Week LI: Vaccine rolls into county as J&J gets federal approval

ALBANY COUNTY — Rolling out vaccine was the focus in Albany County during its 51st week of coping with the coronavirus.

The county’s executive, Daniel McCoy, said on Wednesday he had scored so many doses from the state that he was sharing them with neighboring Rensselaer and Schenectady counties.

“It started with a phone conversation I had with Larry Schwartz on Saturday,” McCoy said of the man who is leading the state’s vaccination strategy for Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“If I give you more vaccine, are you going to be able to get it out?” McCoy said Schwarz had asked.

“Not only that,” McCoy said he replied, “I’m gonna reach out to our partners in Rensselaer and Schenectady and we can do this together.”

McCoy went on, “Larry set us up for the challenge. We accepted the challenge and so we’re getting more vaccine out.”

Schenectady and Rensselaer counties are getting 1,000 doses each; Albany County is getting 2,200 doses. “We kept a little bit more for us,” said McCoy.

The county’s point of dispensing, or POD, is now allowed to vaccinate people 65 and older in addition to the essential workers it has been serving as well as adults of any age with comorbidities. A list of what those illnesses are along with a list of jobs that are considered essential is posted on the county’s website.

Also, more categories have been added this week — restaurant workers, cab drivers, food-pantry workers, and public-facing hotel workers — to the list of eligible essential workers.

McCoy said he is still pushing to get county workers added to the list.

“Any shot we get in the arm is moving us forward,” said Steve McLaughlin, Rensselaer’s county executive, at McCoy’s Wednesday press briefing.

“This is the basis of vaccine equity across the region …,” said Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman. “We have nurses, we have data-entry people, we have police officers, we have standing sites ready to go to do 1,000 shots a day.”

One of the reasons more doses are becoming available is because the Food and Drug Administration gave the green light for emergency use authorization to Johnson & Johnson for its COVID-19 vaccine. It requires just one shot and doesn’t need ultra-cold storage.

The two vaccines previously available required two shots several weeks apart: Pfizer-BioNtech after 21 days and Moderna after 28 days.

“This is a single-dose regimen, which will be attractive to a lot of people,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at Monday’s county press briefing.

“It, like the others, has undergone rigorous clinical trials. It is safe and effective,” said Whalen. “In terms of the efficacy, we know Moderna and Pfizer are in the 90 percentiles for the level they can protect you against severe disease and death. So those are very reassuring numbers.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine in trials in the United States has shown about a 72 percent efficacy. This is still very strong efficacy,” she said, noting that, for a flu vaccine, 70 percent “would be a good number.”

Whalen said that a level of about 70 percent is needed for herd immunity.

The numbers cited by Whalen refer to trial participants who got even mild cases of COVID-19.

Of the roughly 22,000 people who received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine in trials leading up to its emergency authorization, the number of people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 was zero, the number of people who died from COVID-19 was zero, and the number of people who died from the vaccine was zero.

The trials for Moderna (with roughly 15,000 people) and Pfizer (about 18,600 people) also showed zero in those same three categories. These original trials were conducted, unlike Johnson & Johnson’s,   before some of the recent variants had emerged.

Whalen had said on Friday that, although it’s a seven-day-a-week job for health-department workers, who are still doing case investigations, “We are not tired. We are invigorated because we know we are tasked with moving us forward to get us to the end of this. It has been a very, very tough year … for all of us.”

As of Wednesday morning, the county’s POD, at the Times Union Center in Albany, had administered 6,304 first doses of vaccine and 2,473 second doses.

At a POD on Thursday, Albany County is expected to administer an additional 1,600 first doses and 910 more second doses.

Within Albany County’s borders are two other major dispensing sites. A state site in tents on the uptown University at Albany campus vaccinates people 65 and older.

A site run jointly by the federal and state governments at the Washington Avenue Armory, which started administering shots on Wednesday, for the first week will serve people who live in designated typically underserved ZIP codes in Albany, Schenectady, and Troy.


Nursing homes see 82 percent decline in cases

On Tuesday, a report was released showing nursing homes in the United States have seen the lowest number of new COVID-19 cases since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services started tracking cases in May 2020, suggesting that the vaccines are working.

The report was released by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, which represents more than 14,000 nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the country, providing care to approximately five million people each year.

Mark Parkinson, president and chief executive officer of the association, called on caregivers and staff who haven’t been vaccinated to do so.

CMS data shows that nursing homes have had an 82-percent decline in new COVID-19 cases among residents since the peak during the week of Dec. 20 of last year when there were more than 30,000 new resident cases.

The report shows 33,272 new cases among nursing home residents on Dec. 20, a number that steadily declined to 6,077 on Feb. 7

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended that nursing home residents and workers be among the first to be vaccinated, a protocol followed in New York State. Cuomo said last month that all New York State nursing home residents and workers had been offered the vaccine.

In the same period of time, community cases in the general population dropped by 46 percent, indicating that vaccines are having an impact in protecting the elderly population in nursing homes.

Simultaneously, the data shows COVID-related deaths in nursing homes declined by 63 percent since Dec. 20, 2020, dropping from 5,932 — to 2,211 on Feb. 7.

Finally, Parkinson said in a statement, “Most importantly, we call on the administration to review its current guidance to nursing homes on restricting visitors and group activities. With millions of residents and caregivers now fully protected thanks to the vaccines, residents must be able to safely reengage in meaningful activities and be reunited with their loved ones.”

Nursing homes in New York are now allowed to have visitors provided protocols are followed. No visitors are allowed for 14 days if a nursing home worker or resident has tested positive for COVID-19.


Still here

Vaccination has taken on more urgency as variants of COVID-19 are spreading.

Albany County, as throughout the nation, has been experiencing a steep drop in COVID-19 cases since the post-holiday high but early this week, there was a slight uptick in cases here, which has since begun to decline again.

A New York variant of the virus, known as B.1.526, has been increasing in recent weeks. A survey conducted in New York City of “signature mutations” of the variant showed “a steady increase in the detection rate from late December to mid-February, with an alarming rise to 12.3% in the past two weeks,” according to a paper that has not yet been certified by peer review.

“Patients with this novel variant came from diverse neighborhoods in the metropolitan area, and they were on average older and more frequently hospitalized,” the researchers wrote. “Phylogenetic analyses of sequences in the database further reveal that this B.1.526 variant is scattered in the Northeast of U.S., and its unique set of spike mutations may also pose an antigenic challenge for current interventions.”

Guilderland’s town supervisor, Peter Barber, noted on Monday in his daily COVID-19 email to residents that, for the past week, both the seven-day and 14-day averages at the county and regional levels have fluctuated up and down around 2 percent, which he called “a much better number than the 10% rate in late January but far worse than 0.5% in early September.”

Barber went on, “The fact that the daily and extended averages are all hovering around 2% suggests that the spread of the infection has plateaued at a still high rate.”

He reported a similar trend with the COVID-related ambulance transports made by the town’s emergency medical services. Since the first hospital trip on March 13, 2020, the town has transported 266 COVID patients.

In the summer and early fall, transports ranged from four to 11 a month.

“In January, the ambulance transports spiked to a record 61 transports (it was 38 in December),” Barber wrote. “The transports declined in February to 20, far greater than the summer months’ average of 7 transports. The past two weeks alone had 11 positive transports.”


Cuomo update

Cuomo, who had been giving regular COVID-19 press briefings for a year, since the virus was first identified in New York State, had no briefings this week until Wednesday.

Two women, former staffers, had independently accused him of sexuual harassment and then a third woman he hadn’t known said — with pictures to prove it — that he had kissed her at a wedding reception without her permission. The matter will be investigated by Attorney General Letitia James.

At the same time, the state legislature is discussing limiting the executive powers Cuomo has used for a year to manage the pandemic. This follows on the heels of a report James issued on Jan. 28 that found more nursing-home residents died of COVID-19 than data from the state’s health department had reflected.

At Wednesday’s press briefing, Cuomo said, “I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it and frankly, I’m embarrassed by it, and that’s not easy to say but that’s the truth.”

He also said, “I never touched anyone inappropriately …. I ask the people of this state to wait for the facts from the Attorney General’s report before forming an opinion.”

Answering reporters’ questions, Cuomo said there were hundreds of pictures of him kissing men, women, and children. Cuomo said it was his and his father’s “usual and customary way of greeting … However, what I also understand, it doesn’t matter, my intent … If they were offended by it, then it was wrong … If they felt pain from it, I apologize.”

Finally, Cuomo said, “I’m not going to resign. I work for the people of the state of New York.”

On vaccinations, Cuomo said Wednesday that just under 5 million vaccines have been administered overall in the state, which is now expecting about 164,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine in addition to the Pfizer and Moderna doses.

Mass-vaccination sites have been set up in Yankee Stadium and the Javits Center in New York City and at the State Fair in Syracuse, which will administer shots around the clock.

“The overall picture is that President Biden says they’ll be a vaccine supply for all Americans by the end of May,” said Cuomo, noting that Biden had initially named the end of July.

“He is now moving it up to the end of May and that is a very significant increase. Apparently using the Defense Production Act, they have accelerated the production of the vaccine and Johnson & Johnson and Merck have formed a partnership, so Merck is going to help produce a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.”

It was also announced that, starting in April, concerts, plays and other events will be allowed in New York, following attendance limits and other protocols.

“Beginning March 22, for residential gatherings, the indoor limit remains the same. The outdoor limit goes from 10 to 25 outdoors, which is consistent with some of the states around us,” said Robert Mujica at Wednesday’s press briefing.

The social-gathering limit for public spaces on indoor events goes from 50 to 100, and then for outdoor events, it will go from 50 to 200, he said, with all of those requiring mask-wearing and social distancing.

“And then, beginning on April 2, we started up with opening large event spaces, which was 10,000 or more for arenas starting with the Buffalo Bills,” Mujica said, referring to a pilot program in January.

Event spaces that hold fewer than 10,000 people can begin reopening at 33 percent capacity with up to 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors, he said. “If we want to go above those limits, you can go up to 150 people indoors with testing requirements for, going from 100 to 150, and then for outdoor events, up to 500 people outdoors with testing.”

McCoy had said earlier that, for events at the county’s Times Union Center to break even, 25 percent attendance is needed.


Newest numbers

McCoy began Wednesday’s press conference by announcing five more COVID-related deaths of county residents that had previously been unreported — from a single congregate setting. Nursing homes are required to report deaths to the state but not to the county.

The five victims were a woman in her fifties, two men in their eighties, a woman in her eighties, and a man in his nineties.

This brings the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 358.

As of Wednesday morning, Albany County has had 20,663 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 59 new cases since Tuesday.

Of the new cases, 39 did not have clear sources of infection identified, 15 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, four were health-care workers or residents of congregate settings, and one had traveled out of state.

The five-day average for new daily positives has decreased to 62.8 from 66.4. There are now 561 active cases in the county, down from 584 on Tuesday.

The number of Albany County residents under quarantine decreased to 1,478 from 1,494. So far, 64,655 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 20,102 of them had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of 81 recoveries since Tuesday.

There were four new hospitalizations overnight, and there are still 41 county residents currently hospitalized from the virus, the same number as on Tuesday. There are currently five patients in intensive-care units, up from four yesterday.

As of Tuesday, Albany county’s infection rate, as a seven-day rolling average, was 1.9 percent, according to the state’s dashboard.

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