Calls Grow Louder for Equal Distribution of Vaccine – COVID-19 Update

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Saturday, November 14 through Tuesday, November 17. Published in collaboration with The River Newsroom.

NEW YORK STATE
3,490 new cases yesterday
124,565 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 2.80%
26 deaths yesterday
1,968 hospitalizations
391 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

On Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered a fiery political sermon at the Riverside Church in upper Manhattan, in which he vowed that the state would not leave low-income Black and brown communities behind in the logistically challenging rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine. “We can’t compound the racial injustice that COVID already created,” Cuomo said. “Let me be clear, the Black and brown communities that were first on the list of who died cannot be last on the list of who receives the vaccine, period.” The governor said that New York State would “mobilize an army” to ensure fair distribution to all New Yorkers when the vaccine is approved.

Sunday’s speech, a rare scripted event this year for a governor who has been leading pandemic response through a barrage of PowerPoint presentations and telephone briefings, also took aim at the federal government for leaving states with the massive responsibility of ensuring vaccine distribution, but almost no funding to carry it out. “The federal government has been starving state and local governments, and they know it,” Cuomo said. “CDC says it will cost $6.6 billion to do a fair distribution program. They’ve only provided $140 million.”

While Congress and the White House have been passing unfunded mandates to state governments, New York State has been making similar moves with local health departments, withholding funds while state budget officials hold out hope for federal aid, Joe Mahoney reports for CNHI. Some local health departments, facing budget cuts passed down from state and county governments, are looking to reduce their workforces by offering retirement incentives, at a time when health departments need local expertise more than ever. State budget spokesman Freeman Klopott told Mahoney that New York’s hands are tied. “The state is forced to decrease spending while we wait for the federal government to act, and if they fail, temporary cash management actions will become permanent spending reductions,” Klopott said.

Worth reading: An op-ed in The Washington Post by two Johns Hopkins public health experts calling for funding for both local and state health departments. Public health officials need more support in order to carry out the monumental task of ensuring that everyone in the US has access to a vaccine, and to run the challenging public information campaigns they will need to counter deliberate misinformation and reach the public, write Jennifer Nuzzo and Joshua Sharfstein. “As public health experts like to say: Vaccines do not save lives; vaccination saves lives. Without new funds, the best plans will lie on the shelf. Vaccines will fail to reach many at greatest risk of severe illness. And the pandemic will continue to claim far too many lives.”

Hot on the heels of Pfizer’s announcement last week that its vaccine appears to be more effective than hoped for, Moderna released a similar statement Monday announcing that its vaccine reduced the risk of COVID-19 infection by 94.5 percent in trial participants. Like the Pfizer results, Moderna’s numbers are a preliminary look at an ongoing trial, not a completed study, and still have yet to go through the process of peer review and publication. But experts, including Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are impressed with the preliminary results of both vaccines. Moderna took federal funding from Operation Warp Speed (OWS) to develop its vaccine; Pfizer did not, but the company did sign a large advance purchase agreement with OWS that cut down on the riskiness of the maker’s investment in the vaccine.

Moderna’s vaccine reported a slightly higher efficacy rate than Pfizer’s in preliminary data, but the more important difference between the two vaccines is that Moderna’s can be stored in an ordinary refrigerator for up to 30 days. Pfizer’s vaccine requires deep freezing that only dry ice or special ultracold refrigerators can provide, a requirement that will be a massive hurdle in rural areas and places without the resources to handle complex supply-chain logistics. Moderna revised the storage requirements for its vaccine on Monday, after finding that the shelf life of the vaccine at ordinary refrigerator temperatures was longer than initially estimated. Scientists are looking at both vaccines to find out whether they might be shelf-stable for longer time periods at temperatures that pharmacies and hospitals are better equipped to handle.

Like most other top COVID-19 vaccines in development, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use a new method based on mRNA, and their success bodes very well for vaccine science. Pouring money and research talent into the COVID-19 vaccine effort may end up advancing the development of vaccines for other diseases such as Zika virus or HIV. Neither of the two COVID-19 vaccine frontrunners uses a weakened or killed form of the virus: instead, they teach the immune system to recognize the “spike” proteins on the novel coronavirus, so that if a vaccinated person is exposed to the real virus, their immune system will recognize and destroy the virus before it can invade healthy cells and turn them into virus-replication factories.

For months, opponents of COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and gatherings have been pointing to Sweden, the lone European country to try to allow herd immunity to develop naturally in the population instead of taking measures to stop infections from being transmitted. It hasn’t worked. On Monday, with cases and deaths on the rise, Sweden moved to limit all public gatherings to a maximum of eight people. Sweden’s economy has taken a hit from a “de facto” lockdown despite its lax approach, as many people have voluntarily cut back on business and travel out of fear of infection.

Nearly 300,000 change-of-address requests were submitted by New York City residents from March 1 until the end of October, according to a FOIL request by the New York Post. Several Hudson Valley towns were on the list of places where downstaters relocated. The Post blames this partially on the city’s rising murder rate, though its own numbers reflect more than 244,000 of the addresses were changed between March 1 and the end of July, when the pandemic was raging and murders had not reached the numbers seen in late summer.

On Monday, New York State released a new tool to help New Yorkers find state services and benefits. The “Find Services” web application was developed in partnership with Google engineers working pro bono to assist New Yorkers in locating appropriate services in one portal. The application is available at findservices.ny.gov.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY
County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam
University coronavirus pages: Sarah Lawrence, Iona, SUNY Purchase, Manhattanville, Westchester Community College, Rockland Community College, Dominican, Mercy

Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who has been giving a weekly coronavirus briefing, announced in today’s briefing that he will be moving to twice-weekly updates on Mondays and Thursdays because of rapidly rising case counts. Latimer said that a second wave was clearly underway: In the past week, Westchester County’s estimate of active cases has jumped from 2,252 to 3,515, a number that corresponds to where the county was in May. “We in the county government, and those in local governments and other entities, are going to have to move quickly to respond to these things,” Latimer said. “We are not going to fearmonger, nor are we going to sugarcoat.” The county also recorded five deaths over the weekend, and has 121 people hospitalized, up from 74 two weeks ago.

In light of Westchester County’s rising case counts, all its boards and commissions are moving to meet remotely. County workplaces, where possible, will be kept under 25 percent of full staffing.

Mount Vernon issued a stay at home advisory that went into effect today in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. City officials strongly advise residents to stay indoors, unless traveling for work, school, or essential needs. The city has 124 active cases of COVID-19.

With cases rising, North Rockland school district became the first in the region to halt all in-person learning districtwide. In a letter posted online on Friday, Superintendent Kris Felicello said the district was considering a “holiday pause” that would shift education to a fully remote model beginning next Monday, November 23, and lasting until Tuesday, January 19. Over the weekend, the district decided to implement the pause, Felicello told LoHud.com, saying the district has struggled with staff coverage due to teachers needing to quarantine. “There comes a point when it’s educationally not as sound when you have a disjointed program,” he said. “I certainly understand the inconvenience for families, but it’s more of an inconvenience when I call a family at 6 in the morning and say you can’t come in today because of an exposure.”

A quick snapshot of how widespread the virus is in lower Hudson Valley counties: On Sunday, Westchester reported a 3.7 percent positivity rate, Rockland was at 3.5 percent, and Putnam was at 6.3 percent, according to the state tracker. The rolling seven-day average in Putnam County is 5.1 percent, almost twice as high as the statewide average, and the sixth-highest county average over that time.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY
County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia
University coronavirus page: Bard, Vassar, Marist, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Ulster, Columbia-Greene Community College, SUNY Orange

Columbia County announced Monday that a resident of Ghent Rehabilitation and Nursing Center had died of COVID-19, the seventh resident to pass away since the virus broke out in the nursing home last month. The center does not appear on a state list of nursing homes with COVID-19 fatalities, possibly because the deaths occurred after the residents were transferred to local hospitals. During the early days of the outbreak in mid-October, 10 of the 24 infected residents were hospitalized. The state Department of Health does not include people who were infected in nursing homes but died in hospitals in its count of pandemic nursing home fatalities. Since an order by Governor Cuomo in March forced nursing homes to accept recovering COVID-19 patients, this had led to great controversy, including legislative hearings and an investigation by the US Justice Department. The total number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 remains publicly unknown.

In Orange County, 271 more people were confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus over the weekend. The county’s positivity rate on a rolling average reached 4 percent Saturday and Sunday, according to the state DOH.

A “rapid mobile testing vehicle” containing four rapid testing machines acquired from the state is now available for deployment in Ulster County. The machines came with a limited number of tests, and the vehicle is not available to the general public, but instead will be deployed to “assist school districts, congregate care facilities, and other identified clusters,” according to a press release from County Executive Pat Ryan. The vehicle can run eight tests an hour, with results coming back in 30 minutes.

Kingston’s finances have taken a far smaller hit than was expected from the pandemic. Kingston comptroller John Tuey now predicts the year’s sales tax revenue will be down $546,000 compared to last year; this spring, he predicted it could be down between $2.3 and $3.3 million.

Poughkeepsie’s city hall will close to the public this beginning Tuesday after two city employees tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend. A reopening date has not been announced.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro told The Poughkeepsie Journal the county was letting its guard down, and the evidence came through contact-tracing. “What we are seeing now is that for every positive case, comes with dozens of immediate contacts because overall people seem to be getting too relaxed and comfortable,” he said.

Red Hook High School switched to online-only learning this week due to COVID-related staff shortages. Two students tested positive over the last week, and teachers and staff had to quarantine because they had been in contact with the students, leaving “significant coverage issues” at the school, according to a statement by the district in the Daily Freeman.

Marist College lifted its two-week pause on Monday and resumed classes on campus.

CATSKILLS
County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie
University coronavirus pages: SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Delhi, SUNY Sullivan

Schoharie County health director Amy Gildemeister warned residents in a Facebook post on Monday that if cases continue to rise, the county may be put into a state microcluster focus zone, posting a list of the restrictions that apply in such zones. Cases are “going up dramatically,” she wrote, with 34 active cases in the county.

That might happen as soon as Thanksgiving break. SUNY Cobleskill has had low rates of infection among students and staff, and the college runs a large number of tests every week, which are keeping the county’s positivity rate down. Once the students go home, thus removing a large pool of negative tests from local case numbers, Schoharie County’s positivity rate is likely to spike, Gildemeister said.

A Greene County resident died of COVID-19, the county Department of Health announced Monday. The last 24 inmates at Greene Correctional Facility infected with COVID-19 were “discharged from care,” and no longer appear in the county’s active cases tally, bringing the number of positives down to 28.

The active case count has been slowly subsiding in Delaware County since last week, reaching 59 on Monday after an all-time high of 74 last week. County officials urged residents to “continue to be vigilant” as health officials work to get the outbreak under control.

Sullivan County recorded 25 new cases over the weekend, according to a press release sent to reporters by county officials. The county’s case dashboard was not updated on the website on Monday due to temporary staffing issues, a county spokesperson said. The county currently has 125 active cases.

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OF INTEREST?

The River has a guide on where, how, and when to get tested for the coronavirus in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. To read more of our coronavirus coverage, visit our coronavirus page.

The River and The Other Hudson Valley are collaborating with WGXC to announce these updates over the air. To listen, tune in to 90.7 FM at midnight, 5am, 7am, or 9am, or visit the audio archive online.

La Voz, una revista de cultura y noticias del Valle de Hudson en español, está traduciendo estos resúmenes y co-publicandolos en su página web. Leyendo aqui. También puede escuchar actualizaciones diarias por audio en el show “La Voz con Mariel Fiori” en Radio Kingston.

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