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Hochul watching growth of Omicron variant, but holding off on new mandates for now

Don Pollard
Office of the Governor
Gov. Kathy Hochul gives a COVID-19 briefing Monday, November 29, 2021

The new Omicron COVID-19 variant has been found in Canada, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she is closely watching the situation to see if any additional measures need to be taken.

Hochul, whose Buffalo home is close to the Canadian border, said so far, there are no reported cases of the Omicron variant in the state, but testing labs including the state testing center at Wadsworth labs in Albany are keeping a close eye. She said the new variant is a concern, but there are a number of tools now to better deal with the virus, including vaccines, booster shots, and more widely available testing.

"We are fully monitoring this,” Hochul said. “We are not defenseless like we were one year ago.”

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Hochul issued a new state of emergency to allow the state health department to limit non-essential, non-urgent surgeries in hospitals in regions that are experiencing a spike in infection rates. They include western New York, the Finger Lakes region, the North Country and the Mohawk Valley, where rates of transmission can exceed 10%. The rates of vaccination are lower there than in downstate areas, which are not currently experiencing a surge.

There are over 2,800 people in hospitals with COVID, with upstate hospitals experiencing a 150% increase in patients over health care facilities in New York City and Long Island.

Hochul says 32 to 36 hospitals in the state have bed capacities of 10% or less, due to an increased number of COVID cases, and may be ordered to stop all elective surgeries.

“Beginning on December 3, elective procedures at these short staffed hospitals will cease,” Hochul said. “And we will reassess that again on January 15.”

The ban does not apply to cancer treatments and cancer screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies. Hochul says people should not put off those tests.

The governor is also compiling a list of National Guard members who have medical training to be deployed to ease staffing shortages, beginning in January, at the state’s nursing homes and other long term care facilities. And Hochul also says she’s working to get booster shots for more nursing home residents.

She predicts a new surge in the virus infection rate in next few days, as people returning from gatherings during the Thanksgiving holiday might experience symptoms and get tested.

The governor is not imposing any new mandates regarding vaccinations or mask wearing, though she continues to support rules like an indoor mask mandate imposed by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. The Buffalo area has the highest infection rate in the state.

“I support his mask mandate,” said Hochul. “And I encourage other leaders to do the same.”

Hochul’s COVID management style is being criticized by some of her political rivals. Attorney General Letitia James, who is running in the 2022 Democratic primary for governor, said more efforts need to be made to target communities with low vaccination rates. Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi, who announced his entry into the race for governor Monday, said state leaders need to be more closely focused on the pandemic every single day, to avoid the regional spikes in the virus.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.