ALBANY — The governor, with a wave of his hand, lifted most of the restrictions imposed upon the populace to stop the spread of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, June 15, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued the decree, and then ordered fireworks at 11 spots across the state to mark the fact 70 percent of the population at least 18 years old have received at least the first shot of a two-shot vaccination regiment.
A day later, on Wednesday, June 16, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy held his final COVID-19 briefing — the first was on March 12, 2020. McCoy did not get national attention with his press conferences, aired live on Facebook, like the governor but at the height of the pandemic he was getting a thousand or more viewers with hundreds of comments as people were looking for answers in a time of unprecedented uncertainty — if nothing else to find out how many people died overnight and how many new cases were reported.
“It has been a long 15 months, a long 461 days, it’s been a long 66 weeks,” he said. “I think of the 385. And not just the 385, I think of the people who died of natural causes alone with nobody around them and the relapses and the addiction issues.”
As of that press conference, 385 county residents had died from COVID-19, the majority elderly and/or with underlying health conditions. On Friday, June 18, a woman in her 50s succumbed to COVID bringing the total to 386.
Social distancing and mask mandates are, by and large, rescinded but there are still some restrictions in place based on federal Center for Disease Control guidelines. For example, those working in or attending K through 12 schools will still need to wear masks since the federal government has not cleared the vaccination for children under 12. Also, those working in health care institutions, correctional facilities, nursing homes and homeless shelters are still required to wear masks at all times whether vaccinated or not.
All capacity restrictions, social distancing and mask mandates for businesses, entertainment venues, personal care establishments like gyms and salons, are lifted. Those who are not vaccinated must still wear a mask but that mandate is all but impossible to enforce.
Large indoor venues that hold more than 5,000 can reach 100 percent capacity but there needs to be proof of vaccination for all attendees and/or a negative COVID-19 test for unvaccinated people four years or older and the unvaccinated must still wear a mask.
At the Times Union Center during a recent Empire arena football game, everyone not in their seats were asked by security to put on a mask.
A look back
Similar to the Spanish Flu of a century ago, COVID came in two waves beginning with the first case in New York on March 1, 2020. In Albany County, the first case was days later and by April 24, 2020, there was a high of 74 new cases with a seven-day average of 52. Because of a near universal shutdown and widespread mask mandates — or because of the natural evolution of the virus — it subsided over the summer but came back with a vengeance in the fall of 2020 and into the winter. It peaked in Albany County with 337 cases on Jan. 11 with a seven-day average of 255 new cases.
Since the pandemic took hold in March, 2020, there were 24,404 cases in Albany County. There were 79,971 who completed a mandatory quarantine with 24,381 who tested positive and recovered.
The focus has shifted and rather than report the number of new cases, the county is now focusing on the percentage who have been vaccinated. As of Monday, June 21, 64.3 percent of Albany County’s population received at least the first dose and 58.9 percent have been fully vaccinated. The county’s first dose rate for those over 18 years old was up to 75 percent.
Throughout, though, the county and by and large the state, avoided any major run on hospitals and Dr. Elizabeth Whalen, head of the county Health Department that worked tirelessly for the past 15 months, said that was the objective.
“We have seen the horrible effects this has brought in other parts of the world and other parts of the country and what we as a county have really worked for was to prevent hospital surge capacity,” Whalen said. “We were successful in that. We did not see in Albany county what we saw in other parts of the world and in other parts of the country, hospitals emergency rooms overflowing, although we were prepared for that, and that is largely due to the planning and communication and work we did on a daily basis.”
Whalen often accompanied McCoy during his briefings and provided an insightful, black and white analysis of what the daily update of numbers meant not just in the scientific, medical sense but to the everyday person tuning in. She also relentlessly begged people to wear masks and wash hands and maintain an appropriate social distance.
“I think today is an important milestone. I think getting to a level of getting 70 percent of the adult population over 18 vaccinated is something we have worked for for a long time,” she said during the last press conference. “To get here has been a herculean task which many people have contributed too. It has taken a community level of response by the likes we have never seen.”
Albany County, like the other 61 across the state, saw their hands tied by often confusing and ever-changing mandates coming out of the governor’s office. McCoy and his seven counterparts in the eight counties that made up the Capital District Region — Schenectady, Rensselaer, Warren, Washington, Greene, Columbia and Saratoga — were given instructions and “guidance” from a control room assigned to the area.
Often times, during his press conferences, McCoy voiced displeasure or confusion over why box stores like Walmart and Home Depot were allowed to remain open but smaller businesses were forced to close and why some businesses were allowed to re-open and others were forced to remain shuttered.
“How many times did we make a decision only to see the guidance change or not come at all,” McCoy said during an hour long press conference. “We have lived through a lot. It was challenging, but we got through it by leaning on each other. As we are out of this and we continue to go in the right direction, take a minute to be happy and realize you are blessed with your situation compared to some others.”