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US sets the stage for COVID booster shots for millions

The U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19 stood on the verge of a major new phase as government advisers Thursday recommended booster doses of Pfizer’s vaccine for millions of older or otherwise vulnerable Americans — despite doubts the extra shots will do much to slow the pandemic.

Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said boosters should be offered to people 65 and older, nursing home residents and those ages 50 to 64 who have risky underlying health problems. The extra dose would be given once they are at least six months past their last Pfizer shot.

Deciding who else might get one was far tougher. While there is little evidence that younger people are in danger of waning immunity, the panel offered the option of a booster for those ages 18 to 49 who have chronic health problems and want one.

The advisers refused to go further and open boosters to otherwise healthy front-line health care workers who aren’t at risk of severe illness but want to avoid even a mild infection.

“We might as well just say give it to everyone 18 and older. We have a very effective vaccine and it’s like saying, ‘It’s not working.’ It is working,” said Dr. Pablo Sanchez of Ohio State University, who helped block the broadest booster option.

Still, getting the unvaccinated their first shots remains the top priority, and the panel wrestled with whether the booster debate was distracting from that goal.

All three of the COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. are still highly protective against severe illness, hospitalization and death, even amid the spread of the extra-contagious delta variant. But only about 182 million Americans are fully vaccinated, or just 55% of the population.

“We can give boosters to people, but that’s not really the answer to this pandemic,” said Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University. “Hospitals are full because people are not vaccinated. We are declining care to people who deserve care because we are full of unvaccinated COVID-positive patients.”

Thursday’s decision represented a dramatic scaling back of the Biden administration plan announced last month to dispense boosters to nearly everyone to shore up their protection. Late Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration, like the CDC panel, signed off on Pfizer boosters for a much narrower slice of the population than the White House envisioned.

It is up to the CDC to set final U.S. policy on who qualifies for the extra shot. A decision from the agency was expected later Thursday, but the CDC usually follows its advisers’ recommendations.

The booster plan marks an important shift in the nation’s vaccination drive. Britain and Israel are already giving a third round of shots over strong objections from the World Health Organization that poor countries don’t have enough for their initial doses.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky opened Thursday’s meeting by stressing that vaccinating the unvaccinated remains the top goal “here in America and around the world.”

Walensky acknowledged that the data on who really needs a booster right away “are not perfect.” “Yet collectively they form a picture for us,” she said, “and they are what we have in this moment to make a decision about the next stage in this pandemic.”

The CDC panel stressed that its recommendations will be changed if new evidence shows more people need a booster.

The CDC advisers expressed concern over the millions of Americans who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots early in the vaccine rollout. The government still hasn’t considered boosters for those brands and has no data on whether it is safe or effective to mix-and-match and give those people a Pfizer shot.

“I just don’t understand how later this afternoon we can say to people 65 and older, ‘You’re at risk for severe illness and death, but only half of you can protect yourselves right now,’” said Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University.

In other news:

  • A Florida school district has received cash from President Joe Biden’s administration to make up for state pay cuts imposed over a board’s vote for a student anti-coronavirus mask mandate. Alachua County school Superintendent Carlee Simon said in a news release Thursday the district has received $148,000 through a U.S. Department of Education program.
  • A 12-year-old boy has gone to court in the Netherlands to get permission to receive a COVID-19 vaccine so he can visit his grandmother who is battling lung cancer, according to a written court ruling published Thursday.

Queensbury High School students stage walkout to protest racist bullying

QUEENSBURY — Dozens of students from Queensbury High School staged a walkout Thursday to protest years of racist bullying that they say school administrators have turned a blind eye to and has led to violence in recent days as victims seek to fend off the constant attacks.

Several students who participated in the walkout, which began around 11 a.m., said for years they have been victimized by their white peers and made to feel inferior because of their skin color, hairstyle and body weight.

The students said they have been called racist slurs, including the N-word, both online and in-person, and that school administrators, including Principal Damian Switzer, have done nothing to address the bullying despite multiple complaints from victims, witnesses, and parents.

“We just want change,” said Marcus Jackson, a junior who participated in the walkout. “We want to see them do something about it. I’m sick of seeing the same thing done over and over. It’s been redundant for years now.”

Jackson said he has been called the N-word multiple times since entering the high school three years ago, but no actions have been taken against those using the racial slur despite filing several reports with the school administration.

He said he’s worried about what kind of experience his little brother will have in a few years when he enters high school.

“I want my little brother to go here and just do school and not have to be worried about getting called the N-word or a monkey,” Jackson said.

In a letter addressed to parents released Thursday afternoon, school Superintendent Kyle Gannon said the district is “focused on ensuring all of our students and staff feel safe, valued and welcome in our community.”

“Our vision for Queensbury is a place where our community respects each other’s difference. Our faculty, staff and Board of Education are committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive learning environment where all students feel safe, included, welcomed and accepted, and experience a sense of belonging and academic success,” Gannon wrote.

Gannon, in response to a request for comment from The Post-Star, said the district is still “working through things and talking to parents and students.”

He did not answer specific questions concerning whether any racist incidents have been reported to the district and whether students who participated in the walkout would be punished.

Switzer referred comment to Gannon.

The 40 students who participated — some carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “End Racism” — in the walkout said they have been threatened with suspension for walking out. Several said they received zeros on tests and quizzes for their actions, which they said were made necessary because of the district’s failure to act.

“We deserve to be in school, instead we’re out here protesting for our rights,” Jackson said. “I’m hoping we start to see that change soon.”

Several students who attended the rally said the school is on the brink, adding multiple fights have broken out in recent days as bullying victims try to ward off their harassers in the absence of action from school administrators.

Raeonna Murphy, a junior, said she was suspended earlier this week for punching a student who had been harassing her sister, which included the use of racial slurs and online harassment.

Murphy said she and her father reported the harassment directly to school administrators leading up to the altercation, but no action was taken.

“I punched her to let her know to stop calling my sister that,” she said. “That was my only way to end it because I feel the school can’t end it. We’re out here because we’re asking why does there need to be a fight for the school to realize it?”

Nakayla Hunter, Murphy’s sister, said the harassment has persisted since she was in middle school. Now a sophomore, she said the constant attacks have impacted her mental health and have her on constant edge.

“When I went to the middle school, I reported it multiple times when I was bullied and they didn’t do anything about it,” she said. “I had really bad depression and it was making me not want to go to school. Then I came to the high school. Last year was fine because of COVID and people weren’t in the school, but this year it has rehashed. It’s stressful for us to sit here and have to be worried about if we’ll be called this or that.”

Elsewhere, junior Kamani DeAngelo said she had a similar experience growing up.

She began being bullied when she entered the middle school, which she referred to as “Alcatraz,” the now shuttered prison off the coast of California, touted for years as an inescapable facility.

“We cannot walk through the halls without someone saying a racist slur to us,” she said. “Same thing with the middle school. I was bullied severely in the middle school to the point that I just didn’t want to go to school anymore because of the color of my skin and the way I wear my hair.”

DeAngelo said those that stand up for themselves are labeled as “aggressive” and punished for their actions, while those perpetuating the harassment go unpunished.

She said school administrators are not accountable, and she no longer wastes her time reporting to them.

“I don’t even go to them anymore when some calls me a n——- because they’re not going to do anything,” DeAngelo said.

“You know what I do? I go home, I tell my mom, I have a cry about it and I come back to school and act like everything is normal again. That’s all we can do. We can’t do anything else because they don’t do anything,” she added.

New York health chief, defender of Cuomo policies, resigning

ALBANY — New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who was a leading defender of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has submitted his resignation, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday.

Hochul thanked Zucker for his service and said he has agreed to stay on until the state names a new commissioner.

Zucker, who was appointed by Cuomo as health commissioner in 2015, was a leading figure in the state’s pandemic response last year as the New York City metro area became one of the world’s worst COVID-19 hot spots.

Cuomo often praised Zucker for his leadership, and the two appeared together regularly at the Democrat’s widely watched televised briefings.

Under Zucker, the department of health worked with hospitals statewide to ensure that a surge of COVID-19 patients wouldn’t catastrophically overwhelm hospital systems.

But Zucker has faced heated criticism over the state’s COVID-19 response, particularly in nursing homes.

Over 15,800 people living in nursing homes and other long-term care homes in New York have died of COVID-19, according to data released by the state this year.

Zucker has defended a since-rescinded March 2020 directive that said nursing homes couldn’t refuse to admit patients solely because they had COVID-19.

Zucker and Cuomo have said the directive was needed to ensure elderly patients weren’t languishing in hospitals.

Hochul said Thursday that she was following through with her previously announced intentions to hire her own team.

“I am looking to build a new team,” Hochul said.

Zucker has also faced criticism from health care workers who said the state failed to ensure hospitals and nursing homes had adequate personal protective gear and staffing during the peak of the pandemic.

State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, in a statement Thursday, said Zucker’s resignation is overdue and “welcomed news” because Zucker “put the political interests of his boss, Gov. Cuomo, ahead of the public’s best interests” during the pandemic.

“The state Health Department’s directive which forced nursing homes to take in COVID-positive residents was a terrible mistake that directly led to the loss of many lives,” Stec said, adding that “even more reprehensible” was the Cuomo administration’s deliberate cover-up of the data involving nursing homes.

“Many questions about the nursing home reporting scandal remain unanswered and I’d like to see Zucker face questioning under oath to get to the whole truth,” Stec stated in the news release. “While Zucker’s resignation doesn’t absolve him or Cuomo from responsibility, it will at least enable the Department of Health to move out from under the horrible shadow of controversy and distrust that their actions cast across the state.”

Stec also criticized Zucker and Cuomo for bypassing county health departments for vaccine distribution and creating a “confusing and frustrating state distribution system (that) had some seniors driving three hours across the Adirondacks in the middle of winter for a vaccine rather than getting one close to home.”

Washington County resident, 37, dies from COVID

An unvaccinated 37-year-old Washington County resident has died from COVID-19, the county announced on Thursday.

The person is the second resident to have died from the virus in Washington County in as many days and the 47th virus-related death reported in the county since the pandemic began.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends and the caregivers of our lost community member,” the county said in a statement.

A fully vaccinated nursing home resident died from the virus on Wednesday.

The county reported 32 additional cases of the virus Thursday along with 24 recoveries, bringing the number of active cases to 162.

Six people remain hospitalized, unchanged from Wednesday.

A total of 813 individuals are under monitoring following possible exposure to the virus, an increase of 68 since Wednesday.

County health officials are continuing to urge all residents eligible for the vaccine to get inoculated as soon as possible.

The vaccines are widely available at local pharmacies, and several vaccination clinics have been scheduled throughout September.

Vaccines dramatically reduce the chances of contracting COVID, and studies have shown the shots reduce the severity of illness in the event of a “breakthrough” case, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The county continues to see “high” transmission of the virus, averaging 261.42 cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days, according to CDC data.

The agency recommends all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear a face mask in areas seeing “substantial” and high transmission of the virus.

Warren County

Warren County Health Services, meanwhile, reported 28 new cases and 13 recoveries on Thursday, bringing the number of active cases in the county to 212.

Ten people were hospitalized, including five in critical condition. The remaining cases involve individuals suffering from a moderate illness, Health Services said.

The remaining 202 cases involve individuals with a mild illness.

All of Thursday’s new cases involved community spread, including six individuals who had been on the campus of Queensbury, Lake George, North Warren and Glens Falls school districts.

There has been no indication of in-class COVID transmission at Warren County schools this school year, according to Health Services.

New cases have stemmed from workplace and household exposures, out-of-state travel and youth sports practices, the agency said.

The county continues to see high transmission of the virus, averaging 259.60 cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days, according to the CDC.

Saratoga County

Saratoga County reported 49 new cases, bringing the number of active cases in the county to 333.

The county has reported 318 new cases in the last seven days, a positive test rate of 3.1%.

A total of 23 individuals were hospitalized with the virus, according to county data.

The county continues to see high transmission of the virus, averaging 156.18 cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days, according to CDC data.

Statewide and regional statistics

Statewide, 4,814 people tested positive for the virus on Wednesday, the most recent day statewide data is available. That’s a positive test rate of 2.42%, bringing the state’s positive test rate to 2.75% over the last seven days.

A total of 50,924 vaccine doses were administered in the last seven days.

But 2,320 people were hospitalized with the virus and 39 people died.

In the Capital Region, 270 new cases were reported Wednesday, a positive test rate of 2.8%, according to state data.

The region’s average positive test rate over the last seven days is now 3.8%.