One of the two COVID-19 deaths reported yesterday — of a woman in her eighties — was later determined to be a Rensselaer County resident, which brings Albany County’s death toll down to 148.

On Thursday evening, the county’s health department sent out a notice advising anyone who was at Buca di Beppo at 44 Wolf Road in Colonie on Friday, Nov. 13, from 5 to 10:30 p.m. or Saturday, Nov. 14, from noon to 1 p.m. that they may have been exposed to a staffer who tested positive for COVID-19.

“If you have any concerns about symptoms, you should consider testing,” the notice said. “You do not need to contact the health department.”

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