Week XCI: As Omicron looms, two county leaders make a plea for mask-wearing

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“People checked out of COVID. We need you to check back in,” says Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy.

ALBANY COUNTY — The highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 was identified in New York this week, causing state and local officials to call for mask-wearing and vaccination.

On Tuesday, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy issued a joint public-health advisory with Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman recommending all residents wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, and recommending businesses require employees and customers to wear masks as well.

The announcement was made as infection rates, after Thanksgiving gatherings, surge, topping the rates from a year ago. The Delta variant is still dominant.

“I know we’re tired …. It’s not even COVID fatigue; no one cares anymore,” said McCoy.

For months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have labeled New York State, including Albany County, as having a “high” rate of community transmission, meaning masks should be worn indoors in public regardless of vaccination status.

With nine county residents dead of the virus so far this month, December is on track to be more deadly than November, McCoy said. “How is this possible?” asked McCoy, answering himself: “No one is wearing a mask.”

He noted that hospitalization spikes typically come two weeks after infection rates rise. So, said McCoy, “We’re likely not seeing the full impact.”

Of the 52 Albany County residents now hospitalized with COVID-19, one of them is younger than 18, he said.

Both Fluman and McCoy reported that about two-thirds of hospitalized COVID patients in their counties were unvaccinated.

“The only way new restrictions will truly work is if we do it on a regional approach,” said McCoy.

However, in conferring with the other county leaders in the Capital Region, McCoy said only Fluman was willing to issue the new advisories.

The advisories are not a mandate and have no enforcement mechanism.

“I’ll never recommend to close completely like we did last time,” said McCoy, citing the resulting health, mental health, schooling, and economic problems.

While former Governor Andrew Cuomo issued statewide top-down directives, Governor Kathy Hochul is using a more targeted approach, letting regional and local leaders make their own decisions.

McCoy displayed a graph that tracked infections since the start of the pandemic. The peak in the spring of 2020, which now looks comparatively small, was brought down by closing nonessential businesses and schools. The largest peak grew during last year’s holiday season before the vaccines were widely available.

Fluman agreed that the mask advisories should be regional.

“For me,” he said, “it’s about citizenship … wearing a mask is a good thing to do as an American citizen.”

Referencing the fact that he was speaking on Pearl Harbor Day, Fluman went on, “During World War II, we weren’t so individualistic. We didn’t think of mainly only ourselves …

“Public health is about community. Public health is about my effect having a direct effect on your health. And if I’m not vaccinated and I’m not choosing to wear a mask, I’m not being a good citizen.”

“We’re pleading with people: Please do the right thing. COVID’s not gone ….,” said McCoy. “People checked out of COVID. We need you to check back in.”

He also said, “I’m hoping we don’t have to make the next step.”



New York State’s first confirmed cases of the Omicron variant — five cases, all downstate — were announced Thursday night by Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a joint press conference.

By Tuesday, the state had 14 confirmed Omicron cases: Seven in New York City, three in Suffolk County on Long Island, two in Oneida County near the center of the state, one in Broome County on the Pennsylvania border, and one in Westchester County adjacent to New York City.

Dave A. Chokshi, New York City’s health commissioner, said of the Omicron variant, “There is community spread.” The cases, he said at Thursday’s press conference, are not just from people traveling to Africa, where the Omicron variant was first reported, or to other locations where it has been identified.

The first Omicron case in the United States was reported on Wednesday, Dec. 1, from a vaccinated Californian who had traveled to Africa. The second case was reported Thursday in Minnesota with exposure at an event in New York City in the Javits Center.

The more than 50,000 people attending the anime event at the Javits Center, Hochul said at a press conference on Thursday morning, were required to be vaccinated and a list of attendees is being traced.

Mary Bassett, the state’s new health commissioner, said the Omicron variant does seem to be highly contagious in South Africa, where it was first reported, but also seems to be a milder illness.

“Nobody’s really sure …,” she said on Thursday. “We’re all waiting to learn more.”

“We’re not sounding the alarms,” said Hochul. “We’re not overreacting to this, but I want New Yorkers to have the confidence to know that we are ready to deal with this.”

On Friday, scientists with the South African COVID-19 Modelling Consortium posted a report, which is not yet peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal, saying that Omicron is spreading at more than twice the speed of the Delta variant in South Africa.

The rapid spread, The New York Times reports, is because of Omicron’s contagiousness and because of the variant’s ability to dodge the body’s immune system, the researchers said; Omicron was first identified on Nov. 23 in South Africa and now accounts for about three-quarters of new cases there.

Omicron has now been reported in over 145 countries.


Different ways of governing

Hochul, who was in Washington, D.C. last Tuesday for a congressional meeting, praised President Joe Biden at her Thursday press conference for mounting “a national response to what is a national need and a global crisis.”

Biden on Thursday announced his winter plan for coping with COVID-19, including boosters for all adults, vaccinations for kids to keep schools open, and expanding free at-home testing,

The plan, detailed on the White House website, includes stronger protocols for international travel, workplace protections to keep the economy open, rapid response teams to battle rising cases, supplying pills to prevent hospitalizations and death, and continuing global vaccination efforts.

While Hochul contrasted Biden’s national response to that of Donald Trump, which, she said, “required there to be people in other states who took leadership positions,” Bassett contrasted Hochul’s approach to that of her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo.

A “cookie-cutter, top-down strategy,” Bassett said, loses trusting relationships and know-how of local health departments. “These partnerships matter to a coherent statewide strategy,” said Bassett.

Of undermining local health departments in the past, she said, “That time is over.”

Hochul herself described her response to COVID-19 as a “surgical approach.”

While some of her responses, like requiring health-care workers to be vaccinated, are statewide, she said others are targeted within statewide parameters.

Hochul has drawn a line for hospitals statewide to have capacity with staffed beds. Any hospital, such as Albany Medical Center’s, that has 10 percent or fewer staffed beds can no longer perform elective procedures. The situation will be reassessed on Jan. 15, Hochul said.

The vast majority of those 50 or so hospitals that lack capacity are upstate, Hochul said, corresponding with lower vaccination rates.

“We don’t need one-size-fits-all,” said Hochul, pointing out the difference between New York City with an infection rate of 1 percent and some upstate areas with infection rates of 10 percent or higher — as in the Finger Lakes and Western New York.

Hochul also said she would not engage in a strategy ignoring local health departments and spoke of the value of involving local people on the ground.


Dr. Bassett

“I’m no stranger to crisis,” said Bassett, introducing herself to the press last Thursday.

She replaces Howard Zucker as the state’s health commissioner. Zucker, who oversaw New York’s response to COVID-19 under Cuomo, submitted his resignation letter on Sept. 23 but continued to serve until Bassett replaced him this week.

“When I just finished my medical training, I moved to Southern Africa where the world’s worst HIV/AIDS epidemic was unfolding,” Bassett said.

She served on the medical faculty at the University of Zimbabwe for 17 years, during which time she developed a range of AIDS prevention interventions. Bassett went on to serve as associate director of health equity at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Southern Africa Office, overseeing its Africa AIDS portfolio.

Bassett, who grew up in New York City, received a bachelor’s degree in history and science from Harvard, a medical degree from Columbia, and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Washington.

“Some years later,” Bassett went on, “as the New York City health commissioner, I encountered more microbes than I ever would have predicted. There was Ebola, there was Legionnaires, there was Zika. In three decades of public-health work, I’ve learned the impact of truth-telling.”

From 2014 through summer 2018, Bassett served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where she made racial justice a priority and worked to address the structural racism at the root of the city’s persistent gaps in health between white New Yorkers and communities of color.

“If we needed any more evidence that public health is also rooted in social justice, COVID also gave us that,” Bassett said at Thursday morning’s press conference. “COVID literally pulled back the curtain on enduring and unaddressed inequities ….

“This virus found its way through our failures. Failure to ensure the right to health-care services, failure to assure available and high-quality primary care in tackling obesity and other chronic conditions. COVID accelerated what’s become a relentless tide of overdose deaths. And in our nation, all of these track along the problem of racism.” 

Among Americans in prime working-age years, Bassett said, “nearly 90 percent of deaths among people of color would not have occurred if we had death rates that are equivalent to that of white college-educated individuals.”

Bassett concluded that it may seem that the coronavirus opened a Pandora’s box. “I hope all of you remember that there was something left in that box — and that was hope,” she said.

Bassett ended with a reminder of the “small steps that each of us can also take that will make a big difference … get vaccinated … get boosted. Wear a mask. If you feel sick, state home …. We are all in this together.”


Booster shots

Hochul last Thursday stressed the importance of vaccination, booster shots, and testing for the virus.

Booster shots are needed because the vaccine loses its effectiveness over time.

There is also some question as to whether current vaccines will be effective against the Omicron variant.

All three drug companies with vaccines authorized in the United States are running tests to see if their vaccinations work against Omicron.

Hochul said she had talked to the chief executive officer of Pfizer who said it would take 90 to 100 days if the company had to develop a vaccine for a new variant.

Hochul also talked to the Pfizer CEO about medicine it’s developing that, when widely available, will allow Covid-19 patients to be treated at home, she said.

Last Tuesday, a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee voted, 13 to 10, to recommend emergency authorization for pills made by Merck for use by COVID patients at risk of severe infections. Pfizer’s antiviral pill is expected to be reviewed by the FDA soon.

Any adult who has had two shots of Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is eligible for a booster shot six months after the second shot. Any adult who was vaccinated with the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, is eligible for a booster shot after two months.

Hochul reported last Thursday that only 16 percent of adult New Yorkers have gotten booster shots. Of New Yorkers age 65 and older, 37 percent have received booster shots, she said.

Hochul also stressed the importance of getting a second shot of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. She said the state sent out over 600,000 text messages to people who received one dose but not two. “The one dose does not do the job,” she said.

The state is increasing its pop-up sites and also offering incentives for people to get vaccinated. These incentives include drawings for kids that pay for a college education at a state school, lifetime hunting and fishing passes, and most recently free ski passes for kids at state ski areas.

Hochul also announced a “Boost Up New York” campaign, urging people to get booster shots before gathering for the holidays.

Also, Hochul said, the state has ordered another million antigen tests, allowing the department of health to prioritize getting them to students.

They may be used, she said, “for kids to return if they had to go home because someone in their classroom tested positive.”

Hochul said the state has been pushing to have private insurance companies pay for people to get over-the-counter tests. “We just received word from the White House that they will require that insurance companies now cover the cost of over-the-counter tests to make sure that they’re more widely available and that there’s no barriers to access to those as well,” she said.

Hochul, concluding her remarks on Thursday, answering reporters’ questions, said “I’m not prepared to shut down schools or the economy now … That would be an overreaction.”

She said she had “prepared all the scenarios necessary” and “can deploy them with just a word … I will not overreact and send this economy spiraling out of control.”


Ag grants

State Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball on Monday encouraged New York State’s agricultural industry to apply for the $800 million COVID-19 Pandemic Small Business Recovery Grant Program.

Grants are available for eligible small businesses that have revenues up to $2.5 million and are experiencing hardship due to COVID-19.

“There are so many agribusinesses that are still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and facing many challenges after having lost markets at schools and restaurants,” Ball said in a statement. “This grant program provides an opportunity for our food and beverage producers, our farmers, and our growers to access some much-needed capital to help recover their losses and rebuild their businesses.”

Empire State Development and Lendistry, the minority-led Community Development Financial Institution that was selected to administer the program, are accepting and reviewing applications on a rolling basis. There is no deadline. Questions about the program can be directed to Lendistry at 877-721-0097.

Grants for a minimum award of $5,000 and a maximum award of $50,000 are calculated based on a business’s annual gross receipts for 2019.

Reimbursable COVID-19-related expenses must have been incurred between March 1, 2020 and April 1, 2021 and can include payroll costs; commercial rent or mortgage payments for New York State-based property; payment of local property or school taxes; insurance and utility costs; costs of personal protection equipment necessary to protect worker and consumer health and safety; costs for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning, or other machinery and equipment; and supplies and materials necessary for compliance with COVID-19 health and safety protocols. 

Additionally, the limitation for businesses that received Federal Paycheck Protection Program loans has been increased from $100,000 to $250,000. 

To help the agricultural industry apply for the COVID-19 Pandemic Small Business Recovery Grant Program, a webinar for interested businesses will be held on Dec. 13 at 11 a.m. The webinar will provide an overview of the grant program, the level of funding available, and how to apply for funds.


Help for homeowners

Also on Monday, Hochul announced that New York is the first state in the nation to receive U.S. Department of the Treasury’s approval to launch its Homeowner Assistance Fund, which will provide up to $539 million to help eligible homeowners avert mortgage delinquency, default, foreclosure, and displacement.

Applications will be accepted beginning Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.

“Many New Yorkers are still recovering from the pandemic, and just like we did for renters, our state is now leading the way to provide much-needed economic relief to vulnerable homeowners across the state,” Hochul said in a statement, announcing the grants. “We know that the economic pain of the pandemic has been felt disproportionately in rural communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities, and this program is a demonstration of our commitment to placing the needs of New Yorkers in need at the heart of our work.”

At the same time, the NYS HAF program website, an information call center, and a multilingual marketing campaign were launched to educate homeowners about the program.

Designed and administered by New York State Homes and Community Renewal, NYS HAF will target low- to moderate-income homeowners who are behind on mortgage payments, property taxes, or water or sewer bills, as well as owners of cooperative or condo units behind on maintenance fees, and manufactured homeowners behind on chattel loans or retail installment contracts.

Eligible applicants may receive financial assistance to catch up on missed housing payments, to reduce mortgage debt to make monthly mortgage payments more affordable, and for homeowners who are unemployed, assistance with up to six months of future housing payments.

Eligible applicants must have household incomes at or below 100 percent of the Area Median Income and must be at least 30 days delinquent on monthly housing payments for their primary residence.

Awards will be capped at $50,000 per household. Assistance will be structured as a five-year, non-interest, non-amortizing forgivable loan. If the homeowner remains in the home for a period of five years, the loan will be fully forgiven.

In addition, the NYS HAF program is working in partnership with the Office of the New York State Attorney General to advocate with mortgage lenders and mortgage servicers to ensure homeowners are receiving all available relief under federal and state rules. This includes extended mortgage terms, deferment of missed payments or forbearance amounts, and lower interest rates to reduce monthly payments.


Albany County

This week, between Wednesday, Dec. 1, and Tuesday, Dec. 7, Albany County suffered nine COVID-related deaths, bringing the county’s death toll from the virus to 454.

The latest victims were: three men in their forties, a woman in her fifties, a woman in her sixties, a woman in her seventies, a woman in her eighties, and two men in their eighties.

Of the 52 Albany County residents currently hospitalized with COVID-19, McCoy reported on Tuesday, 69 percent are unvaccinated, 2 percent are partially vaccinated, and 29 percent are fully vaccinated.

The average of weekly reporting on vaccine status of hospitalized individuals dating back to Aug. 14 now stands at 61.3 percent unvaccinated, 2.4 percent partially vaccinated, and 36.3 percent fully vaccinated.

Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 4, a total of 1,145 new COVID infections were identified in Albany County. Of those, 442 were vaccinated, 328 were not, and 375 either refused to respond or had not yet been interviewed at the time these numbers were generated.

On Wednesday morning, in his daily COVID-19 press release, McCoy reported 191 new cases. The county’s five-day average is now 174.4. 

Albany County’s most recent seven-day average of percent positive rate is now up to 6.7 percent and the Capital Region’s average rate is now up to 7.5 percent.

In May 2020, the World Health Organization advised governments that, before reopening, rates of positivity in testing — out of all tests conducted, how many came back positive for COVID-19 — should remain at 5 percent or lower for at least 14 days.

There are now 787 active cases in Albany County, up from 772 on Tuesday. The number of county residents under quarantine jumped to 1,328 from 1,193.

There were nine new hospitalizations since Tuesday, and there are now 55 county residents hospitalized with the coronavirus — a net increase of three. Ten of those hospital patients are now in intensive-care units, down from 11 on Tuesday.

“Today marks the fifth day that I’ve had to report at least one new COVID death,” said McCoy in his Wednesday release. “Each county resident losing their life to this virus is a tragedy and represents another family devastated. However, many of these deaths are preventable because we now have a widely accessible vaccine and the ability to get booster shots.

“And vaccinations have become even more important as we respond to the latest surge of COVID infections and the continued uncertainty of the Omicron variant that is likely even more contagious than the Delta variant,” he said.

During the month of November, McCoy reported, 22 county residents died of COVID-19 and 59 percent of them hadn’t been vaccinated.

During the months of September, October, and November, the county suffered 51 COVID deaths in total, and nearly 63 percent of those people hadn’t received a single shot, McCoy said.

“This data supports what has already been established across the country: The vaccine works, it saves lives, but there is also the reality of waning effectiveness over long periods of time,” McCoy said. “That means we need every adult who has been vaccinated for at least six months to get the booster.”

As of Tuesday, 76 percent of all Albany County residents have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, and 68.5 percent have been fully vaccinated.The first-dose vaccination rate for county residents 18 and older is 85.2 percent.

A vaccination clinic is being held on Monday, Dec. 13, from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at Guilderland Elementary School at 2225 Western Ave. in Guilderland. Vaccinations are by appointment only. Scheduling for 5- to 11-year-olds will be handled by individual schools directly with parents of students. For people 12 and older, first, second, and booster shots of Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech will be offered.

Residents can also receive free Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, including booster shots, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Albany County Department of Health at 175 Green Street. Aside from Wednesdays, appointments are now required.

Albany County continues to deliver vaccines to homebound residents, which includes seniors, disabled individuals, 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.

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