British Variant Could Be Dominant Strain in U.S. by March

Photo Courtesy Tech. Sgt. Ryan Campbell. Members of the New York National Guard receive supplies for COVID-19 vaccination “pods” at the Guilderland Industrial Park, Altamont, N.Y.

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Thursday, January 14 and Friday, January 15. Published in collaboration with The River.

Note: The roundup will be off on Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We’ll be back on Wednesday, January 20.

NEW YORK STATE


19,942 new cases yesterday
324,671 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 5.82%
187 deaths yesterday
8,808 hospitalizations (1,570 in ICUs)
New York State coronavirus page
New York State vaccine page
New York State official pressroom
COVID-19 hotline: (888) 364-3065
Vaccination appointment hotline: (833) 697-4829

B.1.1.7, a so-called “British variant” of COVID-19 that is more transmissible than most forms of the virus, could dominate US infections by March, scientists for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a stark warning to the nation on Friday. The British variant has been detected in 10 states so far, CDC scientists said in Friday’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The genetic sequencing of cases needed to detect the variant is not part of regular COVID-19 testing, and is being done on only a tiny fraction of cases in the US.

The number of cases of B.1.1.7 that have been found in New York State is up to 16, Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a Friday briefing. State health officials told The Other Hudson Valley this week that the state Wadsworth Center is currently sequencing about 90 cases a day for variants, some of which are contacts of known cases of B.1.1.7, and others selected at random from around the state.

The emergence of several more-transmissible variants worldwide is turning up the heat on vaccination efforts. Vaccines are expected to be effective against the emerging variants, which scientists think have not yet had enough time to evolve enough variation to escape the effects of the vaccines. With transmission rates on the rise because of the variants, the pandemic is threatening to claim more lives and overwhelm hospitals faster, and so the task of getting people vaccinated quickly is becoming more urgent.

In short, it’s a bad time for bad news on vaccines—and so The Washington Post’s blockbuster story on Friday, reporting that a federal stockpile of vaccines that officials have promised to release to states does not exist, landed with a heavy thud. The Post reports that the Trump administration’s initial policy of holding vaccine in reserve for second doses had been quietly revised weeks ago, and that federal officials have been shipping out that reserve supply since December, unbeknownst to the states on the receiving end. After the story broke, The New York Times weighed in with more background further complicating the picture, reporting that the stockpile, however large it may be, is earmarked for booster shots for people who have already received a first dose. The takeaway is that states thought their supply of vaccine would as much as double with the news, but that seems not to be the case, nor will the new shipments enable the expansion of vaccination to cover more people. Confusion and miscommunication between different levels of government have marred the rollout of vaccines on every level, and there’s plenty of finger-pointing going around between federal, state, and local agencies in charge of vaccine distribution and dispensation.

It’s also not a great time to be expanding indoor dining—but that’s what’s happening in New York State’s orange zones, which have been essentially frozen in place since the state shifted gears on “microcluster focus zone” strategy in December. A court decision Wednesday on a lawsuit filed on behalf of Erie County restaurants found that New York State had no “rational basis” for treating them differently from other areas of the state that have higher COVID-19 rates, and it’s hard to disagree with that logic. That said: Indoor dining is clearly dangerous, and instead of shutting it down statewide and looking for ways to support industry workers and business owners, Governor Cuomo is opting to allow all upstate restaurants in orange zones to reopen at the same 50 percent capacity that applies to yellow zones. The ruling and state decision do not apply to New York City, where indoor dining was closed under a separate executive order.

New York State has been getting about 300,000 doses of vaccine from the federal Operation Warp Speed initiative each week—far less than current demand—and is getting just 250,000 this week, Cuomo said Friday. “New York has done its part and now has one of the most expansive distribution networks to actually conduct the vaccinations, and it’s time for the federal government to do theirs and actually increase the supply,” Cuomo said.

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New York may have a lot of vaccination sites in the network, but the rollout of vaccine continues to be a chaotic mess on the ground. In better news, the state’s “Am I Eligible” portal, which must be filled out to schedule an appointment at a state site, now lists 13 state-run locations along with information on whether they are scheduling appointments on a screen that is visible to users before filling out eligibility information. Also good news: About 75 percent of the vaccine doses given by federal officials to New York State for distribution, separate from the federal program that is vaccinating nursing homes, have been administered, a dramatic improvement from last week. Less good news: Vaccine sites not run by the state—which include hospitals, pharmacies, county health departments, and other providers—are still not integrated into the state system, and it is impossible for users of the state website or vaccine hotline to check if those providers are scheduling vaccinations without calling them separately. In some cases, the state website has given out information for providers that do not yet have any vaccine, or even for pop-up vaccination clinics that don’t actually exist.

Outside of the state-run sites, different systems for vaccinating different groups are emerging. According to a Friday state press release, pharmacies will be vaccinating those over 65, hospitals will continue to vaccinate healthcare workers in Phase 1A, and eligible essential workers will be vaccinated by local health departments and “union-organized efforts,” a nod to the state urging first responder departments and large unions to organize their own vaccination efforts. Cuomo and state health officials have not addressed the issue of vaccinating essential workers in counties where under-resourced local health departments are not conducting vaccinations, and a wide range in capacity is emerging between different counties on that front.

Soon to come: Federal vaccination clinics run by FEMA and the National Guard, to be deployed nationwide by the incoming Biden team. The new administration also vows to “quickly jumpstart” efforts to make vaccine available at local pharmacies across the country. President-elect Joe Biden also plans to invoke the Defense Production Act to expand vaccine manufacturing.

New York State officials have canceled about 22,000 “unauthorized” vaccination appointments that were made after a link to an online scheduling system prematurely made the rounds on social media. Most of the appointments were made at Stony Brook University, the rest at other state-run vaccination sites in progress that have not yet begun scheduling appointments.

Nursing home residents have mostly been eager to be vaccinated in New York State. Nursing home workers are less so, CNHI’s Joe Mahoney reports. At some nursing homes, more than 85 percent of workers are being vaccinated, but at others, that percentage is less than 50, a rate that is surprising and dismaying to industry leaders. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that staff vaccination nursing homes were relatively low, and noted that vaccine refusal among staff may lead to continued spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes.

New York State is still hammering out how to define vaccine eligibility for the immunocompromised, Cuomo said Friday. “Pre-existing conditions can go from heart disease, to diabetes, to obesity, to smoking, to COPD,” he said. “So we’re talking to the federal officials, we’re talking to the incoming federal administration, and we want to get more guidance, and we’re looking at numbers on how we could define that category, and we’re hoping that we get more federal allocation so we can make any of this possible.”

New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat from Brooklyn, announced Friday that he has tested positive for COVID-19 and will be self-isolating.

Positivity rates in New York State have begun to drop in the wake of the holidays, Cuomo said Friday. “We’re starting to see a drop post-New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day. That is good news,” he said. While positivity rates may be down, new cases are up: The daily new case count of 19,942 is the highest it has ever been during the pandemic, although the true number of COVID-19 infections in the state in the spring, when many cases went undiagnosed because of limited testing, was undoubtedly higher than it is now.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

One week after administering every dose it had, Rockland County’s health department remains out of vaccination appointments. The county used up its initial allotment of 1,000 doses in just three days last week, and requested 2,000 more vaccines from the state last week. According to a press release issued by Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert, the county received just 200 additional doses. “We cannot predict how many doses will be received from New York State each week and are doing our best to get those eligible individuals vaccinated,” Dr. Ruppert said. “Even though you are eligible, it unfortunately may take months for you to get a vaccine. Please continue to check our website’s alert box for the latest, up-to-date vaccine availability information.”

Despite the lack of vaccine in the federal supply, Rockland County Executive Ed Day put the blame squarely on New York State in a Thursday briefing. “What’s happening right now with the vaccine distribution is absolutely unacceptable,” Day said, clearly frustrated. “There’s no other way of putting it, and I think if there were some level of honesty in Albany, they would acknowledge it too.” He later added: “It is completely illogical that we are getting only 200 doses under the guise of ‘we’re not getting enough from the federal government.’ If we’re getting 300,000 doses each week, we have enough to supply Rockland better, and not just Rockland, but the entire Lower Hudson Valley.”

Day said that he has heard that some Rockland County residents have gone to the Bronx to get vaccinated. Earlier this week, state Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) called on the state health department to establish a large-scale vaccination center in the county, recommending the Anthony Wayne recreation center.

The vaccination effort was a primary topic of Westchester County Executive George Latimer’s Thursday coronavirus briefing, as well. “This is not a blame game,” Latimer said, before spending several minutes explaining that the state sets protocols and determines how much vaccine each county gets. Ill-informed commenters were called out; a reference to “objective truth” was made. “The state has structured a program, and we’re now trying to help administer it so that we can get as many people vaccinated and as many people protected from the disease,” Latimer said.

In the briefing, Latimer also said that the county will expand the number of remote learning sites for the remainder of this school year. Seventeen sites all across the county will start operating on January 19. For more information, residents are encouraged to contact Rosie Finizio, the director of policy and programs for childcare and education, at (914) 995-2501 or rfinizio@westchestergov.com.

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano lent his voice to the increasingly crowded chorus of regional officials calling for a more robust vaccination program. In a statement released Thursday, Spano said that it was imperative to open a vaccination center in Yonkers, the fourth-largest city in the state and the largest in the Hudson Valley. “Positivity and hospitalization rates continue to rise here while appointments to obtain a vaccine are increasingly difficult to schedule,” he wrote. “We can’t expect Westchester County Center alone to mass service most of those who live in the lower Hudson Valley. We need to expedite the vaccine to the areas where it’s needed most.”

Putnam County conducted its second round of vaccinations Thursday at Philipstown Recreation Center, using up 100 doses designated for seniors aged 75 or older, and 200 for essential workers among the police, fire companies, and school districts. The county currently has no available vaccine, according to a Friday press release.

The case numbers in the Lower Hudson Valley have only underlined the urgency of the vaccination effort. Rockland County added 291 cases over the past 24 hours and has 2,786 actives. Westchester added over 1,000 cases and 13 deaths, and has 11,395 active infections, which Latimer called “continuing tragedy of COVID.” And in Putnam County, 8.5 percent of those tested in the past week have been positive for the virus, according to the state dashboard.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia
County vaccine pages: Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Ulster County ran through its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of Thursday, and doesn’t expect to receive its next shipment until late Tuesday, according to the Daily Freeman. Only 1,200 of the 20,000 residents who requested shots were able to receive them.

The Highlands Current captured the crush to get vaccine appointments in Dutchess County, where the waiting list for shots at Drug World in Cold Spring grew to 3,300 in two days, and the week’s appointments at county-run sites were gone within an hour.

Hospitalizations in Orange County have fallen 20 percent since peaking at 177 on January 29, according to the county COVID-19 dashboard. Four more deaths were announced on Tuesday.

Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus walked viewers through the state’s “Am I Eligible” portal during his Thursday COVID-19 briefing. The site leads eligible residents to a listing of vaccination hubs in the state. Orange County received 200 doses of the vaccine this week— which Neuhaus called “really unacceptably low”—and had run out Thursday. Neuhaus said he requested 3,000 doses for next week, but the state had not yet told him if this was possible. “The vaccine supply is not there,” he summed it up. The Other Hudson Valley checked appointment availability at the 13 points of distribution listed on the state portal Friday morning, and most were open for new appointments. We suggest checking it often.

Twelve-hundred doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were expected to be distributed by the Columbia County Department of Health by the end of this week, department director Jack Mabb told the county Board of Supervisors on Wednesday.

The Columbia County Board of Supervisors also heard from the heads of various county agencies helping to fight the pandemic about the strain they were under. EMS Coordinator PJ Keeler said ambulance squads in the county had gotten nearly 70 COVID-related calls in the first 10 days of the year, and the ranks had recently been diminished by infections and mandatory quarantines. “It’s taken an extreme toll,” Keeler said. Health Director Mabb said the state had sent two nurses to help with contact tracing, but the department was being overwhelmed and had requested six more. Matt Murrel, the board chair, said the department was tasked with the contact tracing, vaccinating the population and fielding calls from desperate residents who could not get through the state website or state hotline.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro signed an executive order Thursday capping service fees of food delivery services such as Grubhub at 15 percent.

The Poughkeepsie Journal visited one of Dutchess’ three county-run hubs, located in a vacant JCPenney’s in the Poughkeepsie Galleria. The county was expected to run through the 700 doses it was shipped by the end of the week, and will await next week’s shipment.

Congressman Antonio Delgado advocated for direct federal funding to counties and municipalities during a tour of the Ulster County vaccination hub in Kingston on Thursday. “County coffers will quickly dry” from the costs of distributing the vaccine unless they are reimbursed by the federal government, Delgado stated in a press release. He pushed for the Direct Support for Communities Act, which he introduced in early May with bipartisan support. The bill was incorporated into a stimulus package passed by the House of Representatives in May, and another passed in October, but neither package made it through the Republican-controlled Senate.

A correction: In Wednesday’s roundup, we mistyped the number for the “COVID-19 Vaccine Information line” that the Columbia County Department of Health began operating this week. The number is (518) 697-5560. We regret the error.

CATSKILLS

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie
County vaccine pages: Sullivan, Greene

An error on the New York State vaccine web portal sent Sullivan County residents to the county health department, in an effort to sign up for a nonexistent vaccine clinic in Liberty. “Sullivan County has NO vaccination clinics scheduled for tomorrow,” Health Director Nancy McGraw said in a press release issued Thursday to try to clear up the mixup. “We don’t want to add to the public’s frustration or our already high workload, which is what will happen if we have people showing up at our doors tomorrow.” Sullivan County Public Health will begin weekly COVID-19 vaccination clinics on January 20, and is planning to launch a larger vaccination site at SUNY Sullivan on January 25, supply permitting.

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The River and The Other Hudson Valley are is 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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