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Coronavirus Roundup: Congress Reaches Deal; Vaccinations Expand in New York

All the news and announcements from New York State, the Hudson Valley, and the Catskills for Saturday, December 19 through Monday, December 21.

Freda Bernhardt, 101, of Rochester receives the COVID-19 vaccine as part of the federal nursing home vaccination program that began Monday.
Jewish Home of Rochester
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This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Saturday, December 19 through Monday, December 21. Published in collaboration with The Other Hudson Valley.

Note: Wednesday’s coronavirus news roundup will be the last one for 2020. We are taking off Christmas Day and the last week of this long, hard year. We’ll be back with the next roundup on Monday, January 4.

9,007 new cases yesterday
156,510 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 5.75%
111 deaths yesterday
6,331 hospitalizations
1,095 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

We have a deal. Congress announced on Sunday that it had reached agreement on a $900 billion pandemic-relief package, after months of on-and-off negotiations and weeks of political horsetrading. The bill represents the first significant federal relief since the CARES Act, in April, and comes just days before millions of Americans were slated to lose federal unemployment benefits at the end of the year. It is expected to be combined with a comprehensive spending bill that will keep the government’s proverbial lights on through the end of the fiscal year. The entire combo is worth some $2.3 trillion, and is expected to be voted on as soon as Monday night. President Trump has signaled that he will sign the bill into law.

So, what’s in this thing? The deal includes $286 billion in direct aid, including $600 checks to every American making under $75,000 per year, and federal unemployment benefits of $300 per week—both totals exactly half of what the CARES Act provided. The unemployment boost will run for 11 additional weeks (through March 14), and includes an extension of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides benefits to self-employed, contract, and gig workers. As for the direct checks, families with children will receive an extra $600 per child.

There is also $325 billion for small businesses, most of which will refill the coffers of the Paycheck Protection Program to provide forgivable loans to businesses with fewer than 300 employees. There’s also $15 billion for indie theaters, venues, and cultural institutions, which have been among the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic.

Schools get $82 billion, most of it divided between the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund ($54.3 billion) and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund ($22.7 billion), programs that give funding to states to distribute to schools according to local need. Eligibility for Pell Grants is also extended, including to incarcerated students.

There is $69 billion for public health, including $22 billion to states for testing and contact tracing, $9 billion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for vaccinations, and $20 billion for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority—which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services—for vaccine procurement and distribution.

Other stuff in the package:

  • $45 billion for transportation, including $4 billion for the MTA here in New York, which may alter the agency’s cost-saving contingency plan to cut service west of the Hudson River.
  • $25 billion in rental assistance via aid to qualified families who are unable to make rent or pay off overdue rent. These funds can also be used for utility payments. Go here to find out if you’re eligible. The eviction moratorium has also been extended one month, through January 2021.
  • $13 billion for food-assistance programs, including a 15 percent increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and $13 billion in aid to farmers who have been impacted by the pandemic.
  • A ban on “surprise” medical bills by forcing health providers to haggle with insurance companies for a fair price whenever an out-of-network provider is unexpectedly involved in patient care. The provision enjoys bipartisan support, but it doesn’t begin until 2022, and will apply to doctors, hospitals, and air ambulances, but not ground ambulances.
  • Foreclosure protection and mortgage forbearance on federally-backed mortgages through January 31, 2021.
  • $35 billion for clean energy research and development, including a plan to cut hydrofluorocarbons by 85 percent in 15 years.
  • $7 billion for broadband, with the aim of increasing access especially for low-income Americans.
  • And finally: $2 billion for the Space Force.

Conspicuously missing from the stimulus bill: Federal aid for local and state governments whose budgets have been decimated by the pandemic. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Wednesday that various other forms of aid to programs, businesses, and households will deliver $50 billion to New York State and its residents. But local officials from both sides of the aisle are frustrated with the lack of federal aid for local government.

There have been rumblings in the state legislature lately about passing a new tax on ultra-wealthy New Yorkers in a last-minute session before 2020 comes to an end. So far, that’s still up in the air, State of Politics reports. 

Don’t panic: Scientists are tracking a mutated strain of COVID-19 that is rapidly gaining a foothold in the UK, causing many countries to close their borders to British travelers. It’s too soon to know much about how mutation has affected this strain of virus: it is in the nature of viruses to mutate, and mutations often have little or no effect on how dangerous or contagious a virus is. But in this case, the newer strain, known as B.1.1.7, accounts for an increasing percentage of the COVID-19 cases in parts of the UK since it was first discovered, which is why scientists think it is likely to be 50 to 70 percent more transmissible. Mutations can also cause decreasing vaccine efficacy, but in the case of the flu, it takes years for the virus to acquire enough mutations that a vaccine no longer works against it. Scientists are not especially worried that B.1.1.7 has already “escaped” the vaccine, although there are already studies underway to test that idea. The New York Times has a good short explainer on the newer UK strain, and a deeper dive on what scientists think it means for the shape of the pandemic and our ongoing response.

Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed the newer UK strain of COVID-19 in a briefing on Monday, urging the federal government to close US borders to UK travelers, or at least require testing. “When you do not require flights from the UK to be tested, you are allowing thousands of UK passengers to arrive here every day,” he said. On Monday, three airways—Virgin Atlantic, Delta, and British Airways—all agreed to require a negative COVID-19 test for passengers flying from the UK to New York.

The group of people at highest priority for vaccination expands this week in New York State, Cuomo announced Monday. Now included, along with frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents and staff, are federally qualified health center workers, EMTs, coroners, medical examiners, funeral home workers, and other congregate care residents and staff. Cuomo did not mention prisons specifically, but there’s an argument for including them as “congregate care” facilities: COVID-19 prison outbreaks have been deadly in New York State, and have spilled out into the broader community. Neighboring Massachusetts has opted to begin vaccinating inmates in prisons after healthcare workers and nursing home residents have been vaccinated. 

The CDC released additional vaccine-priority recommendations over the weekend. Adults aged 75 and over and frontline essential workers are in the second priority group, while the third stage of vaccinations should focus on adults 65 to 74, people 16 to 64 years old with high-risk medical conditions, and essential workers not included in the second phase of vaccinations, according to the advisory panel that helped craft the recommendations. Frontline essential workers include first responders, teachers and other education workers (including day care workers), food and agriculture workers, correctional facility staff, postal workers, public transit workers, and people who work in manufacturing and in grocery stores.

Also included in the first round of vaccinations in New York: Pharmacy workers who are giving vaccines under a federal program that is sending CVS and Walgreens employees to administer vaccinations in nursing homes. “The vaccinators will be getting vaccinated,” budget director Robert Mujica said Monday, clearing up an issue that had been a concern for pharmacy workers

The federal nursing home vaccination program got underway on Monday in New York State. Cuomo showed several photos of nursing home residents getting vaccinated in Monday’s briefing. The recently authorized Moderna vaccine also joined the rollout on Monday along with Pfizer’s, which had received a slightly earlier emergency use authorization. Between nursing homes and frontline healthcare workers, about 38,000 people have been vaccinated in New York State so far, Cuomo said. 

President-elect Joe Biden received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on live television on Monday, in an attempt to reassure Americans of the vaccine’s safety. “I’m doing this to demonstrate that people should be prepared, when it’s available, to take the vaccine,” Biden said. “There’s nothing to worry about.” Infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci will reportedly be vaccinated on Tuesday, along with other Trump administration officials including Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar.

Speaking of Azar: He and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield were issued subpoenas by House Democrats on Monday for documents related to alleged political interference in the CDC’s scientific work. CBS News reports that the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis “has been investigating claims that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services attempted to influence reports from the CDC about the spread of the coronavirus in the spring and summer, and bullied career staff.”

Forget a taco truck on every corner: New York State is preparing to have popup vaccination sites for hard-to-reach “health deserts” across the state, including rural areas as well as low-income communities that are poorly served by existing healthcare networks. Each kit will come in its own shipping container, and will include everything from syringes to signage. “Put on the back of a truck, bring it to a public housing authority, to a church, to a community center, anywhere in the state, everything you need; computers, IT, medicine, wall dividers, tables, chairs, schematic for how you set up the space,” Cuomo said.

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

Forty-four people died in Westchester County due to COVID-19 in the past week, County Executive George Latimer said in his Monday coronavirus briefing. Latimer compared that total to a two-month period over the summer when the county lost just 11 people to the virus. There were 433 new cases announced on Monday, with 5.3 percent test positivity, according to the state COVID-19 dashboard. Currently Westchester has an estimated 8,269 active cases, which Latimer noted has actually declined slightly over the past few days. With most activities in the county shuttered, the county executive blamed in-home gatherings for the continued spread of the virus. “For Thanksgiving and now coming up for Christmas holiday, the chances of infecting a group of people in a family is much greater, and I think that’s what we’re seeing in terms of the number of people hospitalized and the number of people infected,” Latimer said.

Data released Monday on Rockland County’s coronavirus dashboards show a slight decline in active cases there, as well, to 2,056. The county currently has 81 people hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19, with more than 36 percent of its hospital beds available. The county’s rolling 7-day average of positive tests is 6.2 percent, according to the state dashboard.

Putnam County released its weekly update of case data. As of December 17, the county had an estimated 265 active cases and 24 people hospitalized with COVID-19.

Westchester County released a video on Monday with an outline of procedures for schools to follow when their location has been designated a microcluster zone by the state. Dr. Marissa Montecalvo from the county health department gave the presentation. The county seems to have pivoted to video of late: Last week, it released a video demonstrating how to use the BinaxNOW at-home card test.

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan announced new priorities for Project Resilience as the coronavirus resurges in the area. The project will now “focus on supporting our seniors and our young people, addressing growing food insecurity by supporting our network of local food banks, and building support systems for Ulster County families that are living paycheck to paycheck,” Ryan said in a statement.

Ulster County’s active cases have been distressingly high lately. As a percentage of county population, Ulster currently has more active cases than any other county in the Hudson Valley. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the county has a higher infection rate: It seems Ulster is being a little more conservative than some other local counties in removing people from their count of active cases, which is probably keeping that number higher. “We make sure to touch base with these individuals to ensure that they are in fact recovered,” said assistant deputy county executive Daniel Torres in an emailed statement. “Additionally, due to the volume of new positive cases and our limited capacity, we have prioritized working individuals who we know are positive as opposed to those recovering. That has created a lag in the numbers.” By contrast, Westchester County, which has also had a worrying case surge lately, counts active cases by adding up the number of new cases over the past 14 days; any older cases are automatically excluded from the count.

A total of 20 people incarcerated at the Ulster County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19, the facility announced Monday. Eleven corrections officers at the jail and six sheriff’s deputies are either infected with the coronavirus or quarantining while awaiting test results. Seven deaths were reported over the last two days in the county.

Columbia County appears to be getting very little information about how vaccines will be distributed in the area, as suggested by a borderline disturbing quote from Health Director Jack Mabb in the Register-Star: “The only thing we’ve heard out of the 170,000 is what came to the Capital Region. It was about 8,000 doses given to the Capital Region and I know 975 of those went to Albany Med, but we haven’t heard anything more than that.” Mabb also said the state had originally suggested his department would be handling the vaccination of EMS crews, but now these would “apparently” be handled by Columbia Memorial Hospital.

Sixty-four new cases were identified in Columbia County since Friday’s count; there were 118 active cases as of Monday, the most since the beginning of the pandemic. The new cases include several county workers and four staff members at Livingston Hills Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, according to the county Health Department.

Orange County has counted 391 new cases since Friday and five additional deaths, County Executive Steve Neuhaus said in his Monday coronavirus briefing. All of the people who died were aged 60 and older, but none were nursing home residents, Neuhaus said. The county has dealt with several outbreaks at long-term care facilities in recent weeks.

Dutchess County has 1,511 active cases as of Monday’s dashboard update, up more than 200 in the past week. The county’s test positivity rate in Monday’s data was 6.6 percent, according to the state dashboard; its 7-day rolling average is 6.2 percent.

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Schoharie County had its third death from COVID-19 on Friday. County health director Amy Gildemeister told The River that the county’s active case count, which was in the 80s recently, is now down to 58, which is better news—although the recent snowstorm might have made a dent in testing. “We have an 88% increase over the last 14 days. I hope the decrease in the last couple days is real, but I think it is more likely a result of last week’s snow storm preventing people from being able to access testing,” Gildemeister wrote in a Facebook post Monday

Sullivan County’s active cases hit 248 in Monday’s data, a record since the county launched its dashboard in July. It’s a large number for the small county, which was at 151 just a week ago, but the rapidity of the recent increase could be the fault of a data glitch: County health officials discovered last week that test provider Middletown Medical had not been uploading results to a county and state database due to a software error. 

Delaware County health officials announced a potential exposure alert at the McDonald’s in Hancock, where an employee recently tested positive. Anyone who was there on Monday, December 12, between 12pm and 5pm, may have been exposed, and is encouraged to self-monitor for symptoms through December 28. 

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The River 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.

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