Coronavirus Roundup: Pfizer Claims Its Vaccine Works. What Does It Mean For Us? | Health | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Saturday, November 7 through Monday, November 9. 

3,144 new cases yesterday
111,416 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 2.82%
26 deaths yesterday
1,444 hospitalizations
282 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

On Monday, the nation heard the best piece of COVID-19 news that’s come out for a long time: Pfizer announced that its vaccine, developed in partnership with German company BioNTech, works. Not only that, it appears to work better than its makers expected. In their first peek at the results of ongoing clinical trials—which have not yet been released to outside experts or peer-reviewed—independent monitors of Pfizer’s Phase Three trial found that symptomatic cases of COVID-19 were reduced by more than 90 percent among people who got two doses of the vaccine, compared to trial participants who got only a placebo. That’s a stunning result for Pfizer and BioNTech, whose researchers were expecting to see efficacy rates in the realm of 60 to 70 percent.

The public health world has largely greeted the news with joy and relief, tempered with caution that these results have yet to be published. But even if Pfizer’s success holds up, there is still a long road ahead before most Americans can be vaccinated, and with new cases above 100,000 a day for the fifth day in a row in the US, it’s shaping up to be a long, hard winter.

A few key points to think about, to put Pfizer’s announcement in context: 

  • Vaccine trials are going faster than expected not just because makers and governments are investing resources in them, but because the rate of COVID-19 spread in many places is spiraling out of control. In order to know whether vaccines work, makers need data points—and the data they need comes from looking at trial participants who get infected. 
  • Does the vaccine prevent infection, or just disease? The ability to prevent infection completely is called “sterilizing immunity,” and we don’t know yet whether the Pfizer vaccine does that. If it prevents disease in most people but does not prevent asymptomatic infection and transmission, the goal of protecting unvaccinated people through herd immunity may prove more elusive.
  • Before the FDA will issue an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine, researchers must gather at least two months of safety data for at least half of the trial participants after their second dose. Pfizer expects that milestone to be reached later this month. The company must also manufacture enough doses to meet demand. In a Monday press release, Pfizer said that it can make 50 million doses by the end of the year, and up to 1.3 billion in 2021, for a vaccine that will have a global market.
  • Pfizer’s vaccine has a major logistical challenge: It must be kept at extremely cold temperatures, not achievable by ordinary refrigerated transportation, and must be transported in dry ice and stored in special freezers. (Heat lamp shortage, meet ultracold freezer shortage: States have been worrying about deep freezer availability for months.) There will be intense logistical distribution challenges around delivering the vaccine to the general population, which may be especially intense in rural areas, drug discovery expert Derek Lowe points out. “Population density is as big a factor as electricity and transport infrastructure,” he writes. “The more trucks (etc.) that you have to send down isolated roads to find the spread-out patients, the worse.”
  • Rural areas aren’t the only ones that may be shortchanged in the vaccine rollout. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a frequent critic of the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response, has taken aim in the past week at its plan for vaccine distribution, which he claims will leave low-income communities and communities of color behind by relying too heavily on a private health care and pharmacy network that already leaves these communities with limited access to health care. Pfizer has said it will work with the federal government on logistics, but will oversee its own delivery.
  • A bright spot: Pfizer’s success means that other vaccines that target the same spike protein on the novel coronavirus are likely to work as well. Other vaccines may prove less challenging to distribute if they hold up in trials—although Moderna’s vaccine, another front-runner, also requires ultracold storage.
  • Should the Trump administration claim credit for the breakthrough? Probably not. Pfizer turned down federal funding for research and development, opting to go its own way, and has distanced itself from the White House’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program in comments on the announcement. On the other hand, Operation Warp Speed has made Pfizer’s investment in the vaccine a little less risky by committing to ordering a lot of it. And it must be noted: Amid general failure and inaction, Operation Warp Speed has been the sole piece of the federal COVID-19 response to earn substantial praise from scientists and experts
  • The waiting is the hardest part: Good news on vaccines is a much-needed reminder that this next phase of the pandemic may be excruciating, but it will end. Seeing a bit of light at the end of the tunnel might give both governments and ordinary people more will to take tough measures against the spread of infection until the vaccine arrives.

New York State’s new normal: Updates every few days on the state’s shifting microclusters, where officials are fighting outbreaks with neighborhood-level restrictions on gatherings, schools, and businesses. Throughout the fall and winter, New Yorkers should expect frequent updates as new microclusters are declared, and existing ones change or are eliminated, Cuomo told reporters in a Monday briefing. “This is going to be the constant for the foreseeable future. Every few days we will say, ‘This place became a microcluster, this place is no longer a microcluster,’” the governor said.

COVID Mountain now has a foothill: New York State’s COVID-19 numbers have been getting worse, and the appearance of a fall second wave is now visually apparent in the state’s hospitalization chart. On Sunday, the state hit numbers not seen in months: Hospitalizations reached 1,444, deaths hit 26, and the statewide positivity rate climbed to 2.82 percent.

On Monday, Cuomo announced three new microclusters in the Western New York counties of Erie, Monroe, and Onondoga. All are yellow “precautionary” zones, where restrictions on gatherings apply, and schools must carry out testing of students and staff but are not required to close.

Brooklyn’s microcluster, where the red zone shrank last week, will now see its red zone downgraded to orange, increasing allowed gathering sizes and allowing nonessential businesses to reopen.

No change: Microclusters in Rockland, Orange, Westchester, Broome, Steuben, and Chemung counties are still in effect. Cuomo released updated case data from each of the state’s microclusters on Monday; the overall positivity rate in the state’s microclusters in Sunday data was 4.32 percent.

Cuomo will not take action yet to contain rising infections in Staten Island, but both the state and New York City are watching the situation warily.

State budget director Robert Mujica said on Monday that New York is “not inclined” to allow school winter sports to start up as scheduled on November 30, with the sole exception of skiing.

The statewide SUNY system has released its plan for students to return to campus for the spring semester: Classes will begin in February, all students must do a seven-day quarantine and be tested for COVID-19 before returning, and there will be no spring break.

The University of Albany did a round of testing on Friday, and the sobering numbers it found prompted the campus to go to remote learning starting Tuesday. Campus housing will remain operational and students will remain on campus, Spectrum News reports

Upstate Medical infectious disease researcher Stephen Thomas has been appointed lead principal investigator of Pfizer’s vaccine trial, Cuomo’s office announced in a press release Monday. The Syracuse medical school is one of the global Phase Three vaccine trial locations. 

Back in October, Thomas wrote an op-ed for Forbes explaining how the fast-tracked vaccine research effort works and why he’s confident we can trust the results. One key point: Although it takes time to ensure that vaccines are safe, that’s not the main reason they tend to take many years to complete. “Extended vaccine development timelines are, in part, the by-product of efforts to mitigate financial risk,” Thomas writes. “For example, you would never commit hundreds of millions of dollars to the large-scale manufacturing of a vaccine before you knew the vaccine was safe and effective.” But in this case, that’s exactly what happened.

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio is contemplating the need for new restrictions, possibly including an end to indoor dining in the city, and is apparently trying to get Cuomo to enact them by speculating about them in public. “We’re seeing household transmission. We’re seeing community spread. We’re seeing things we have not seen in a long time,” the mayor said Monday. 

While New York’s second wave picks up speed, the rest of the US is looking increasingly dire. Forty-eight states are currently in red territory on the COVID Exit Strategy warning map, the only exceptions being Vermont and Hawaii in “Caution Warranted” yellow. On Sunday night, hard-hit Utah instituted a state of emergency, banned all social gatherings between households for two weeks, and declared a mask mandate with large fines for noncompliance. Wisconsin is facing a shortage of both hospital beds and hospital workers, and the crisis is expected to get worse as hospitalizations and deaths follow in the wake of the state’s rising case count.

President-elect Joe Biden has announced a detailed COVID-19 response plan and an advisory board for tackling the pandemic, prompting an outpouring of relief and a smattering of criticism from medical experts on social media. Speaking in Wilmington, Delaware on Monday, Biden warned that there is a “very dark winter” ahead, and urged Americans to wear masks. 

Another cluster of cases is emerging at the White House, after a Friday revelation that Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, had been infected. Since then, more high-profile cases in and around the administration have been revealed, including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Trump legal adviser David Bossie. The three-person data visualization team behind the “COVID-19 at the White House” spreadsheet, who tracked the Rose Garden cluster that included President Donald Trump, is tracking the current outbreak as well

A monoclonal antibody treatment from Eli Lilly called bamlanivimab was granted emergency use authorization by the FDA late on Monday for use on COVID-19 patients, along with a warning that it is not authorized for use on people who have been hospitalized or who already require oxygen treatment. The treatment has been shown to reduce hospitalization in COVID-19 patients at high risk for developing severe disease, and its makers say it should be given as early as possible in treatment. A data point in its favor: Bamlanivimab did seem to work for Chris Christie.

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

Cases are climbing rapidly in Westchester County. In Monday’s coronavirus briefing, County Executive George Latimer said that the county was up to 2,048 cases, about a 35 percent jump over the past week. Hospitalizations have nearly doubled over that time—the number was 82 as of Friday—and on Sunday, the county’s positive test rate was 4.2 percent. “We are clearly looking at an increase in the disease,” Latimer said.

Two more health alerts from the Putnam County Department of Health. The first is for anyone who was at Tractor Supply Company (1253 Route 311, Patterson) anytime between Monday, November 2 through Saturday, November 7. The second is to alert the public that a poll worker at Putnam Valley High School on Election Day has tested positive for COVID-19. Anyone who voted at that location should monitor for symptoms.

Relatedly, the positive test rate for Putnam County on Sunday was 4.5 percent, the highest in the Mid-Hudson Region. The county’s rolling 7-day test positivity rate is 2.8 percent, in line with the region as a whole.

The Westchester County Office of Economic Development awarded $10 million to 262 small businesses and nonprofits in the county facing challenges as a result of the pandemic.

The Highlands Current published Part II in its series about the effects of the pandemic on important aspects of daily life. This installment looks at the education system, checking in with schools to see how virtual and hybrid learning is going. One article looks at how the state’s financial woes could bust local school budgets next year, and another asks the all-important question: what have we learned?

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 it has activated its Emergency Operations Center in response to climbing case counts. The county of just under 60,000 currently has 103 active cases, 25 of whom are hospitalized. “We’ve never had this many active cases at one time,” said county Health Director Jack Mabb in a press release. “We’re seeing all community spread, with cases scattered throughout the county ranging from age two on up. We are now at a 1.7 percent incident rate—with this trend, we’ll be over 2 percent at the end of the week.” The EOC will be open and monitored virtually from 8am to 4pm Monday through Friday, and can be reached at (518) 828-1212; calls outside regular hours will be referred to the county sheriff’s office.

Cases are up across the region. On Monday, Orange County reported 351 new confirmed positives since Friday, and Ulster County 49 new cases. Dutchess County reported that active cases rose from 238 to 292 between November 5 and 7. Active cases in all four Mid-Hudson counties are higher than they’ve been since at least mid-June. 

Three Orange County DMV workers have tested positive for COVID-19, the county announced Monday. All work at the Middletown office, and Health Commissioner Dr. Irina Gelman said that anyone who worked or visited that location last week may have been exposed. The county will close all of its DMV locations as a precautionary measure through Thursday, and will send emails regarding rescheduling appointments.

The Goshen Central School District will be closed for in-person learning until November 16 due to a shortage of instructional staff and substitute teachers.

In higher education news, Marist College extended its “pause,” which was set to expire Monday, until Wednesday pending further tests, after reporting nine new positive results yesterday. Bard College announced its first positive test result since the fall semester began. And SUNY New Paltz reported two new cases in off-campus students on Monday.

Silvia, a restaurant in Woodstock, reported that a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. According to a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page, the employee last worked on Thursday, November 5, and was asymptomatic. The restaurant will remain closed for a few days to allow for it to be sanitized and for every employee to be tested.

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

Delaware County is up to 67 active cases as of Monday, more than double the number one week ago. The county appears to be dealing with unchecked community spread, as cases have been linked to schools, restaurants, and bars in recent days. New York State contact tracers have stepped in to help the county’s health department with contact tracing.

On that note: Delaware County Public Health issued an alert warning that anyone who was at Danny’s Restaurant (14 Gardiner Pl, Walton) on October 21, 26, or 28 faced possible exposure to a COVID-positive individual.

Remote instruction at Walton Central School will be extended through at least this Friday. The district shut down in-person instruction last week after a student tested positive. Three additional students tested positive, according to a letter posted to the district website by Superintendent Michael MacDonald. The state COVID-19 report for Walton CSD shows one student and two staff members at Townsend Elementary School have tested positive.

Delaware Academy Elementary, Downsville Central School, and Charlotte Valley Central School have all reported new infections recently. Delaware and Charlotte Valley shifted to remote-only education Friday, while Downsville was closed.

Of the 11 counties tracked by The River, Greene County was the only county to issue an updated active case count on Monday showing a decline. Active cases in Greene went from 47 on Friday to 44 on Monday; 24 of the current active cases in the county are in the Greene Correctional Facility.

Active cases in Sullivan County have continued to grow, hitting 106 as of Monday—the highest the active case count has been since June 11. Only one county resident is currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The county has not issued any exposure alerts or other information about the settings in which cases are spreading since October 22. 

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?

On November 19, we’re hosting a Zoom conversation with panel guests from the public health, local business, and community service worlds, and will answer audience questions about the pandemic—from its effects to what it’s like to cover it. Click here to learn more, and to register.

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 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.

Lissa Harris

Lissa Harris is a staff writer at The River and a volunteer firefighter. She was the founding editor of the Watershed Post, a site that covered local news in the rural Catskills from 2010 to 2017.
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