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NY's mask mandate not expected to end anytime soon

 New York Gov. Kathy Hochul gets a flu shot on Oct. 13, 2021
Office of NY Gov. Kathy Hochul
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul gets a flu shot on Oct. 13, 2021

It seems likely that New Yorkers will continue to be required to wear masks in indoor public spaces for at least another month. Governor Kathy Hochul, who recently extended the mandate through February 10th, says it’s likely the rule will be continued after that.

The COVID-19 infection rate has declined by 92% from a high of around 90,000 7th, to 7,119 on January 31st, and 43% fewer people are in the hospital with the disease, since a high point of 12,452 on January 12th. Though it appears that the omicron variant has peaked in New York, Governor Hochul says the virus has already thrown many curveballs, and it’s not time to relax restrictions just yet.

“We’re not taking our foot off the gas, when it comes to fighting the pandemic,” Hochul said. “The masks are one element of that.”

122 New Yorkers died from the virus on January 31st, and more than 7,000 people are still in the hospital. The vast number of those hospitalized for the disease are unvaccinated.

Hochul, speaking in the Bronx Tuesday, says health care facilities are still dealing with staffing shortages. In response, the state’s hospitals are currently receiving aid from 225 members of New York’s National Guard, the U.S. military’s medical teams, and 110 federally provided ambulance units.

Hochul says she hopes that her plan, detailed in her state budget proposal, to spend $4 billion over the next several years for health care worker retention and recruitment will help alleviate those problems.

Nearly 74% of all New Yorkers are now fully vaccinated, but among 5- to 11-year-olds, who became eligible for the vaccine in early November, the rate is under 30%. Those younger than 5 are not yet eligible, but Pfizer has submitted clinical trial data to the federal Food and Drug Administration on the efficacy of the shots for babies as young as six months, and approval could come in a matter of weeks.

Hochul says she’s also having “conversations” with school superintendents regarding masking policies.

The governor’s comments came a day after a small number of protesters rallied outside the state Capitol to end mask mandates. One of Hochul’s political opponents, Republican candidate for governor and Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, spoke to the group. He says children are suffering the ill effects of nearly two years of COVID-related lockdowns and restrictions, calling it “child abuse.”

“As governor of the state of New York, on day one, all COVID mandates end,” Zeldin promised, as the crowd cheered. “There is no generation more desperate to return to normalcy than our kids.”

Hochul says any decision to ease the restrictions will be based on science and data, and in consultation with the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary 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.