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Northeast governors plan to distribute tests, masks as COVID cases surge

 New York Governor Kathy Hochul speaking at the University at Buffalo Aug. 31, 2021
WAMC screenshot
New York Governor Kathy Hochul speaking at the University at Buffalo Aug. 31, 2021

Holding a Monday COVID briefing at the capitol in Albany, Governor Kathy Hochul says New York state is focused on ramping up coronavirus testing, getting the population vaccinated and boosted, retaining hospital capacity and keeping schools open.

“We have seen a major uptick in cases all around us. This is a northeastern phenomenon right now. Washington and all of the north, the Atlantic seaboard, New Jersey, all around us, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, are all being hit hard, almost equal numbers as we are. So we're seeing cases per 100,000 statewide up to 180, which is high. You can see where we're trending they're not a surprise, not something we weren't preparing for, not something we're not ready for. But it's always disturbing to see those numbers continue as they do,” she said.

The Democrat says the majority of tests coming from the federal government will be distributed to New York schools. 1 million kits are being distributed outside of New York City, with 100 trucks delivering them this week. Hochul says she remains steadfast that schools stay open amid the surge in cases.

“Most cases are not being transmitted in schools. Children are wearing their masks. We want more vaccinated, we want them boosted at some point, as soon as possible, but we understand it’s not a good option to say children are going to be returning home again,” she said. “Subject to possible changes in the future but right now that is absolutely where our position is. It’s unwavering.”

But cases among New York children and nursing home residents have soared since the beginning of December. Pediatric hospital admissions have increased fourfold. State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett says the majority of admissions are among the unvaccinated:

“Our vaccination rates in 5-11-year-olds remain disappointing low,” Dr. Bassett said. “And I hope that parents will take the opportunity to vaccinate their children so that their children are protected. It’s clear that vaccination reduces the chance of severe illness.”

Hochul says nearly a third of the state’s nursing homes have at least one resident with COVID.

“We’ve been very aggressive in providing the booster shots to our nursing home population but again, you cannot get a booster unless you’ve been vaccinated, and we’ve been trying to, ever since we required all nursing homes to make boosters available, back around Thanksgiving, and if they had been successful, we wouldn’t even have a problem right now,” she said.

President Biden said Monday the omicron variant is a source of concern, but not panic. The president met virtually with members of the National Governors Association, saying federal resources are being rolled out to increase vaccination and testing capacity:

“With a rise in cases, we still have tens of millions of unvaccinated people, and we’re seeing hospitalizations rise,” Biden said. “It means our hospitals in some places are gonna get overrun, both in terms of equipment and staff. That’s why we stockpiled and pre-positioned millions of gowns, gloves, masks and ventilators. We’re mobilizing an additional 1,000 military doctors, nurses and medics to help staff hospitals.”

Hochul on Sunday signed an executive order that allows the State Senate and Assembly the ability to meet remotely through January 15. It comes on the eve of the new legislative session, which is scheduled to begin January 5. Hochul was asked about the possibility of a remote legislative session again in 2022. She says the indoor mask/vaccination mandate will also be up for reconsideration in mid-January.

“Everything will be assessed at that time. We are hopeful but cannot make any guarantees that the trend of this variant will be the spike up, which we hope starts dropping down soon, and then by the 15th we’ll start seeing some improvements, but if we don’t we’ll be willing to extend these,” she said. “And making sure that we keep the capitol safe and making sure that our legislators conduct their business but in a safe way as well. So it’s evolving. The answer I’m going to give you is it’s evolving.”

As a Federal Emergency Management Agency team embeds at the state’s emergency operations center — helping with ambulances, mobile testing and emergency clinical staffing — Governor Hochul says she will unveil a new winter COVID plan on Friday, New Year’s Eve.

In Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont is outlining plans to distribute 3 million COVID-19 at-home rapid tests the state will be receiving from the federal government. The Democrat says 500,000 kits, each containing two tests, will be distributed to the general public starting Thursday and 1 million kits will be distributed to K through 12 schools statewide. Lamont discussed the state’s strategy on a Zoom press conference Monday:

“We tried to take the lead ourselves and I saw the urgency a lot of people felt on their way to vacation to get testing, now on their way back to get testing,” he said.

Beginning in January, the state also plans to hand out 6 million N95 masks. Lamont says keeping students in class is a priority.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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