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US booster shots start

The U.S. launched a campaign to offer boosters of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to millions of Americans on Friday even as federal health officials stressed the real problem remains getting first shots to the unvaccinated.

“We will not boost our way out of this pandemic,” warned Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — even though she took the rare step of overruling the advice of her own expert panel to make more people eligible for the booster.

The vast majority of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated, Walensky noted. All three COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. offer strong protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death despite the extra-contagious delta variant that caused cases to soar. But immunity against milder infection appears to wane months after initial vaccination.

People anxious for another Pfizer dose lost no time rolling up their sleeves after Walensky ruled late Thursday on who’s eligible: Americans 65 and older and others vulnerable because of underlying health problems or where they work and live — once they’re six months past their last dose.

Jen Peck, 52, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, qualified because of her job as an education math and science consultant. She was vaccinated back in March but worries about unknowingly picking up and spreading an infection. She travels between rural schools where many students and teachers don’t wear masks and the younger children can’t yet be vaccinated.

“I don’t want to be COVID Mary carrying it around to buildings full of unvaccinated kiddos. I could not live with myself if I carried it from one building to another. That haunts me, the thought of that,” said Peck, who got the extra shot first thing Friday morning.

Health officials must clear up confusion over who should get a booster, and why. For now, the booster campaign is what Walensky called “a first step.” It only applies to people originally vaccinated with shots made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech. Decisions on boosters for Americans who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines are still to come.

President Joe Biden said if you’re vaccinated, “You’re in good shape and we’re doing everything we can to keep it that way, which is where the booster comes in.” He urged those now eligible for an extra shot to “go get the booster,” saying he’d get his own soon — and that everyone should be patient and wait their turn.

Exactly who should get a booster was a contentious decision as CDC advisers spent two days poring over the evidence. Walensky endorsed most of their choices: People 65 and older, nursing home residents and those ages 50 to 64 who have chronic health problems such as diabetes should be offered one once they’re six months past their last Pfizer dose. Those 18 and older with health problems can decide for themselves if they want a booster.

But in an unusual move, Walensky overruled her advisers’ objections and decided an additional broad swath of the population also qualifies: People at increased risk of infection — not serious illness — because of their jobs or their living conditions. That includes health care workers, teachers and people in jails or homeless shelters.

“This was scientific close call,” Walensky said Friday. “In that situation it was my call to make.”

Experts say it was only the second time since 2000 that a CDC director overruled its advisory panel.

Health care workers can’t come to work if they have even a mild infection and hospitals worried about staffing shortages welcomed that decision.

But some of the CDC’s advisers worry that offering boosters so broadly could backfire without better evidence that it really will make a difference beyond the most medically vulnerable.

“My hope is that all of this confusion — or what may feel like confusion — doesn’t send a message to the public that there is any problem with the vaccine,” said Dr. Beth Bell, a University of Washington expert. “I want to make sure people understand these are fantastic vaccines and they work extremely well.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease specialist, cautioned against seeking a Pfizer booster before the recommended six-month mark.

“You get much more of a bang out of the shot” by letting the immune system mature that long so it’s prepared to rev up production of virus-fighting antibodies, he explained.

The U.S. already authorized third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for certain people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients and transplant recipients. Other Americans, healthy or not, managed to get boosters, in some cases simply by asking.

About 182 million Americans are fully vaccinated, or just 55% of the total population. Three-quarters of those 12 and older — the ages eligible for vaccination — have had a first dose.

Adirondack Balloon Festival returns

QUEENSBURY — Mother Nature did her best to spoil the return of the Adirondack Balloon Festival on Friday, but for the thousands who descended on Warren County airport, not even a series of high winds could ruin the moment.

The balloon festival returned this year for its 48th installment following last year’s pandemic-induced hiatus. Though balloons were grounded due to winds, which at one point reached up to 15 mph, those in attendance were just happy to see the event’s return.

“This is one of our favorite events,” said balloon pilot Dave Sheldon. “The energy here that this community has around this event just makes it very special.”

Sheldon, owner of The Balloon Detail Inc. of Norwich, in Chenango County, has been piloting balloons at the festival since 1983. He used to participate in festivals across the country every two or three weeks from May to November, but has ratcheted back in recent years.

But the Adirondack Balloon Festival, Sheldon said, remains at the top of his list.

“We are very excited to be here,” he said.

This year’s installment looked a bit different compared to years past due to the pandemic.

Gone were the vendors and food trucks that would normally line the festival grounds and invite long lines. The number of balloons scheduled to launch was cut by more than half, from 100 to around 40.

The measures were taken in the name of public safety, which was a top priority for organizers, who began planning this year’s event shortly after canceling last year’s installment, said Mark Donahue, president of the Balloon Festival’s board of directors.

All pilots were required to be vaccinated in order to participate, and signs encouraging mask-wearing were scattered around the airfield.

But attendees didn’t seem to be bothered by the changes, as many nestled into lawn chairs and played with their children as they waited for the balloons to launch. A few in attendance took advantage of the windy conditions by flying kites.

Staring out into the sea of people, Donahue became emotional, at one point stepping away as he fought back tears.

Last year’s cancellation was a blow, and it was unclear if people would return in light of the changes made to the festival, Donahue said.

“This event is put on by the community for the community, and it’s part of who this region is,” he said. “We weren’t sure if people were going to come, but this is an amazing crowd for a Friday. They came. And they’re coming.”

Organizers officially canceled the launch at 5:30 p.m. following a lengthy weather delay. A total of 35 balloons were expected to take to the sky, according to Donahue.

But pilots made the best of the situation by pulling out their baskets and allowing people to pose for pictures. A few even inflated balloons to entertain the crowd, who rushed to take photos.

Conditions are expected to improve for Saturday’s morning launch honoring essential workers throughout the region.

Light winds and temperatures around 50 degrees are forecast for the 6:30 a.m. launch.

That’s good news for Aditya and Raman Kaul, who traveled from New Jersey after learning about the festival from a friend. They plan to stay the weekend.

“A friend said there’s a balloon festival up north and we said, ‘Why not?’ We traveled up to take a look,” Aditya said.

Aditya added that watching balloons launch is an ideal outdoor activity that presents minimal risk amid the surging pandemic, which has forced the couple to hunker down over the past year and a half.

They also make for great photos, Raman said.

Jonathan Buie and James Williams traveled from Philadelphia to partake in this year’s installment of Americade, the touring motorcycle rally in Lake George normally held in June but pushed back in light of the pandemic.

The pair said they made their way to the festival to support an acquaintance who was set to launch a balloon.

They plan to return Saturday morning and were unfazed by the grounded balloons, which Buie said he anticipated when he arrived to find high winds.

“We learned to appreciate the moment,” he said. “Whether its rain, shine, sleet or snow, we’re blessed to see it.”

Poll shows hurdles for families with food challenges

WASHINGTON — Many Americans struggling to feed their families over the past pandemic year said they had difficulty figuring out how to get help and had trouble finding healthy foods they can afford.

A poll from Impact Genome and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 23% of Americans said they have not been able to get enough to eat or the kinds of foods they want. Most of those facing food challenges enrolled in a government or nonprofit food assistance program in the past year, but 58% still had difficulty accessing at least one service.

Meanwhile, 21% of adults who face challenges meeting their food needs were unable to access any assistance. The most common challenge to those in need was a basic lack of awareness of eligibility for both government and nonprofit services.

The poll results paint an overall picture of a country where hundreds of thousands of households found themselves suddenly plunged into food insecurity due to the economic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. They often found themselves navigating the intimidating bureaucracy of government assistance programs and with limited knowledge of local food banks or other charitable options available.

Black and Hispanic Americans, Americans living below the federal poverty line and younger adults are especially likely to face food challenges, according to the poll.

Americans who have a hard time affording food also feel less confident than others about their ability to get healthy food. Just 27% say they are “very” or “extremely” confident, compared with 87% of those who do not face food challenges.

For homemaker Acacia Barraza in Los Lunas, a rural town outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, the challenge has been to find a steady supply of fresh fruits and vegetables for her 2-year-old son while staying inside the family budget.

Barraza, 34, quit her job as a waitress before the pandemic when her son was born. She considered going back to work, but on-and-off child care shortages as the pandemic took hold made that impossible, she said. The family lives off her husband’s salary as a mechanic while receiving assistance from SNAP — the government program commonly known as food stamps.

Despite the government help, Barraza said she still scrambles to find affordable sources of fresh vegetables, actively scouring local markets for bargains such as a bag of fresh spinach for $2.99.

“If we don’t always have vegetables, he’s going to not want to eat them in the future. And then I worry that he’s not going to get enough vitamins from vegetables in the future or now for his growing body. So it’s really hard. It’s just really hard,” she said.

Even those who didn’t lose income during the pandemic find themselves stretching their food dollars at the end of the month. Trelecia Mornes of Fort Worth, Texas, works as a telephone customer service representative, so she was able to work from home without interruption.

She makes too much money to qualify for SNAP, but not enough to easily feed the family.

She decided to do distance learning with her three children home because of fears about COVID-19 outbreaks in the schools, so that removed school lunches from the equation. Her work responsibilities prevent her from picking up free lunches offered by the school district. She takes care of her disabled brother, who lives with them and does receive SNAP benefits. But Mornes said that $284 a month “lasts about a week and a half.”

They try to eat healthy, but budget considerations sometimes lead her to prioritize cost and longevity with “canned soups, maybe noodles — things that last and aren’t so expensive,” she said.

Radha Muthiah, president of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington said the struggles reflected in the poll are evidence of a new phenomenon brought by the pandemic: Families with no experience with food insecurity are suddenly in need, without knowledge of charitable options or experience navigating government assistance programs.

Many are leery of engaging directly with government programs such as SNAP and WIC — the parallel government food-assistance program that helps mothers and children. Muthiah said that reluctance often stems from either frustration with the paperwork or, among immigrant communities, fear of endangering their immigration status or green card applications.

The poll shows that about 1 in 8 Americans regularly get their food from convenience stores. That experience is more common among Americans facing food challenges, with about 1 in 5 frequenting convenience stores.

The dependence on convenience stores is a particularly troubling dynamic, Muthiah said, because the options there are both more expensive and generally less nutritious. Part of the issue is simply habit, but a much larger problem is the lack of proper grocery stores in “food deserts” that exist in poorer parts of many cities.

“Sometimes they are the only quick efficient option for many people to get food,” she said. “But they don’t get the full range of what they need from a convenience store and that leads to a lot of negative health outcomes.”

Warren, Washington counties reported one death each from COVID

Both Warren and Washington counties on Friday reported a death of one of their residents from COVID-19.

The Washington County resident was 83 years old. The person was not vaccinated and had recently been hospitalized.

The Warren County resident was in their 50s. The person, who was vaccinated, lived at home and died in the hospital after becoming ill. This is the county’s 82nd death since the start of the pandemic.

Warren County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Rachel Seeber said the county is offering its condolences to the person’s loved ones.

“We know it may feel frustrating to hear about cases increasing again, and sadly hearing about a rising number of hospitalizations and news like today’s as we lose people we care about,” she said in a news release.

“We are asking our community to do what you do best — keep working together, keep encouraging each other to get vaccinated, wear your masks, maintain social distance and keep sharing factual information. Please continue to help our incredible medical community by following their advice during these challenging times. We still have more work to do, together,” she added.

Warren County health officials also reported that they have seen a number of COVID cases where people who were ill delayed seeking medical treatment. Anybody who is experiencing breathing problems should contact their physician or go to an urgent care center or hospital.

This applies to younger people, too, officials said, as the county has seen two people under the age of 40 this week be hospitalized with critical illness.

“Seeking treatment quickly is extremely important to avoid serious, life-threatening illness with COVID-19,” said Warren County Health Services Director Ginelle Jones in a news release. “We have been seeing more and more younger people hospitalized with serious COVID-19 illness, including two in their 30s this week, and consultation with a physician or medical expert is necessary no matter your age, vaccination status or health history.”

As the Adirondack Balloon Festival is underway and the Americade motorcycle rally also continues into the weekend, health officials are asking people in crowds to wear a mask when applicable and monitor for symptoms.

Warren County reported 20 new COVID cases and 32 recoveries. The active caseload stands at 199. All but nine involve mild illness. Eight are in the hospital, which is two fewer than Thursday. Two people are in critical condition and four have moderate illness. One person is moderately ill at home, according to a news release.

All of the new cases involve community spread of the virus including four people who had been on the campus of the Queensbury, Glens Falls, North Warren and Lake George school districts.

People are also spreading the virus in the workplace and households and through out-of-state travel and youth sports practices.

The daily positivity rate stands at 6.6% and the weekly average is at 4.1%.

Glens Falls Hospital reported 19 patients in-house with two in the intensive care unit.

Warren County has vaccine clinics scheduled for Monday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at SUNY Adirondack for students and staff only.

A third-dose clinic will take place on Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Warren County Municipal Center’s COVID-19 testing facility.

There will also be first-dose clinics scheduled on Tuesday and Oct. 5 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Warren County Municipal Center.

The county administered eight doses at a clinic on Thursday at Johnsburg Central School.

To arrange workplace or school clinics, or in-home vaccinations, call 518-761-6580.

Warren County is in the process of waiting for guidance from the state about the administration of booster shots for people age 65 and older and those at high risk of severe illness.

A total of 71.2% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine and 67.1% have completed a vaccine series.

Washington County

Washington County reported 30 new cases and 36 recoveries for an active caseload of 156. Six people are in the hospital.

The county said its thoughts and prayers are with the families of the resident who died — the county’s 48th since the start of the pandemic.

Eighteen of the 30 cases have ties to other cases including spread through households, workplaces and school or community activities. The remaining 12 cases have no identifiable source of origin, according to a news release.

Ten people were fully vaccinated, which brings the total number of breakthrough cases to 252, or 0.74%, out of 34,014 residents who have completed a vaccine series.

Also on Friday, Washington County provided a breakdown of the active cases by town. Kingsbury had the most with 44, followed by Fort Ann with 23. Granville had 18 and Whitehall had 13.

The daily positivity rate is 4.4% and the weekly average is 4.3%.

The next scheduled vaccine clinic is set for Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Whitehall Central School.

A total of 59% had received at least one dose of the vaccine and 55.6% are fully vaccinated.

Saratoga County and statewide

Saratoga County and New York state had not reported updated numbers as of 5 p.m. on Friday.