As CDC Guidance On Masking Changes, Localities In The Northeast Debate New Rules
Although the coronavirus pandemic subsided in the U.S. over the last several weeks, the rapid spread of so-called “breakthrough cases” involving the Delta variant has renewed public concerns, especially in several upstate New York counties.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week recommended renewed mask rules for high-risk areas of the country and schools as states moved to mandate vaccines for healthcare and government workers.
Despite vaccination efforts, CDC data shows Orange, Westchester, Saratoga, Schenectady, Rensselaer and Greene counties having "substantial spread" of COVID-19. As of Friday afternoon, Hampden County in Massachusetts met the criteria, along with six of eight counties in Connecticut. Essex County in Vermont is at high risk for the spread, according to the CDC. The CDC now recommends indoor mask-wearing in such counties and in schools for all teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen says she welcomes the change.
"The mask era has not ended from public health messages, messaging," Whalen said. "Anyone that has not been vaccinated should be wearing a mask all the way through. There was never a reversal on that advice from public health. To me, it's not surprising, you know, if you look at the 1918 pandemic, if you look at the seasonality of how these viruses behave, you know, we were primed for a fourth wave. We really did try to do our best to message people that increasing rates of vaccination would help blunt that. But it is something that was anticipated by public health."
According to the New York State Department of Health, seven Greene County municipalities have the lowest vaccination rates in the Capital Region.
Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden says the county is not going to require masks or shut down operations.
"We encourage people to be vaccinated, we check our local pharmacies every day for inventories," Groden said. "We encourage people to go to the pharmacy and to get inoculated. But for those people who have been who have been vaxxed, if that's the terminology we're using now, we are not recommending that they continue to wear a mask."
The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors formed a new task force to review local data and provide recommendations to county residents. County leaders say the Saratoga Health and Readiness Planning Task Force will hear concerns from residents, schools, businesses and others. As the number of COVID cases in the region climbs, the county announced it will also resume daily updates and will hold press conferences as necessary.
Albany County Executive Dan McCoy announced that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county is now at 24,707 to date, with 31 new positive cases identified since Thursday.
"We should be alarmed," McCoy said. "I want people to take a step back, I've said this before, it's a marathon, not a sprint, and we'll get there. But we need people. So please, you know, be patient. I know people don't want to go back to a shutdown. People want a normal school year, people don't want to wear the mask anymore. And you're seeing us slowly go back down that road. Because you know, it opened up after almost 15 months, and people are traveling, people who don't got the vaccine, the people that went out and got the vaccine, to your listeners, thank you. And that has really helped us in on the county because 66.4% of the Albany County population has received at least the first dose 62% are fully vaccinated. So and 18 plus is 77%."
McCoy says eight county residents remain hospitalized with the virus, but not in intensive care. The death toll for Albany County stands at 388 since the outbreak began. Meanwhile, Schenectady County announced a new COVID-19 death this week, its first in nearly two months.
Greene County’s Groden tells WAMC he “rejects” the notion that the county is lagging surrounding counties when it comes to vaccinating residents.
"When we have reports that certain zip codes in the county are under vaccinated, we feel much of that is erroneous because they were vaccinated, but they're using a PO Box zip code that is different, perhaps, from their actual home zip code," Groden said. "And then lastly, you know, we're listed as slightly below 50% in countywide vaccinations, but that's total population. When you exclude children under 12 years of age who cannot be inoculated, our numbers exceed 60%. So the concept that Greene is under the weather or under surrounding county numbers, we reject that."