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NY Health Commissioner tests positive as state sets new record for COVID-19 cases

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

New York Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett has tested positive for COVID-19. Governor Kathy Hochul made the announcement in a Monday briefing that also documented the worsening situation in the state as the omicron variant spreads.

Hochul says Dr. Bassett is experiencing mild symptoms and is self-isolating for the next several days. Her positive test came as part of a daily screening for aides and advisors who come into contact with the governor.

“Of course she is vaccinated and boosted, so this would be a breakthrough case,” said Hochul. “But she is feeling fine. We’re thinking about her and her family and all the New Yorkers who are having their family plans disrupted because of this virus.”

New York broke yet another record Sunday, with 23,000 new positive cases reported.

To some, the situation feels eerily like early March of 2020, when the pandemic fully hit, but Hochul stresses that we have more weapons available now.

“We are avoiding a government shutdown because we now have the tools available to all of us,” Hochul said “Vaccination, booster shots, masks.”

The governor says some good news is that, so far the omicron variant appear to be milder. It is also peaking and then declining more rapidly in countries including South Africa that have already experienced surges.

Hochul says the state is taking new steps, including opening up more mass vaccination sites to make the shots, as well as booster shots more readily available. 40% of adults in New York have now received the booster, but she says the numbers need to be at least over 70% to help prevent further spread. She urges parents to take their children to get their shots over the upcoming holiday school break.

Hochul says state inspectors will now be conducting spot checks to make sure there is compliance with a statewide mask mandate issued December 13. She at first left it to local governments to enforce the new rules, but several counties refused, saying they don’t have the resources. The governor says she’s distributing $65 million to counties to help them get the word out about the mandate, and to develop online compliance centers to report violations.

The state will also distribute 6 million masks to counties, so businesses can have them on hand for customers.

In addition, 10 million hard-to-find at-home tests will be given out in the coming weeks, including 2 million directly to school children, to make it easier for them to be able to determine their status quickly, and if they test negative, remain in school.

“We are committed to keeping our schools open,” she said.

At-home tests will also be distributed to college students, to help keep campuses open this winter. Cornell University is among schools that shut down before the end of the fall semester due to spread of the virus.

Hochul, who is running for election next year, continues to receive criticism from some of her opponents, including Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, the leading Republican candidate for governor. Zeldin came to the Capitol Monday to ask Hochul to end the mask mandate, saying it’s not necessary. He says if omicron causes less severe disease, then it’s unlikely to overwhelm hospital capacity the way previous variants did.

“And also, it’s going to be a deterrent for getting people to want to get vaccinated if their life isn’t going to be returning to normal any faster for many people,” said Zeldin.

Zeldin says people were originally told that after they were vaccinated, their lives could return to normal. He says whether or not to wear a mask should be a matter of personal choice.

Governor Hochul is also revising her November recommendation that all workers be back in-person in offices in January. She says she still believes workplaces with vaccination and masking mandates can be safe, but now says it’s up to individual businesses to make those decisions.

The governor says she’s also not ruling out cancelling current plans for a limited, in-person State of the State speech on January 5, and could hold it virtually, if things get worse.

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.