No Aid for Local Governments in Likely Stimulus Deal

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Tuesday, December 15 and Wednesday, December 16. Published in collaboration with The River Newsroom.

NEW YORK STATE

9,998 new cases yesterday
160,947 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 6.21%
98 deaths yesterday
6,097 hospitalizations
1,098 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

Congressional leaders are nearing a deal on a stimulus package that is worth about $900 billion after some haggling over where and how funds will be allocated. Both sides reportedly have made significant concessions in an effort to get the deal across the finish line. A second round of direct payments, in the amount of $600 to $700, is expected to be part of the final deal, as is an extension of the $300 per week in unemployment benefits, as well as up to $330 billion for small business loans and vaccine-distribution funds. The liability shield protecting businesses and institutions from coronavirus-related lawsuits is reportedly gone—and there is expected to be no money for state and local aid. Both provisions had been must-haves for Republicans and Democrats, respectively. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday afternoon that the relief bill “is likely to be coupled with several other major legislative efforts—from legislation to fund federal agencies to a bipartisan effort to rein in surprise medical billing—that lawmakers could then pass into law in a matter of days.” The clock is ticking: lawmakers must also pass a spending bill by midnight Friday to avoid a federal government shutdown.

With no state or local aid forthcoming anytime soon, a $15 billion hole in the state budget, and an expensive vaccination rollout already begun that will stretch both state and local government resources, Democrats in the New York State legislature are pushing to raise income taxes on the state’s highest earners. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said this week that he wants to get a tax increase done before the end of the year, fearing that a tax passed in 2021 that applies retroactively might cause legal headaches. Governor Andrew Cuomo opposes the move, and urged again in a Wednesday briefing for any tax increase to be considered after the federal aid picture becomes clearer, as part of a comprehensive state budget.

New York State will float $1.5 billion to key organizations to help them with cash flow problems over the next couple of months, Cuomo said in Wednesday’s briefing. The governor did not specify which agencies or organizations would be getting a funding boost, but they are likely to include state-funded agencies involved in the COVID-19 response. “We can’t lose essential workers in the central organizations, especially with what we’re doing now,” Cuomo said. In February or March, he said, “we expect the federal government will tell us that they’re going to be helpful and what that amount of funding is. But we understand we have to get from here to there, and we need them to function.”

The first phase of New York’s vaccination effort is underway, and social media is abuzz with photos of healthcare workers across the state getting the first shots. About 4,000 people received the first dose of Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine in New York State on Tuesday, state health commissioner Howard Zucker said in a state briefing. The federal program that will vaccinate nursing home residents and staff with help from CVS and Walgreens is running a little slower, and is shaping up to be more complex, partly because issues of consent for residents who aren’t making their own healthcare decisions need to be ironed out before pharmacists show up to vaccinate a facility. The New York Times has a story on the challenges involved in nursing home vaccination, and reports that nursing home managers across the country are getting peppered with questions from residents, their families, and staffers that they just don’t know how to answer yet. New York State officials say that nursing home vaccination in the state is scheduled to begin on December 21.

New York State launched a new website that is intended to be a one-stop location for data and details related to the COVID-19 vaccination program. The site includes information on the vaccines themselves, safety, and distribution priorities, among other details. There is also a detailed Frequently Asked Questions section that includes facts about the vaccines’ safety and efficacy.

So far, New York State has received about 87,000 of the 170,000 courses of Pfizer’s vaccine promised by federal allocation, and the rest is expected to arrive in the next few days, Cuomo said Wednesday. Another 346,000 courses of Moderna vaccine are slated to be shipped to New York after the FDA acts to approve the vaccine. All of these vaccines are slated for the first phase of vaccination, which will include healthcare workers, nursing home residents and staff, and EMS first responders.

New York is already looking ahead to the second phase of vaccination, in which essential workers and people at high risk from COVID-19 among the general public will begin to be vaccinated. There is no firm date for Phase II yet, but Cuomo said Wednesday that it would come “probably late January.” Plans are taking shape for hospital networks to run “regional vaccination hubs” in each of the state’s 10 regions; the network in charge of vaccination coordination for the Mid-Hudson region is Westchester Medical Center.

Our World In Data has launched a global vaccination tracker to show each nation’s progress on COVID-19 vaccinations, although it does not have any data from the US yet.

Vaccine maker Moderna released more data this week as part of its application for an emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration. Moderna’s results look good, and the vaccine will likely be authorized within days. One of the best pieces of news: Moderna released some preliminary data showing that its vaccine reduces asymptomatic infections, not just full-blown symptomatic COVID-19 illness. Moderna’s is the first publicly released data that address the question of whether vaccinated people can catch (and potentially transmit) asymptomatic COVID-19, and while the results are still very early, they bode well for the effort to vaccinate enough people to achieve herd immunity.

Hospitalizations in New York are on a bad path. There are currently 6,097 New Yorkers hospitalized for COVID-19, about a third of the spring peak, and even if infections were to stop today, those numbers would continue to rise for several weeks as infected people become sicker. In Monday’s briefing, Cuomo said that if current trends hold steady, the state may soon have 11,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals. State health commissioner Howard Zucker sent a letter on Wednesday to hospital administrators directing them to prepare for expanded capacity. “We are assuming a continued increase of hospitalizations throughout mid-January. Hospital capacity will be a major battle,” he wrote.

Asked on Wednesday whether and when the state might enact broad shutdowns, Cuomo said that shutdown in mid-January might be on the table if trends continue, but that it depends on how New Yorkers act. “Nobody knows what New Yorkers will do between now and Christmas and how they’ll act on Christmas week,” he said. “The numbers are not predestined. The numbers are a reflection of what we do.” Some New York City officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, are calling for shutdown sooner, possibly in response to the high cost in lives and disease of the state’s slow response in the spring.

Two home COVID-19 tests got emergency use authorization from the FDA this week. The Ellume antigen test is the first over-the-counter home test to be authorized, and is expected to cost about $30. Abbott’s BinaxNOW test, a kit already in use by health care providers and health officials, received authorization for at-home use, and will cost about $25. Neither is the cheap, easy, $1-a-pop paper strip tests that some public health experts (notably Michael Mina of Harvard) are advocating for, but they may be a step on the road to a world where people can easily take a quick swab before heading to work in the morning or visiting a friend’s house.

Every last drop: Pfizer’s vaccine is packaged in five-dose vials, but pharmacists giving out the vaccine are finding that the vials often hold an extra dose or two because of overfilling, a standard practice in vaccine manufacturing to ensure full availability in case of minor spills. Politico reports that on Wednesday, the FDA gave the green light for any extra doses to be used, potentially expanding the nation’s extremely limited vaccine supply by as much as 40 percent. Props to Andy Slavitt, former chair of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under the Obama administration, for calling attention to the issue in a Tuesday tweet.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters on Wednesday that the federal government is “engaged in active negotiations” with Pfizer to acquire more doses of its vaccine in the first half of next year. The pharmaceutical company is currently contracted to provide 100 million doses to the US; on Monday, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said government officials had asked the company for 100 million more. “We can provide a lot of that in the third quarter, [but] the US government wants it in the second quarter,” Bourla said. The news follows a report last week that the federal government passed on the chance to lock up more doses of the Pfizer vaccine early in its development process.

How effective is your mask? We may be able to quantify that soon. The New York Times reports that a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to develop filtration standards, and that products that meet them will be able to carry labels boasting of their efficacy.

“We want them infected.” That’s what a Trump science adviser wrote in an email to his boss in the health and human services department this summer, arguing that allowing herd immunity to develop was the county’s best strategy for fighting the pandemic. “There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD,” the adviser, Paul Alexander, wrote. In a separate email to the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Alexander argued “it may be that it will be best if we open up and flood the zone and let the kids and young folk get infected” in order to get “natural immunity…natural exposure.” Politico obtained the internal emails from a House of Representatives watchdog.

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There is no one method counties use to calculate active cases. Both the state and counties draw data from the same electronic lab reporting system, but county health officials clean up the data to ensure accuracy. But differences in how counties report active cases make comparisons difficult. Two in particular we’re keeping an eye on: Ulster County, where the number of active cases reported by the county seems very high compared to how many daily cases are being found, and Putnam County, where the active case count seems very low. Another way to look at local current infection data is the CDC’s county data, which shows the number of cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

Active cases have slightly decreased in Rockland County this week, according to data on the county’s coronavirus dashboard. There are currently 2,157 Rockland residents believed to be infected with the virus, 36 fewer than on Monday. One additional county resident has died, and COVID-19 hospitalizations increased slightly, to 80.

In Putnam County, 50 people tested positive for COVID-19 over the last 24 hours, according to the state regional coronavirus dashboard. The county’s seven-day positivity rate is 7 percent, which is actually lower than it has been in recent weeks.

Westchester County added 549 people to its positive-test tally, according to the state regional coronavirus dashboard. Six more county residents have died from the virus, for a total of 1,581.

Putnam County issued a PSA on its health department’s Facebook page warning residents of vaccine scams (as Westchester County did on Monday). Three things to watch out for: You can’t pay to get on a vaccination list; you can’t pay to get early access; and you won’t be asked for your social security number, bank information, or credit card number.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Ulster County formed a “Vaccine Distribution Coalition” tasked with convincing residents to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to the general public. County Executive Pat Ryan announced the coalition’s roster on Wednesday, stating the committee “looks to emphasize focus on underserved populations to ensure a seamless process once the vaccine is readily available to the general public.” Members include Dr. Allen Tack, a Kingston-area infectious disease specialist; Mariel Fiore, editor of La Voz magazine; and Pastor Jim Childs of Pointe of Praise church. Twenty-seven percent of Americans said they would probably or definitely not get the vaccine in a poll released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The number rises to 35 percent among rural residents and African Americans.

A man was arrested after a fight allegedly broke out over masks at a Dollar General in Saugerties. Police said another customer confronted the man for either not wearing a mask or wearing it incorrectly, and the two started arguing. The man then allegedly shoved a woman to the ground. He was charged with second-degree harassment, a violation which usually brings a small fine.

The Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School, in Ghent, closed for the rest of the year as part of the fallout from a potential superspreader event first reported by Hudson Valley 360, where 100 people gathered at a private home in rural Columbia County on December 6 for a funeral and wake. The homeowner at first lied to public health officials and said there were only 10 people in attendance. The Times Union reported Tuesday that the service was part of a four-day series of events at the home celebrating the life of a recently deceased person.

Two more Columbia County residents have died of COVID-19, the county Department of Health announced Tuesday. Eleven people remained hospitalized with the virus on Wednesday; none were in the ICU. The health department also released the COVID-19 incident rate for each town in the county, saying it painted a clearer picture than releasing the number of active cases per town, as they had been doing. Greenport had the highest incident rate, with 2.57 per 100,000 residents, followed by Valatie, with 2.25 cases per 100,000.

Addressing the controversy over the different standards the state and the federal government have for the length of quarantine—the federal CDC has changed its recommendation to 10 days, while the state maintains its 14-day standard—Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus reported a sobering statistic during his briefing on Monday. Ten percent of all residents who tested positive for COVID-19 in the county continued to test positive 10 days later. “Just so you guys know,” Neuhaus said.

Seventeen cases of COVID-19 have been identified at the Ulster County Jail, Sheriff Juan Figueroa told the Kingston Wire on Wednesday. Testing was ordered on everyone at the jail after an inmate tested positive on December 6, though the jail is still awaiting the results of some of the tests. The father of an imprisoned man told the Wire his son was sick with the virus and suffered an asthma attack from the disease. Figueroa has so far identified two inmates with medical conditions that could lead to complications with the virus and sent their information to District Attorney Dave Clegg, who could order their release early on medical grounds, as he did with 10 inmates this spring.

There were 106 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Dutchess County on Monday, according to the county COVID-19 dashboard, just two below the spring peak of 108 hospitalizations, which was reached April 9.

The Village Apothecary, a very holistic, very granola pharmacy in Woodstock, received permission from the state to administer the COVID-19 vaccine, and is in talks with the town and the county about using the Woodstock community center as a vaccination clinic, Hudson Valley One reported.

Belleayre Mountain Ski Center is halting all ticket sales, according to an update on its website. A source tells The River that the resort will honor existing lift tickets. Meanwhile, Hunter Mountain is having a 96-hour sale.

CATSKILLS

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Data debacle: Sullivan County health officials uncovered a glitch in software used by Middletown Medical that caused about 200 positive cases in Sullivan and Orange counties to go unreported to state and county health officials. The cases date all the way back to November 25, Sullivan County Public Health said in a press release. County health director Nancy McGraw said that her department discovered the problem when several county residents called to say they had never been contacted by county health workers, even after receiving a positive COVID-19 result from their provider. “Our staff identified a pattern that many individuals had received their tests at the same location, and we notified the provider’s office, Middletown Medical,” McGraw said. The glitch prevented results from being automatically uploaded to the Electronic Clinical Laboratory Reporting System, which both state and county health officials use to track case data. Since the issue was discovered, Middletown Medical has gone back to manually uploading case data to the system, Sullivan officials said.

The Delaware County Public Health Department issued a public health warning after an associate at the Tops Market (127 Main Street, Stamford) tested positive for COVID-19. Members of the public may have been exposed on Monday, December 7 from 2:30-6:30pm and Wednesday, December 9, from 8am-1pm.

Delaware County has seen some improvement recently on cases and hospitalizations: As of Wednesday, the county has 72 active cases, one hospitalized. Another death in the county on Tuesday brought Delaware’s total COVID-19 death toll to 10.

Greene County’s active cases have also fallen slightly: There are currently 88 in the county, down from 96 on Monday. But the hospitalizations that follow a week or two after a case surge are still on the way up, county health officials said in a Wednesday Facebook post. “Over the past few weeks, the number of our community members in the hospital for COVID-19 has continued to rise,” they wrote. Twelve county residents are currently hospitalized for COVID-19.

Greene County health officials also posted some information on the county’s upcoming vaccination plans on Wednesday. “Greene County has identified eight sites in the county where vaccination clinics will take place. Additionally, other healthcare providers and pharmacies will also be administering the vaccine once it arrives,” they wrote. More information about dates, times, locations, and how to register for vaccination will be shared after the county receives notice of vaccine shipment.

Schoharie County cases continue to rise. As of Wednesday, the county has 83 active cases, county health director Amy Gildemeister told The River.

On-the-ground local reporting and analysis has never been more important, and that’s what The River aims to provide. But we need your help to continue the work we’re doing. Will you support our journalism today?

OF INTEREST?

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.

To read more of our coronavirus coverage, visit our coronavirus page.

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