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NY Gov. Hochul watching growth of Omicron variant, holding off on new mandates for now

 New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaking during a COVID-19 briefing on Sept. 30, 2021.
WAMC screenshot
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaking during a COVID-19 briefing on Sept. 30, 2021.

The new Omicron COVID-19 variant has been found in Canada, and New York Governor Kathy Hochul says 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, says 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 says 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 her 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 Rochester region, the North Country and the Mohawk Valley, where rates of transmission can exceed 10 percent. 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 percent increase in patients over healthcare facilities in New York City and Long Island. Hochul says 32-36 hospitals in the state have bed capacities of 10 percent 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. 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 Tish James, who is running, along with Hochul, in the 2022 Democratic primary for governor, says more efforts need to be made to target communities with low vaccination rates. Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi, who announced his entry to the race on Monday, says 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 public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.