Week CXLVI: AG warns of price gouging on children’s painkillers

— From dol.ny.gov/EWF

Diana Cruz, right, who works with the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, describes in a video how she helped a client named Sarah, at left, get money through the state’s Excluded Worker Fund and reports that Sarah can now dream about a future.

ALBANY COUNTY — As Albany County continues this week to be labeled with a “medium” community level of  COVID-19, the so-called “tripledemic” rages on.

On Monday, New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, warned consumers of price gouging of children’s painkillers and fever reducers since demand has increased.

Not only are COVID cases ticking up but cases of flu and respiratory syncytial virus are spiking this year in children since many of them have been isolated or masked for two years.

This week, according to the state’s flu tracker, New York State recorded 50,825 cases of influenza, down 4 percent from the week before. Until then, there had been a steadily climbing increase since October.

Once again, every county in the state had confirmed cases this week. Albany County had 528 confirmed cases.

In 2022, seven pediatric deaths — children younger than 18 — have been reported from influenza: two in the spring and five in the fall. No pediatric flu deaths were reported in 2021.

James said that children’s medication is being sold online and in stores at prices two or three times their retail value. She asked citizens to report any dramatic price increases for Tylenol, Motrin, and acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin sold under other brand names.

“This year’s tripledemic is keeping many kids and babies sick at home, and families trying to care for them are confronting the national shortage of children’s Tylenol and other medication,” said James in a statement. “The last thing any family needs when a child spikes a fever or is in pain is to be price gouged on the medication they need.

“I am putting profiteers seeking to take advantage of this shortage on notice. If New Yorkers see big price increases for children’s medication, I encourage them to report it to my office immediately.”

Due to the nationwide shortage, the attorney general’s office advises consumers to buy only as much children’s medication as they need and not to unnecessarily stock up as such panic buying may intensify the shortage. The office also notes that it is not price gouging for retailers to limit the amount of medication they sell to individual consumers. 

At a Dec. 7 press conference, Governor Kathy Hochul highlighted the nationwide uptick in COVID-19, along with a “dramatic increase” in flu cases and cases of respiratory syncytial virus.

At that briefing, Sallie Permar, pediatrician-in-chief at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center, noted that children as young as six months can be vaccinated against the flu.

While there is currently no vaccine for RSV, she said that vaccinating against flu and COVID is helpful.

“One thing that’s different this year is RSV is really circulating at the same time that other respiratory viruses are circulating.” said Permar. RSV cases rose really quickly this season after being at a very low level the last couple of seasons, she said.

“And so, there are a lot of children who have not previously been exposed who are getting RSV now,” Permar said. “It is something that we don’t have antivirals to treat, but we do have a lot of strategies to help children through an RSV infection. “

She recommended controlling fever by “using over-the-counter fever medications like Tylenol and Ibuprofen at the correct doses” and treating underlying asthma. A pediatrician should be consulted if a child has prolonged fever, has difficulty breathing, or is suffering from dehydration, she said.

When reporting price-gouging, the attorney general recommends consumers report the specific increased prices, the dates, and places that they saw the increased prices, and the types of medication being sold and also that they provide copies of their sales receipts and photos of the advertised prices, if available.

New Yorkers should report potential concerns about price gouging to the attorney general’s office by filing a complaint online or by calling 1-800-771-7755.


Albany County COVID numbers

This week, for the second week in a row, Albany County remains at a “medium” designation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its community level of COVID-19.

For the prior two weeks it had a “low” designation following four weeks of being labeled “medium” after 13 weeks of being labeled “high.”

Also this week, Albany County’s 146th of dealing with the coronavirus, three new COVID-related deaths were reported by the governor’s office: two were reported on Wednesday, Dec. 21, and one more was reported on Friday, Dec. 23. The county’s dashboard, as of Tuesday, Dec. 27, still shows a death toll of 607: 295 males and 312 females.

Two weeks ago, the counties surrounding Albany were, like Albany County, all designated as having “low” community levels. This week, neighboring Rensselaer County, like Albany, is designated “medium” while the other contiguous counties are designated “low.”

The weekly metrics the CDC used to determine the current “medium” level for Albany County are:

— Albany County now has a case rate of about 84 per 100,000 of population, up from 81 last week but down from 90 two weeks ago but up from 69 three weeks ago, 51 four weeks ago, and 76 five weeks ago although down from 104 five weeks ago;

— The county has a COVID hospital admission rate of 19 per 100,000, substantially up from 15.8 last week and more than double the 8.2 two weeks ago, and also up from 9.1 three weeks ago and about 14.6 per 100,000 for the two weeks prior; and

— The county now has 6.5 percent of its staffed hospital beds filled with COVID patients, up from 5.5 last week, 5.0 two weeks ago, 5.1 three weeks ago, and 5.2 four weeks ago, 5.7 five weeks ago, and 6.3 six weeks ago.

Nationwide, about 11 percent of counties are now labeled “high,”  an increase of 2 percent from last week, while about 40 percent are “medium,” up from 35 percent last week, 25 percent two weeks and 18 percent the week before. About 49 percent are “low,” a decrease of 7 percent and down substantially from 78 percent three weeks ago.

In New York State, nearly half of the counties are labeled “low,”  while 22 are labeled “medium.” In addition to Albany and Rensselaer counties, this includes 14 counties in western New York and Tioga and Broome counties on the Pennsylvania border.

Counties on Long Island and in New York City have “high” designations as do Orange, Westchester, and Rockland counties.

As of Dec. 27, according to Albany County’s COVID dashboard, 36 patients were hospitalized with COVID, up from 30 last week and 24 the week before.

About half of the Capital Region residents hospitalized with COVID this week were not admitted because of having the virus, according to a chart from the governor’s office.

Although figures on infection rates are no longer reliable since tracing and tracking systems have been disbanded, the state dashboard shows that cases statewide and in Albany County are continuing to tick up after leveling off in November following two months of climbing.

Albany County, as a seven-day average, now has 12.4 cases per 100,000 of population, up from 12.0 last week, and 10.9 two weeks ago but down from 13.5 three weeks ago. The current rate, though, is up substantially from 8.6 four weeks ago, 8.0 five weeks ago, and 10.6 six weeks ago but down from 15.2 seven weeks ago, which was a fairly steady decrease from 21.8 cases per 100,000 twenty weeks ago.

This compares with 25.8 cases per 100,000 statewide, which  is down from 28.3 last week and from 27.8 two weeks ago and 28.5 three weeks ago although up from 18.4 four weeks ago, 19.0 five weeks ago, 18.8 six weeks ago, and 20.9 seven weeks ago, which was another fairly steady decrease from and from 30.03 per 100,000 of population 17 weeks ago.

The lowest rates are in Central New York and the North Country at 10.4 cases per 100,000, and the highest count is still on Long Island at 40.9, which is down from 44.7 last week, which was a dramatic jump from 23.93 four weeks before.

The numbers for vaccination in Albany County have hardly budged for several months. The state’s dashboard now reports on these two categories:

— People with a primary series, for those who have completed the recommended initial series of a given COVID-19 vaccine product — two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine; and

— People who are up to date, for those who have completed all COVID-19 vaccinations, including the bivalent booster, as appropriate per age and clinical recommendations.

As of Tuesday, 19.0 percent percent of Albany County residents were up to date on vaccines, up from 18.5  last week and 17.9 two weeks ago, as opposed to the 61.5 percent of eligible residents who had received booster shots, as reported in prior weeks.

At the same time, 76 percent of county residents have completed a primary series, the same as the last several weeks.

This compares with 76.2 percent of New Yorkers statewide completing a vaccination series, and 12.2 percent being up to date with vaccinations, up from 11.7 last week, 11.1 two weeks ago, and 10.6 three weeks ago.

The shift in the prevalence of Omicron sublineages has continued this week.

The once-dominant BA.5 now makes up only about 7 percent of new COVID cases nationwide, with BQ.1.1 at about 36 percent, BQ.1 at about 27 percent, and XBB at about 18 percent.

In Region 2 — New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands — the spread of the new sublineages is even more pronounced.

For the week between Dec. 18 and 24, fourth-place BA.5 now makes up just roughly 4 percent of the cases while XBB is now dominant at 50 percent. BQ.1.1 makes up roughly 22 percent of new cases followed by BQ.1 at about 20 percent. The other sublineages each make less than 3 percent.

The bivalent booster shot was designed to combat BA.4, which is now almost nonexistent, and BA.5 — and so may still be effective against its similarly highly contagious descendants.

New Yorkers are being encouraged by the state’s health department to get bivalent COVID-19 vaccine boosters from Pfizer-BioNTech for anyone age 5 or older and from Moderna for those 6 or older.

To schedule an appointment for a booster, New Yorkers are to contact their local pharmacy, county health department, or healthcare provider; visit vaccines.gov; text their ZIP code to 438829, or call 1-800-232-0233 to find nearby locations.


Final benefits

More than 1,900 New Yorkers are set to receive benefits as part of the final round of payments from the state’s Excluded Workers Fund, according to a release from the state’s labor department.

Nearly $30 million will be sent before the end of the year. In total, more than 130,000 fund applications were approved and, minus administrative costs, the entirety of the $2.1 billion fund will soon be distributed to eligible New Yorkers.

“The Excluded Workers Fund has provided critical relief to low-wage workers who performed vital services to keep New York running throughout the pandemic,” said Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon in the release. “As we send this final round of payments, I’d like to applaud the advocates, community organizations, and legislators who made this historic fund a reality. It exemplifies the values of New York State and our ability to look out for our neighbors during the most difficult of times.”

The fund provided financial help to New Yorkers who lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic and were left out of various federal relief programs, including unemployment and pandemic benefits.

The program went live in August 2021 and, within the first month, more than 90,000 applications were received by the labor department. To qualify for benefits, applicants needed to verify both their identity and residence.

Benefits under the fund were tiered, with approved applicants receiving one of two amounts based upon the proof of work eligibility they provided. Tier 1 qualifiers received $15,600 and Tier 2 qualifiers received $3,200.

Altogether, over 128,000 New Yorkers received benefits, according to a paper the labor department published about the fund.

 “I was able to pay my rent and stay in my home,” said one recipient quoted in the paper.

Another said, “This means I can finally pay for my legal representation for my U Visa case, which means I can finally have a way to stay and find better-paying work legally. It means I have a better chance at earning more so I can finally secure my children’s future, and finally be reunited with my wife and children.”

A third recipient said, “Since we didn’t receive any other help, the biggest problem was back rent. With over $2,000 in rent now paid off, we feel relieved and secured that we have a roof over our heads. My husband and I feel less pressure and, personally, we believed the fund helped save our lives.”

Over 350,00 applications were received.

More than 99 percent of approved applicants received the maximum funding amount of $15,600. Approved applicants receive a one-time payment on a prepaid card.

Of the applications approved, the two most common non-English languages were Spanish at 42 percent and Chinese at 5 percent. Applications were also received in Arabic, Bengali, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Urdu, and Yiddish.

A third of the workers approved were between the ages of 30 and 39.

The state legislature approved the $2.1 billion fund on April 19, 2021, and it went live in August of that year. The first such large-scale program of its kind in the country, it has since been replicated in other states.

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