Hochul extends mask mandate until February to help cope with coronavirus winter surge

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NYS Gov. Kathy Hochul laid out her plan for dealing with the COVID-19 winter surge at the State Capitol on December 31, 2021.

As the New Year approaches with, once again, uncertainties about the coronavirus, New York Governor Kathy Hochul on New Year’s Eve unveiled plans to cope with COVID-19 in the first weeks of 2022. They include extending the state wide mask mandate until February 1, and more testing for school children.

Hochul said her prime goals are to avoid economic shutdowns and keep children in school as they return to the classroom Monday.

Her plan for the winter surge, which she calls the 2.0 version, comes as the state continues to break records for the number of people testing positive for COVID, and hospital rates continue to climb.

The governor says the good news is that while the number of cases is skyrocketing, the death rate is far lower than earlier in the pandemic, before vaccines became available. She said the highly transmissible omicron variant, which continues to gain prevalence, continues to appear much milder than previous versions of the virus. And in South Africa, where omicron was first detected, the surge has already peaked.

“I’m not here to say we’re out of it,” Hochul said. “We’re addressing a very serious situation.”

Hochul said the state has procured over 5.5 million rapid test kits that are being distributed to schools, and as many as 8 million more are coming. She said the aim is to have enough tests on hand to successfully carry out what’s known as a test-to -stay policy.

“We want to make sure there is enough supply so in the case where one of the classmates test positive, everybody can take a test kit home in their backpack,” Hochul said.

Hochul said if they test negative, they can return to school. The children would also take the second test in the kit a few days later, and if that too is negative, they could continue going to school.

“This is how we believe, listening to the experts, that this is the safest way to keep children in schools,” the governor said.

The governor said some school districts planned to hand out tests to parents over the weekend, and many more schools would make them available on Monday.

Beginning January 15, college students who are eligible for the booster shot will be required to get one, in order to return to campus for the spring semester.

And Hochul said it’s necessary to extend the state’s mask mandate, which was to expire January 15, through the end of the month. Businesses, restaurants, and entertainment venues have the option of requiring that everyone wear a face covering, or that all patrons show proof of vaccination before entering.

The governor also announced that 14 hospitals that were required to cancel elective surgeries because of limited bed capacity due to high numbers of COVID patients will now be permitted to carry out the procedures. 21 hospitals remain on a restricted list.

The vast majority of the nearly 8,000 New Yorkers who are in the hospital with the virus are unvaccinated, an occurrence that Hochul said is entirely “preventable” because vaccines are widely available.

The state’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, said she’s concerned over the increasing incidences of young children being hospitalized with the disease, growing from 70 admissions during a week in mid December, to around 300 during the last week of December.

“A large number of these are in children under five,” said Bassett. “These are children who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated.”

Vaccination rates among older children aged 5 to 11, who have been eligible since mid-November, is low, at just 29%, compared to 83% of the adult population.

Bassett said her other concern is that even though the omicron variant is not as severe, that the sheer numbers of infections could overwhelm the health care system, and lead to further restrictions.

But the health commissioner, and Governor Hochul, say they aren’t ready to impose further restrictions on New Yorkers, but won’t hesitate to do so, if things get worse than what is now expected.

“We’re being asked to predict the future here,” Hochul said. “And that’s not something we can do.”

Hochul is facing a Democratic primary for election in 2022, and one of her opponents critiqued her new plan. Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi said the plan falls “far short” and among other things, the governor needs to open more state run testing sites, including drive- through sites to ease the testing crunch.