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No Omicron yet in New York State, but Gov. Hochul expects a COVID surge is coming

Gov. Kathy Hochul holds a COVID-19 briefing Monday, Nov. 29, 2021
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul holds a COVID-19 briefing Monday, Nov. 29, 2021

Governor Kathy Hochul says state officials continue to monitor developments in the Omicron COVID variant, and warns that already climbing COVID numbers are expected to surge following the Thanksgiving holiday.

As of Monday afternoon, according to an official with the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center, the Omicron variant, which was first identified in southern Africa, had not been reported in New York State, though it was confirmed in Canada.

Hochul, speaking Monday afternoon, said the state is “not defenseless” and is better prepared, compared to when COVID first arrived in the state.

“Compared to a year ago, we have so much at our disposal,” she said. “Anyone over age five can get vaccinated. If you're vaccinated you can get the booster shot if you're over the age of 18. We are recommending highly that people wear masks indoors, that they already have to if they go out on public transit. You cannot go on the subway without making sure you have your mask on. You cannot go into a health care facility in the state of New York without wearing a mask. We've always encouraged mask use and I'm asking businesses to encourage the same among their patrons as well as their employees.”

In the meantime, Hochul also warns that new case numbers may have been lower immediately after the Thanksgiving holiday, but she and health officials anticipate a surge in the coming days.

“It takes about five days for it to manifest itself after exposure,” she said. “So, okay, you sat down with your family and you invited Uncle Harry, who wasn't vaccinated, who sat right next to you with Thanksgiving dinner. You could be exposed and you could be vulnerable if you don't have the vaccination and hopefully the booster as well. So watch your symptoms closely. Stay in touch with your family members, make sure you know what everybody's up to. Because if there is going to be a surge in hospitalizations, which we'd be naive to think there won't be, that would occur about 10 days from now. That's what we're watching for as well.”

The governor’s executive order, which was announced during the holiday weekend, gives health officials the power to limit non-essential, non-urgent medical procedures at hospitals where capacity is deemed limited, in order to increase capacity and ease staffing shortages that may be pressed to take on more COVID cases.

“What this executive order has primarily done is it says to hospitals across the state, focus only on critical services right now,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin. “Let's make sure we get our bed capacity in line so that we can deal with this issue as expediently as we can.”

Benjamin, who appeared in Buffalo Monday prior to Hochul’s briefing, said the need to counter COVID spread needs to be a bipartisan and non-political effort. State Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt acknowledged working with Benjamin when the latter was a fellow state senator, and also credited his willingness to communicate, stating the previous governor at no time invited the minority into conversations to address the public health crisis.

But Ortt says the current governor needs to come forth with more information that would help justify measures and restrictions. He is asking the governor to better define how much of the capacity problem in hospitals is based on staffing shortages, on actual lack of beds, or on levels of COVID cases.

“This is a busy time of year for a lot of hospitals. You have flu, you have other things going on,” Ortt said. “There was a report at another news outlet that said at ECMC 12% of the hospitalization was COVID-related. I mean, 88% was non-COVID related. So I think those are all important data points, metrics that we need to know, when we're crafting policies.”

Ortt adds that if staffing shortages are the factor, Hochul’s policy mandating vaccinations for healthcare staff would certainly play a role. The governor acknowledged a staffing shortage and a correlation to a limited degree, but insists it’s just one of multiple factors contributing to the problem.

In the meantime, Hochul pointed out that her order does not cover cancer treatments, nor does it cover cancer screenings including mammograms and colonoscopies. She urges all individuals scheduled to undergo such procedures to continue doing so as planned with no delay.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.