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Hochul, New York health officials warn of 'tri-demic' this winter

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Darren McGee
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Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov Kathy Hochul gives a briefing on the "tridemic" facing New York on Dec. 7, 2022. Health commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett is at right.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and top state health officials say New Yorkers should start preparing for a surge in three different viruses — RSV, the flu, and COVID — as the holiday season gets underway.

Hochul said doctors and hospitals in New York are bracing for a “tri-demic” in the upcoming winter season. RSV, a respiratory virus, has been spiking in children for several weeks, and now the flu is on the rise. The governor said she believes that’s largely due to New Yorkers attending Thanksgiving gatherings.

“We are not out of the woods,” Hochul said. “The threat is real, and we have cases.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, two children have died from the flu so far this year; state health officials say one of those deaths was in New York. Children as young as six months old are eligible for the flu vaccine, and health experts recommend that everyone who is eligible should get one.

There is no vaccine or antiviral medicines for RSV.

Dr. Sallie Permar, pediatrician in chief with New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center, said there is potential that a vaccine and medicines to treat RSV will be ready for next year’s flu and cold season. She said for now, parents should monitor their sick child at home, and watch for signs to determine if they need to go to the hospital.

Permar said those signs include having difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, and breathing that makes it hard for the child to drink and remain hydrated.

She said another sign that it might be time to visit the hospital is if the child is dehydrated and has not urinated in more than six hours.

“The emergency room is always available,” Permar said, though she recommends also contacting the child’s pediatrician.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said it’s believed that the two years of social isolation, school closures and lockdowns are responsible for the viral outbreaks in a population that has not yet been exposed to the diseases.

“We’re coming out of a period when our children were really cloistered,” Bassett said. “We’re just speculating that the kids haven’t been exposed to many common viruses that they, in another time, would have been exposed to.”

Finally, as year four of the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, cases are once again on the rise by 25% nationwide and they’re increasing on Long Island. Hospitalizations are also up, a trend Basset finds “worrying.”

She said like the flu, there is a vaccine to help prevent COVID. And the bivalent booster shot, which protects against strains of the omicron variant of the virus, is widely available.

But so far, just 13% of those eligible, and one-third of seniors over age 65, have received the shot.

Unlike during the omicron surge a year ago, Hochul has no plans to impose a mask mandate or place limits on business or social interactions.

Bassett said while masks are recommended in crowded indoor settings, governments are moving away from trying to force people to do so.

“People are tired of being told what to do,” said Bassett, who added people can make protective decisions on their own, like getting their booster shots.

“There’s a limit on how much we can legislate people’s behavior,” she said.

Bassett is leaving at the end of the year. She told reporters at the briefing that it was her idea to return to a prior post at Harvard.

Bassett replaced former state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. Zucker was appointed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in August 2021 over multiple scandals, including the undercounting of COVID deaths in nursing homes at the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. Zucker left shortly afterward.

Hochul praised Bassett and said she would have welcomed her staying longer in the post.

“There cannot have been a more challenging time for any public health professional to enter into a whole new position than we had last December,” Hochul said. “Her leadership really gave us a sense of calm.”

Bassett, in turn, said she believes Hochul “did everything possible” to manage the pandemic and prevent it from becoming worse.

The governor said she’s conducting a nationwide search for a replacement but does not expect to name anyone to the post anytime soon, noting that “these are big shoes to fill.”

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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.