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Officials say no measles cases in region

GLENS FALLS — The current New York state measles outbreak is unprecedented, said a New York Department of Health spokesman on Thursday.

Still, there have been no cases currently reported in the region.

“At this time, Glens Falls Hospital Laboratory Services have not had any positive specimens,” said Hillary Alycon, manager of infection prevention and control at the hospital. “Due to Glens Falls Hospital’s geographic location, we have a ... separation from the current outbreak.”

New York, Washington and Oregon are the hardest hit states, with a rapidly growing number of measles cases. And because the disease is highly contagious, Washington state’s governor declared a state of emergency due to the outbreak.

All it takes is a single infected person to cough or sneeze in a grocery store, an airport lounge or a restroom to spread the highly contagious virus that can remain airborne for two hours after the infected person leaves the room.

“Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected,” reports the Centers for Disease Control. “Infected people can spread measles to others from four days before through four days after the rash appears.”

In New York, state health officials have posted this warning in red on their web page: “Some areas of New York State are currently experiencing a measles outbreak, including the lower Hudson Valley and parts of New York City. Measles spreads easily and can be dangerous to anyone who is not vaccinated. If you have questions about measles or the measles vaccine, call the New York State Measles Hotline at 888-364-4837.”

Additionally, the state department of health has posted warnings at airports to alert international travelers to the risk of measles in the state.

Nonetheless, Alycon said measles in this region is not common and those at greatest risk of infection are unvaccinated children; and the greatest risk to the region also ties to vaccinations.

“The greatest risk is in those subsets of the population who have chosen not to receive the MMR (measles, mumps rubella) vaccination,” she said.

According to the CDC, the number of unvaccinated children has quadrupled since 2001 in the U.S.

Putting the rise in perspective, however, over 90 percent of U.S. children have still been vaccinated, said the CDC.

Earlier this month, the CDC reported that 2018 was the second worse year for measles, with 349 reported cases in 26 states and the District of Columbia. In 2014, there were a reported 667 cases.

Before vaccines were available, hundreds died from measles each year, but after the 1963 vaccination became available that number continued to drop, with measles virtually eradicated by 2000.

Many attribute the recent rise in measles cases to those who choose to not vaccinate their children.

But the issue is more complicated.

Among the many reasons for not vaccinating children, one of the prominent factors is a belief that vaccinations cause autism in children, even though top scientists, until recently, have denied the claim for many years.

But this month, in a new twist to the vaccine debate, one of the government’s lead experts who testified in U.S. Vaccine Court that vaccines did not cause autism is now telling a different story.

Dr. Andrew W. Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist and former research scientist at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, filed an affidavit in September 2018 as part of a larger court case, stating that vaccines can cause autism in a certain subset of children.

According to Zimmerman’s affidavit, he told the Department of Justice in 2007 that he believed vaccines could cause autism, but pressure from the big pharmaceutical companies kept the story silent.

Zimmerman could not be reached for comment regarding his turnabout.

Locally, there are families who choose to not vaccinate their children, citing health concerns, but do not feel comfortable going public, fearing retribution directed toward their children.

In the New York counties affected by the outbreak, school officials have excluded unvaccinated children from school, meaning they cannot attend school until vaccinated.

“School and daycare exclusions have been very effective at motivating parents to agree to get their children vaccinated with MMR. To date, school exclusions have been implemented in more than 29 schools or daycares,” said a health department spokesman. “In response to the outbreak, Rockland County has excluded approximately 6,000 unvaccinated children at additional schools that are either located in close proximity to cases or that have vaccination rates below 95 percent.”

Additionally, DOH and Rockland County have held numerous vaccination clinics. Since the beginning of the outbreak, more than 14,000 have received a dose of MMR vaccination, health officials said.

Conversely, Alycon said the hospital is not holding vaccination clinics.

“Vaccinations are always available at Glens Falls Hospital,” she said. “Please call your primary care provider to schedule an appointment today.”

At this time, because there have been no local cases reported, the hospital is not taking additional precautions related to the outbreak in other parts of the state.

“Standard precautions are taken with each patient,” Alycon said. “In the event of a positive measles case, we would also utilize transmission-based precautions to further minimize the risk of potential exposures.”

Morry Gash, Associated Press 

New England Patriots' Tom Brady (12) speaks with Los Angeles Rams' Jared Goff after the NFL Super Bowl 53 football game Sunday in Atlanta. The Patriots won, 13-3. See Page B1 for more on the big game.

US, South Korean diplomats meet ahead of Trump-Kim summit

SEOUL, South Korea — Senior U.S. and South Korean officials met Sunday to discuss an expected second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump's special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, arrived in South Korea earlier amid reports that he'll meet North Korean officials soon to work out details for the summit.

Trump told CBS' "Face the Nation" that "the meeting is set" with Kim, but he provided no further details about the meeting expected around the end of February. The president said there was "a very good chance that we will make a deal."

With the North under economic penalties and the U.S. unwilling to ease them under the North denuclearizes, Trump said Kim "has a chance to have North Korea be a tremendous economic behemoth. It has a chance to be one of the great economic countries in the world. He can't do that with nuclear weapons and he can't do that on the path they're on now."

Seoul's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Biegun and his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, held consultations about working-level U.S.-North Korea talks ahead of the summit.

South Korean media reported Biegun and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok Chol, will likely meet at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom or in the North's capital of Pyongyang early this week.

Little progress has been made toward ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons since Trump and Kim held their first summit in Singapore last June. During that summit, Kim pledged to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, though he did not provide a timetable or roadmap for his disarmament steps.

Last year, North Korea suspended nuclear and missile tests, dismantled its nuclear test site and parts of its rocket launch facility and released American detainees. The North demanded the United States to take corresponding measures such as sanctions relief.

U.S. officials want North Korea to take more significant steps, saying sanctions will stay in place until North Korea denuclearizes.

Satellite footage taken since the June summit has indicated North Korea has been continuing to produce nuclear materials at its weapons factories. Last Tuesday, U.S. intelligence chiefs told Congress they believe there is little likelihood Kim will voluntarily give up his nuclear weapons or missiles capable of carrying them.

Biegun said last week that Kim committed to "the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea's plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities" during his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September and at a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in October.

During the second summit, some experts say North Korea will likely seek to trade the destruction of its main Yongbyon nuclear complex for a U.S. promise to formally declare the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, open a liaison office in Pyongyang and allow the North to resume some lucrative economic projects with South Korea.

Analysis: Trump's State of Union comes amid political peril

WASHINGTON — Facing clear political peril, President Donald Trump will deliver his second State of the Union address at a moment when his bully pulpit is uncertain and his negotiating skills in question after a monthlong government shutdown that exposed fractures in his party and sent his poll numbers tumbling.

Trump hopes to use his Tuesday speech to reset his agenda and begin to gear up for his 2020 re-election campaign. But even as the president promises a theme of unity, his performance is likely to draw cheers from one side of the deeply divided Congress and stony silence from the other.

The split between Democrats and Republicans, each side dug in over Trump’s long-sought border wall, reinforces questions about his ability to move both Congress and the electorate.

All this while Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sits just behind him on the top tier of the House dais during the address, a looming reminder of his shutdown defeat and his struggles to adapt to a new, divided Washington.

The speech itself, an annual set piece that gives the president a grand stage to speak directly to a national audience of millions, could prove bittersweet for Trump. While the president, ever the showman, will relish the theatrics of the moment, his prime-time address to the nation comes a week later than originally planned after Pelosi forced a postponement while the government was closed.

Trump made his dealmaking abilities central to his presidency but has been unable to move emboldened Democrats, firm in their resistance to paying for a border wall with Mexico. Without it, Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency or shutter the government again. Both options are opposed by a growing number of Republicans, potentially leaving Trump weakened with his own party as several political dark clouds loom. Among them are the conclusion of the special counsel’s Russia investigation and growing talk from the left about the possibility of impeachment.

“Presidents have walked into that chamber in weakened positions before,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and author, invoking Bill Clinton after Republicans swept the 1994 midterm elections. “But Trump does not have the usual base of support. Legislative Republicans fell in line with Trump because they were afraid of him and his supporters and if that support is eroding, the end will be quick.”

Trump’s allies, some of whom worry that his voice has been diminished, suggest he should use the speech to showcase his administration’s record as well as repeat his call for the wall.

“He needs to highlight the successes he’s had with the economy and trade and with conservative justices,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “And I think he needs to stare Democrats down and challenge them to defy him on the need for border security.”

As the Feb. 15 deadline that could lead the government to close again nears, the State of the Union provides the president with his best chance yet to sell the public on the need for the wall. Previous efforts at harnessing at the power of the office to make that case have failed.

A trip to the border didn’t move the needle after Trump himself voiced private skepticism that it would work. An Oval Office address was widely panned, with the president himself being his harshest critic, complaining to aides that he looked “flat” and “lifeless.” Round after round of polling suggests that Americans do not believe a wall is needed and don’t feel it is a fight worth shutting down the government over.

White House aides have kept details of the speech under wraps, though Trump is expected to paint a picture of a country on the comeback while pushing new trade deals as well as proposals about drug pricing, health care and public works.

But there will be stark reminders throughout the House chamber that Trump’s political reality has changed, now 21 months before he faces voters again.

Pelosi will be visible in nearly every camera shot beamed to a national broadcast audience. Her presence is evidence of the newly empowered House Democrats. And it makes clear how she can use her political clout and her party can wield the power of the subpoena to thwart Trump’s agenda and open investigations into his government and business.

“It’s a dynamic created in the television age but it’s also a demonstration for the country that the executive and legislative branches are separate but equal powers,” said Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director for President Barack Obama and a top aide on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “And a very powerful woman who has a big hand in controlling his fate could be very distracting to him.”

In the chamber will be several Democrats vying to replace Trump and rising party stars such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Some Democrats will be flanked by invited guests, including people affected by the shutdown, and their presence is meant to highlight Trump’s vulnerability.

As for the president, he ignored the divisions in Washington as he pledged to use his speech to call for Americans to set aside their differences.

“I really think it’s unification, I think it’s industry, I think it’s about the people you see here,” Trump said Thursday while hosting a group of manufacturers at the White House. “I really think it’s going to be a speech that is going to cover a lot of territory but part of it is going to be unity.”

Environmental groups, officials question changes to Environmental Protection Fund

A change to the wording of the state’s Environmental Protection Fund — a pool of money used for capital projects that benefit the environment — has raised concern among environmental groups and elected officials.

“If all is well with staffing resources … why is the budget proposal trying to divert EPF money for staffing? The EPF was created to help with capital costs, and it has performed very well,” state Assemblyman Steve Englebright, a Democrat who represents portions of Long Island, asked state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos during a recent joint committee hearing on environmental conservation in Albany.

“Why does language in the Executive Budget propose to reverse long-standing tradition and allow the EPF money to be used for personnel services?” the Long Island Democrat added.

“We’re proposing a very modest, nominal ability to direct EPF dollars to personnel services, specifically for programs within the EPF,” Seggos replied, “not unlike how we operate the Clean Water Infrastructure Act. It’s a concept we’d be happy to work with DOB (state Division of Budget) and you all to further refine that.”

“That’s grand theft,” Englebright said. “We’re concerned. The precedent, once set, would be difficult to reverse.”

The EPF is currently funded at $300 million for this year, which is the funding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has requested for the last several years. State Sen. Jen Metzger, a Democrat who represents portions of the Hudson Valley and Catskills, said during the hearing the DEC should simply increase funding for staffing rather than take money out of the EPF.

Jessica Ottney Mahar, state policy director for The Nature Conservancy, said the change in wording that would allow EPF money to be used for staffing is a serious concern.

“I only had five minutes to speak to the committee, so I spent my time on two issues: The first was the Environmental Protection Fund, and the second was climate change,” Ottney Mahar said in a phone interview.

“That EPF language has never included personnel services. The EPF, since it was created 26 years ago, has been really focused on providing funding for environmental projects and grants, and getting that money out into communities around the state: fighting invasive species, redeveloping waterfronts, conserving land and water, but also funding things like local recycling programs and helping farmers deal with water pollution.

“And the language in the governor’s budget doesn’t even limit how much can be used for staff; it just says ‘a portion.’ Who decides how much that is?”

Ottney Mahar said the new language appears in each of the four EPF accounts, which essentially means that “each of those 300 million dollars is fair game for use on agency staff,” she continued. “And we think agency staff are really important, (and) we support increasing agency staff, but this is not the way to do it.”

Ottney Mahar said the operating budget for the state, which includes pay for state employees, has been capped by Cuomo, even though the state’s environmental agencies — namely the DEC, Adirondack Park Agency, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and others — were hit hardest by staff reductions during the financial collapse in the late 2000s.

“They’ve never really crawled back to the numbers where they need to be,” she said. “And now … there’s a lot for our agencies to be doing, and we think that the agency operating budgets should be increased.”

Peter Bauer, executive director of the Protect the Adirondacks advocacy group, also lamented the governor’s budget and use of the EPF

“Unfortunately, the governor’s budget plays a lot of games. For example, the governor is seeking to fund state agency position with monies from the Environmental Protection Fund. This has never been done before,” Bauer wrote in a press release. “The EPF has grown to $300 million and supports a wide variety of environmental program(s), but is currently under-funded.

“The EPF needs to be expanded to $500 million annually to meet challenges from open space protection, state land stewardship, invasive species protection, farmland protection, and climate change resiliency, solid waste management and recycling, among many other pressing needs. 2019 is the right time boost environmental spending by increasing the EPF.”

The Adirondack Council also said it was excited about another $300 million for the EPF but said the DEC’s budget for staff needs to be increased.

“The governor proposed five new operations staff for Frontier Town, and while that’s fantastic, we also need to add more rangers and land managers and planners,” Adirondack Council Policy Director Kevin Chlad said in an interview the day after he testified at the hearing. “The commissioner (Seggos) was very firm that they can do the job with the staff that they have, but I think we can see — especially when you look at the High Peaks — you can see impacts to the natural resources occurring, we can see visitor safety is threatened, and we’re losing our wilderness character in the High Peaks region. So I think that tells a different story.”