Hochul: ‘rough ride’ ahead amid COVID-19 surge in New York

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NEW YORK NOW – If New York’s COVID-19 trends follow those of other countries, the state could be headed toward a heightened surge of the virus amid the Omicron variant, state health officials warned Thursday.

Dr. Mary Bassett, the acting head of the state Department of Health, said Thursday that countries like Norway and Denmark, where the variant has spiked, could be an indicator.

“We know that even if it’s much less likely to cause severe disease, which seems to be the case, if you have a lot of people infected, even a small proportion will lead to big numbers,” Bassett said.

Confirmed cases per day have more than doubled in both countries in recent days, due in part to the Omicron variant. It’s still unclear if the new variant is more severe than previous iterations of the disease.

New York’s average COVID-19 positivity rate, as of Thursday, is twice what it was in early November, but has remained relatively stable since the state’s first case of the Omicron variant was detected less than two weeks ago.

Hochul said she’s expecting that to change, and that the state’s current uptick could likely be the start of a larger spike of the disease.

“That winter surge is in full force,” Hochul said. “And I believe it’s going to get even stronger and more virulent, and we are in for a rough ride this winter season.”

New York implemented a new mask mandate on Monday, which requires individuals to remain masked in public indoor facilities that don’t require proof of vaccination, regardless of their status. But Hochul said new measures could be implemented as the virus spreads.

Top of mind, she said, is hospital capacity. Several hospitals across the state have reported limited capacity, due to a spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks.

Hochul said hospitals could create more space for new patients, but don’t have the workers to staff them.

“I may have to make some accommodations and regulations related to capacity that I have at my disposal,” Hochul said.

She said she’s working with the federal government to get work visas for people to come to New York and help staff health care facilities, and noted that New York is launching a new expenses-paid training program to certify up to 1,000 new nurses.

Another prong of the state’s approach will be testing, Hochul said. The state has purchased more than a million at-home test kits, which will be distributed in areas with the highest positivity rates. The state will also set up a portal to request those kits free of charge.

Both Hochul and Bassett also stressed that, for the strongest protection against the Omicron variant, a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine is recommended.

“It seems clear that preliminary data makes it clear that being boosted, and this is from other countries, will help protect against the Omicron variant,” Bassett said.

For New Yorkers experiencing so-called “COVID fatigue,” a sense of hopelessness as the pandemic wears on, there’s more bad news: there’s no end in sight.

When asked when she thought COVID-19 regulations from the state would permanently end, Hochul said she couldn’t speculate due to the unpredictable trajectory of the virus.

“There is no person on this planet that can give an answer to the question,” Hochul said. “I cannot predict the end. Nobody can.”