City Beat and Arts & Entertainment Editor
ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week provided state guidance for school districts across New York to remain open, despite the spread of infection through the communities in which they are located.
“If the children are safer in the school than they are on the streets of the community, then children should be in school,” Cuomo said. “That is my opinion, but it is up to the school districts to decide.”
Since the start of the school year, just over 1,250 students and 600 teachers and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Capital Region.
Cuomo specified that in counties with a greater than 9% positive test rate, if testing in schools show a lower rate of infection than the community average, then the schools may remain open.
Saratoga County specifically began the new year with a 7-day average positive rate of about 11% in the community. Infections in specific school districts may be searched via the state’s Covid-19 Report Card website at: schoolcovidreportcard.health.ny.gov/#/home.
Regarding vaccine progress, Cuomo said 288 of the 688 facilities enrolled in the Federal nursing home program in New York State have completed the first dose of vaccines for their residents. An additional 234 facilities are slated for their first doses to be administered this week, and the balance of residents are anticipated to be vaccinated over the next two weeks.
ALBANY — The first confirmed case of the UK strain of COVID-19 virus in New York State was detected in Saratoga Springs, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Jan. 4.
The new strain was detected by the Department of Health’s Wadsworth laboratory as part of the state’s UK strain testing program and was traced back to someone affiliated with Broadway’s N. Fox Jewelers.
“It’s a gentleman who is in his 60s. He was symptomatic, but he is on the mend and he’s doing better,” Cuomo said. The sample was originally done in Saratoga Hospital and then was one of the samples that Wadsworth received as part of their UK testing program. Three others at the jewelry store tested positive for COVID-19, but it was not immediately known whether that was also part of the UK strain.
The COVID variant first discovered in the U.K. is reported to be 70 percent more contagious than the normal COVID strain, although it is not believed, on its own, to be more lethal.
“It seems to be a little bit more easily spread and travel a little more quickly than the virus we know,” said Saratoga County EMS Coordinator Mike McEvoy. “It does not appear at this point to make people more sick or cause different types of illness and seemingly can be vaccinated against with the same vaccine. It concerns us in a sense that if there is a wide-spread outbreak of it, we would have more people ill in the community faster and our capacity to take care of those people in public health and in the hospitals could potentially be compromised with the speed that we’ve seen it spread in other locations,” McEvoy said.
“The key thing is the message we’ve been preaching since March or April: wear your mask, wash your hands as often as you can, and try to limit your social interaction with large groups of people. Stay with people who you know.”
The state Department of Health initiated what it called “aggressive contact tracing” related to people who may have visited the jeweler between Dec. 18 and Dec. 24, to learn if the specific viral strain has infected others. Starting on Tuesday, Jan. 5, the department set up a free testing area near Peerless Pool in the Spa State Park to specifically test people who were in contact or in the Spa City jewelry shop Dec. 18-24, for the UK COVID strain. Pre-registration was required. Howard Zucker, Commissioner of Health for New York State said it takes about 44 hours to learn results regarding the B117 strain, as it is known.
N. Fox Jewelers released a brief statement to say it is working with the state health department on COVID-19 UK strain tracing and is voluntarily extending its store closure until further information can be provided by state and county health officials.The store reopened late in the week.
“Containment is vitally important,” Cuomo said. “This is a virus we have to be extra careful with. The numbers are frightening on the increase of the transmittal of (this strain of) the virus. Even if the lethality doesn’t go up the fact that it is so much more transmittable is a very real problem.”
BALLSTON SPA — The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors approved $350,000 for IT improvements for the supervisors’ board room that will include integrating audio-visual system with conferencing software, upgrading microphones and committee room with better screens and allowing for video and streaming of meetings, and adding public Wi-Fi, city supervisor Matt Veitch reported this week.
“I’m excited that we’re finally going to be video-streaming our meetings – I can’t believe I’m saying that in 2021, that that’s a big deal because everybody (else) does it – as well as getting our meetings so people can see what’s going on, because right now you call in to the county, it’s really awful and you can’t hear anything or determine what’s going on,” Veitch said. Installation will take “a little while.” In December, the county approved a $341 million budget for 2021.
Moreau Town Supervisor Theodore Kusnierz was elected chairman of the Board of Supervisors. The Republican supervisor previously served as Chief of Staff and Director of Policy and Operations for New York State Sen. Patty Ritchie has served on the Moreau Town Board for 16 years. Saratoga Springs Supervisors Tara Gaston and Matt Veitch both voted in favor of Kusnierz, who narrowly defeated Greenfield supervisor Daniel Pemrick in a board vote on Jan. 6.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Two COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for use in New York and more may be on the way as the state moves through its first designated phase of vaccinations.
“The vaccine is here. It’s a light at the end of the tunnel and we see this ending the pandemic ultimately, but to do that we need to have 70% of our population vaccinated. In Saratoga County that’s 168,000 people we need vaccinated. So far, we’ve been able to vaccinate about 3% of the population, so we have a long way to go,” Mike McEvoy, EMS Coordinator for Office of Emergency Services at Saratoga County, said this week.
The amount of vaccine the state receives is based upon the allocation made to New York by the federal government. It is up to the state to determine who most needs it first, which is reflected in the phased approach.
“There is a limited supply of vaccines – there certainly is not enough to go around to everybody, so people have been divided into groups to determine who will get the vaccine first, who will it second, who will get it third. The timing of this is based on who is first at risk,” McEvoy says.
The process is currently in Phase 1A – which includes at high-risk hospital workers, ICU staff, nursing home residents and staff, EMS workers and others. McEvoy said he anticipates Phase 1B – which includes teachers, first responders, people aged 75 and older - may begin by early February. But there are may variables.
The first priority is protecting hospital capacity and staff, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week. “Vaccinating the hospital staff is vital. They are the front line. The UK strain complicates the issue because if more nurses and doctors get sick, it reduces your hospital capacity. And if you reduce your hospital capacity, then you have the worst-case scenario. And the worst-case scenario is a very real possibility. You overwhelm the hospitals, people die. You have to close down the economy. So, it’s game over if the hospitals get overwhelmed.”
As of this week, New York has received 950,000 dosages toward the first 2.1 million-plus people in the healthcare and nursing home Phase 1A category. By the end of this week, the state expects it will have distributed approximately 911,000 first doses of the vaccine to providers for administration to eligible New Yorkers. The state is receiving about 300,000 dosages per week from the federal government, a rate that would take several weeks to fulfill first-shot doses for millions of people in the first phase.
“Everyone wants to know: When will they get vaccinated? 1A is the healthcare workers and that’s what we’re doing now. 1B are the essential workers and those over 75,” Cuomo said. That 1B category includes: 870,000 educational workers, 207,000 first responders – such as police and firefighters, a combined 200,000 public safety and public transit workers, plus 1.3 million people aged 75 and older, among others.
The governor said he is hopeful the federal government will be increasing production. “They say they will, I believe they will, and frankly the private market is increasing production,” Cuomo said, pointing to current vaccines Pfizer and Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson – which is undergoing efficacy tests and requires just one shot, and Oxford-AstraZeneca. “I can’t say to any New Yorker right now ‘How Long’ until we know exactly what the supply is going to be. The experts are talking about March-April for large-scale, general population distribution.”
The FDA and New York State’s independent Clinical Advisory Task Force has thus far approved two vaccines: Pfizer and BioNTech, and another developed by Moderna. Each requires two shots and individuals must receive two doses of the same vaccine, with the second dose administered 21 days later with the Pfizer vaccine, or 28 days later with the Moderna vaccine. Other COVID-19 vaccines under development include Johnson & Johnson’s proposed COVID-19 vaccine, which reportedly plans to seek emergency use authorization in February and could potentially only require a single dose. In New York State, Cuomo has stipulated the vaccines will be provided at no cost.
The program is being led by hospitals in each region. As such, “Saratoga County does not have the capacity to determine who gets vaccinated, how many vaccines we have or even when we get them,” said Saratoga Springs Supervisor Tara Gaston. “I understand the information on vaccinations is not where the public would like it, where the city would like it, where I would like it. The information the state is positing on their vaccine distribution page is all that has been released publicly or otherwise. We are requesting additional information and as soon as we get it, we will be putting it out. There are currently no facilities (yet approved) in Saratoga County that provide vaccination to the public generally,” Gaston said.
“Despite the fact that we do not have the full timeline, Saratoga County is working diligently to plan the broader release of this vaccine. The county is reviewing several sites throughout the city of Saratoga Springs and the remainder of the county so we may institute PODs (Points-of-Dispensing) for the delivery of vaccines with less than 24 hours’ notice.”
Gaston added that anyone who may meet the qualifications to administer vaccines may register to volunteer at www.amc.edu/CapitalRegionVax. “This is the site that’s been set up by Albany Med – who have been assigned the role of leading vaccinations in the Capital Region.”
For the most current information about vaccines in New York, go to: covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov.
New York State is currently in Phase 1A of vaccine distribution.
Eligible New Yorkers for the vaccine currently include: High-risk hospital workers; Residents and staff at nursing homes and other congregate care facilities; Federally Qualified Health Center employees; EMS workers; Coroners, medical examiners and certain funeral workers; Staff and residents at OPWDD, OMH and OASAS facilities; Urgent Care providers; Individuals administering COVID-19 vaccines, including local health department staff, as well as all front-line, high-risk public health workers who have direct contact with patients, including those conducting COVID-19 tests, handling COVID-19 specimens and COVID-19 vaccinations, among others.
Once Phase 1A vaccinations are satisfied, the state will move to Phase 1B distribution.
Following vaccinations for the health care sector, New York will move to Phase 1B of the distribution, which will include:
• Teachers and education workers
• First responders
• Public safety workers
• Public transit workers
• People 75 and older
CDC: Frequently Asked Questions About Vaccines
Q: Can a COVID-19 vaccine make me sick with COVID-19?
A: No. None of the authorized and recommended COVID-19 vaccines or COVID-19 vaccines currently in development in the United States contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. This means that a COVID-19 vaccine cannot make you sick with COVID-19.
Q: If I have already had COVID-19 and recovered, do I still need to get vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine?
A: Yes. Due to the severe health risks associated with COVID-19 and the fact that re-infection with COVID-19 is possible, vaccine should be offered to you regardless of whether you already had COVID-19 infection.
Q: Will a COVID-19 vaccine alter my DNA?
A: No. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines do not change or interact with your DNA in any way.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Two-term Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly has announced that she will not seek re-election in November 2021 for a third term.
"Serving the City of Saratoga Springs as its Mayor is a profound experience. Having been raised in Saratoga Springs and nurtured by its community and culture, serving as Mayor has been a once in a lifetime chance to contribute to the City’s future. I have done so with one objective -- to give my very best to the City of Saratoga Springs,” Kelly said in a statement.
All five City Council seats – including mayor – are up for vote in November 2021. Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan announced in November that she will not seek re-election.
ALBANY — With the vaccination process underway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week that COVID-19 Vaccines will be provided to New Yorkers free of charge.
“In this state you do not pay for vaccinations, period. That is not true in other parts of the country,” Cuomo said.
The vaccination process is currently in Phase I – which includes vaccinating priority healthcare workers, and nursing home and congregate care residents and workers. Phase II – which includes essential workers and priority general public - is anticipated to begin in late January.
A new state website has been created regarding the vaccines and may be viewed at: covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov.
As COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations continue to climb, the governor said whether the state will once again need to go to “Pause” mode is up to the behavior of residents through the holiday season.
“The (potential) shutdown is in their hands, New Yorkers: celebrate smart, healthy holidays, hospital management – we don’t shut down,” Cuomo said.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — This was the original plan: Santa and the elves, up on the big stage, in a theater filled with people. Then came the pandemic - What to do, What to do?
Santa’s head elf had an idea. It would take the convincing of the whole North Pole, but what if this year’s merriment would continue holiday tradition by adopting the modern tools of technology? All seems virtually fine with going virtual - until a conflict over the annual naughty and nice list threatens to eradicate the entire gift-sharing season. Can Santa save Christmas?
The story is told in a brand new 40-minute production called “The Nice List,” offered free during the month of December on YouTube, for family holiday enjoyment.
“After the pandemic happened, the story evolved to be about Santa and the elves having to work by Zoom or video conferences,” says Elliott Masie, who along with wife Cathy operate Masie Productions – a boutique company that creates or co-produce shows that combines theater, engagement, technology and learning. They have been involved in 29 shows that have been on Broadway. The Saratoga Springs couple are producers of the new family video musical.
“Alan Muraoka, who has played Alan on Sesame Street for I think 20 years, is the director. He came to Cathy and me, along with our friend Telly Leung, who has been Aladdin on Broadway, and said: Hey, we’ve got this great show and maybe we can film it on green screen for people at home,” Masie says. “After that, one thing led to another. We found seven wonderful actors - filming themselves locally on their PC’s or their phone. The actors and musicians all worked virtually, and it was all put together. Two of our actors found the audio quality of their apartments were horrible, but their closets were excellent!”
Muraoka directed the production which was written by Phoebe Kreutz. Gary Adler – who served as the music director/arranger for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular – was in charge of the music, and Michael Mindlin the choreography.
“Everybody just had a blast. We have James (James Monroe Iglehart AKA Santa) – who’s the Tony Award winning Genie in ‘Aladdin,’ Telly Leung and some of the people from (the Tony Award-winning musical) Avenue Q, and Sesame Street in there. Cathy and I are just delighted, it’s one of the most fun things we’ve done as producers,” Masie says.
“You know every day I probably get 12 invitations to see something where you pay online. I said: Let’s not do that, let’s just give it away. It was something we did in eight weeks with about $65,000. We were able to pay actors and it’s out there for people around the world to watching it for free,” Masie says.
“The point that’s interesting to me is watching the elves and Santa learn how to work virtually. Right now people are navigating the world and working remotely, so in some ways it’s a story about this moment – video conferencing and the like,” Masie says. “We think this is the right story to do right now. And the world needs a little uplift. Our only objective is that a lot of people see it.”
To watch “The Nice List: an original holiday family musical,” and learn more about the cast, crew and people involved, go to: www.nicelistmusical.com.
BALLSTON SPA — The Saratoga Center for Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care, a 257-bed facility formerly operated by the county as Maplewood Manor, is anticipated to close early in the new year.
The state Department of Health approved a plan submitted by the leadership of Saratoga Center for Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care to close, said DOH spokesman Jeffrey Hammond.
“According to the approved plan, all of the residents will be relocated to other long term care facilities as soon as possible. DOH will monitor the facility as closure activities commence to help minimize the impact of this closing on the community, and to make sure every resident is relocated to an appropriate level of care,” Hammond said, in a prepared statement.
After learning of the potential closure, Ballston Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state DOH Commissioner Howard Zucker, dated Dec. 11, requesting the nursing home closure “be extended appropriately, in consideration of the current pandemic.”
Walsh called the deadline for closure, which is Feb. 15, 2021, a challenging one, even under the best of circumstances.
“With the pandemic, this type of major transition could be unsafe for residents or worse yet, deadly,” Walsh wrote. “Transferring these residents to facilities within the required 50-mile radius necessitates that they will be entering facilities with active COVID cases.”
The Saratoga facility has thus far reported no COVID-19 positive resident cases.
“Given the recent surge in cases in Saratoga and nearby counties, many facilities are not accepting new admissions. This may result in residents having to relocate far from home and far from family supports. I do not question the business judgment of the owners and operators of this facility to make the business decision to close. However, I remain very concerned about the health, safety and well-being of these vulnerable residents,” said Walsh, reporting that 87 residents will be required to relocate. “Allowing sufficient time for residents to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and for the holiday surge in cases to dissipate, would be a reasonable accommodation,” she added.
The Saratoga Center for Rehab & Skilled Nursing Care, is located at 149 Ballston Ave. According to the DOH, the center will continue operations until the last resident is “placed in the most appropriate level of care,” that a full range of appropriate services for all patients/residents must be provided throughout the entire closure process, and that the closure plan must include provisions for the maintenance, storage and safekeeping of patient/resident medical records.
BALLSTON SPA — In March, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors authorized $1 million to be directed to battling the spread of COVID-19. There were 16 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Saratoga County at the time.
In May, the Board authorized Saratoga County Administrator Spencer Hellwig to hire as many as 50 Contact Tracers at the rate of $25 per hour – the costs to be paid from the appropriated $1 million fund.
Seven months later, with the number of cases nearing a total of 4,000 in Saratoga County, $800,000 of that $1 million has remained unused, and only 23 Contact Tracers employed.
“We authorized 50 Contact Tracers. In November it came to my understanding that we only had 23 Contact Tracers,” says Tara Gaston, one of two city supervisors who represent Saratoga Springs at the county level. “Whether anyone in leadership knew about it, I don’t know, but that’s when I learned we had only hired 23. Before that, it hadn’t been discussed. And it was about this same time that we determined that New York State - which had promised us to be able to use their Contact Tracers – was going to limit our access. So, it became an even larger concern,” she says.
“I do think mistakes have been made - some at the individual level, and some as a result of the Board of Supervisors not setting this forth as a priority,” Gaston says. “When the request was made for 50 Contact Tracers, we were under the impression that was sufficient, and we were also under the impression that if it was insufficient someone would come and tell us.” There are 21 municipalities represented by 23 supervisors from all across Saratoga seated at the county board. “We have not done what we should have done. I should have done better. We all should have done better.”
On Dec. 15, Gaston introduced a measure to allow the hire of 25 additional Contact Tracers – which would bring the allowable number of hires up to 75 in all – as well as 5 Supervising Contact Tracers. That number of 75 would bring the number of county Contact Tracers in line with the Johns Hopkins standard of about 30 Tracers per 100,000 people, as well as allow a slight buffer zone should any workers step down.
A second measure she introduced targets $100,000 of the $800,000 remaining in COVID county funds for the purchase of PPE and masks for distribution in the community.
The $100,000 PPE allotment is broken down this way: $75,000 targeted for masks to be distributed to the general public in the community; $25,000 specifically set aside for any form of PPE – masks, gowns, gloves, or face shields – targeting the local population at higher risk like EMS workers, police officers, and “communities of lower economic power,” Gaston says, such as those who are unhoused.
Saratoga Springs City Supervisor Matt Veitch expressed his support for both resolutions. The county Board subsequently approved both measures.
After spiking in the spring, local infection rates subsequently were reduced and remained below 1 % through most of the summer. The 7-day rolling average COVID-19 positive infection rate doubled from 0.6% on Oct. 1 to 1.2% on Nov. 1 in Saratoga County. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 1, it more than tripled to 3.8%, and has subsequently continued to rise – by mid-December climbing to near 6%, the highest 7-day average rate registered in Saratoga County since April.
Contact tracing helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 by rapidly interviewing positive patients, identifying and alerting their close contacts to prevent the spread of the infection to others.
Here’s how it is designed to work: When a person tests positive, a COVID Contact Tracer works with the person to identify and reach out via phone and text to anyone they’ve been in contact with while infectious to trace and contain the spread of the virus. People who have come in close contact with someone who is positive are then asked to stay home and limit their contact with others. The Tracer will also connect persons infected with support and resources they may need through quarantine, such as help getting groceries or household supplies, child care, medical care or supplies.
Saratoga County’s contact tracing program operates 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. This week’s vote by the Board authorizes the additional hiring of up to 25 Contact Tracers at the rate of $25 per hour, and up to five Supervising Contact Tracers at a rate of compensation of $30 per hour.
On Nov. 19, the county’s Department of Public Health posted a flyer indicating it was seeking individuals interested in working as Contact Tracers. A subsequent notice, posted Dec. 11, indicated a large number of applications had been received and that no new applications were being accepted. It is unclear whether the Board’s actions of Dec. 15 would trigger a new “Contact Tracers Wanted” request. The Dec. 11 post informs: Please check back on Dec. 18 for an update. The Saratoga County website may be found at: saratogacountyny.gov.
WILTON — Aldi, which counts 2,000 stores across 36 states, opens its newest store in Wilton this week. Located just off Lowe’s Drive, the grocer will be open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Headquartered in Illinois, Aldi has more than 2,000 stores across 36 states, employs over 25,000 people and has grown steadily since opening its first US store in Iowa in 1976. The company says its national expansion is part of its plan to become the third-largest U.S. grocery retailer by store count by the end of 2022.
“We are dedicated to providing the communities we serve the best groceries at the lowest-possible prices, and we look forward to introducing Saratoga Springs to their new neighborhood grocery store,” said Chris Daniels, South Windsor division vice president for ALDI, in a statement.
Regionally, Aldi sites stores in Queensbury, Ballston Spa, Clifton Park and Glenville, according to the company’s store locator. The first store opened in 1961 in Germany.