By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
ALBANY — The county is in a stronger position now than it was 12 months ago, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said in his 11th annual State of the County address.
When McCoy delivered the previous State of the County in 2021, New York was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and recovering from the health crisis has taken longer than expected, McCoy said March 7.
“A year ago, we had hoped that the vaccine represented the light at the end of this dark COVID tunnel,” the county executive said. “It’s taken longer than we anticipated and tragically, during this time, we have lost over 500 Albany County citizens to COVID-19.”
Over the past year or so, the county has looked to vaccinate as many residents as possible against the virus through more than 900 members of the Albany County Medical Reserve Corps administering the shots and working with communities and groups to facilitate the process.
“These partnerships also assisted our efforts in outreach to minority communities to provide equal, if not greater, access of vaccine to disadvantaged neighborhoods,” McCoy said. “We did this by creating 50 pop-up clinics that brought vaccine directly to neighborhoods where people live, work, worship and go to school. In total, nearly 10,000 vaccines were administered at these sites.”
In 2021, the county’s Department of Health also operated 320 PODs, or points of distribution, to administer or reallocate over 80,000 doses of the vaccine. The Health Department also partnered with local schools to administer more than 2,000 doses to children and nearly 40,000 COVID tests and face masks.
Nearly 90% of adults in Albany County have received the vaccine, McCoy said.
McCoy cited improving equity and affordability in health care as among his priorities.
“The inequities are not isolated to race or the culture, but also exist in some rural communities,” McCoy said. “There needs to be access to health care. And, the health care that is accessed needs to be equal.”
The pandemic provided a unique opportunity to reboot and make changes in health care accessibility, he added.
“The time is now to forge a new path,” he said. “We must capitalize on this once-in-a-century opportunity to turn things around, break down barriers and truly create a county where health equity is a reality. That is why I directed all departments to make the health and wellness of our community a priority.”
County officials are working to make health and wellness a major factor as new policies and procedures are developed, McCoy said.
One area that saw changes in Albany County in 2021 was the establishment of a mental health crisis hotline for individuals struggling with depression and behavioral issues, particularly in light of the pandemic and related shutdowns that increased isolation, McCoy said.
“We must permanently remove all obstacles to receiving mental health services. This starts culturally,” McCoy said. “We must remove the stereotypes associated with behavioral issues. We must obliterate any and all stigma and negative connotation. Asking for help should not be considered a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. I am pleading with everyone to embrace, not alienate, those persons seeking services.”
McCoy established a task force to develop a comprehensive plan — and a roadmap for implementing that plan — to improve mental health services in the county.
Last year also saw the opening of the county’s Mental Health Court, which is a diversion program that was in the works for five years to find solutions and treatment for individuals with mental health issues rather than funneling them through the criminal justice system, McCoy said.
“The new approach will address the underlying behavioral issues and severely reduce the risk of recidivism while allowing for the person to reconnect with and continue to be positively engaged with society,” McCoy said.
The ACCORD program, or Albany County Crisis Officials Responding and Diverting program, also launched in 2021 to provide an alternative crisis response in the county’s hill towns. The program pairs social workers with paramedics from the sheriff’s EMS Division to respond to non-violent situations, rather than sending law enforcement, which could potentially lead to escalation. The program will expand to other communities, McCoy said.
Last year also saw upgrades to Lawson Lake, and more are in the works, McCoy said.
“Over the last 10 years, it has become a haven for kids and adults alike to enjoy year-round,” he said.
The county also offered summer day camp opportunities at Lawson Lake last summer to children in Coeymans, McCoy added.
“There is so much untapped potential at Lawson Lake,” McCoy said. “That is why there is a comprehensive plan underway to evaluate the site so we may determine the best way to use this beautiful space and create even more access for all people to enjoy.”
The county also launched a program in 2021 to offer individuals on probation the opportunity to earn a high school diploma equivalent as a way to prevent recidivism, McCoy said.
“Currently, 24% of those in our probation department system don’t have a high school diploma and studies have shown that median annual earnings increase by an estimated $8,000 after you get a high school diploma,” McCoy said. “We don’t want to see history keep repeating itself and this is a way to help break that cycle. Having a better paying job is a good step toward that end.”
Albany County has been allocated a total $58 million in COVID relief funds through the federal American Rescue Plan, to be disbursed in two annual payments, beginning in 2021, McCoy said. The first installment was used to stabilize county finances by replacing revenue lost during the pandemic. Use of the second installment — $29 million — will be determined by a task force.
“The hope is that plans and projects from these monies shall be seeds and catalysts for other projects that continue with our overall mission of health, wellness and quality of life to our residents,” McCoy said.