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NYS Health Commissioner says COVID-19 increasing at rates never before documented

 New York State Department of Health Commissioner Mary Bassett
New York State Department of Health Commissioner Mary Bassett

Concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 are growing, as the more contagious version of the virus is beginning to take hold in New York. The state reported 21,000 new cases on Friday, the highest one day total since the pandemic began.

Capitol Correspondent Karen DeWitt spoke with the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, who says the best defense against the coming wave is vaccinations, including booster shots, and wearing masks in public settings.

Bassett says the science is still “evolving” on omicron, but so far it appears to be very contagious, and she says state health officials are seeing a rate of increase that has “never been documented before.” She says the variant so far is milder than previous forms of the virus, but unvaccinated people are in danger of becoming very ill.

“Now is the time to recognize that we have something new,” Bassett said. “And you may want to change your mind about getting vaccinated.”

People who have not yet received a booster shot are also at more risk of contracting a more serious illness from omicron.

Bassett says she supports Governor Kathy Hochul’s mandate that stores, restaurants and entertainment venues require either that everyone be masked, or that all patrons provide proof of vaccination. And she says she also backs the governor’s decision to not enforce the rules in a heavy handed manner, and that it should be up to individuals and business owners to comply.

“I believe that people want to be safe,” she said. “And that they will take actions to protect themselves, their families and the people that they love.”

The health commissioner says plans are in the works for expanding access to self-testing kits. She says even for vaccinated people there is a “role for testing”, if you are spending time with an elderly or physically compromised friend or relative.

Dr. Bassett also offered some advice for how to safely approach upcoming home holiday gatherings. She says think about the most vulnerable person in your group. In her case, it’s her 93-year-old mother.

Bassett says she takes a COVID test before every visit to her mom.

“We make the plans according to our desire to protect my 93-year-old fully vaccinated and boosted mother, who still might get infected if she is exposed,” said Bassett.

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.