Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks to reporters at a COVID-19 briefing today in Albany. Courtesy photo: Office of the Governor

Gov. Kathy Hochul has extended the indoor mask mandate to Feb. 1, she announced today during a press briefing in Albany.

Hochul also announced that faculty at all SUNY and CUNY colleges will be required to be vaccinated when they return to school after the winter break and all SUNY and CUNY students that are eligible for a booster will be required to get a booster shot.

The governor cited the dramatic rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks, rising from just over 11,000 new cases a day when the omicron variant was first detected in New York to more than 76,000 new cases yesterday.

“We are being hit very hard, without a doubt, but this is also a national phenomenon — a global phenomenon, in fact,” Hochul said.

Hospitalizations continue to rise in New York, “closing in on 8,000,” Hochul said. Hospitalizations peaked at 9,273 on Jan. 18 during last winter’s surge, according to data published by the State Health Department.

The increase is putting “a lot of stress on an already overtaxed healthcare system,” the governor said.

COVID-19 fatalities are also rising — reaching 80 deaths yesterday, Hochul said — but the daily death toll is not as high as it was last winter.

“But we’re not out of it. I’m not here to say we’re out of this. We’re still addressing a very serious situation,” she said.

Hochul, as always, urged people to get vaccinated and especially urged parents to get their children vaccinated.

Only 28% of children 5-11 years old have had their first dose, Hochul said. “There’s no reason” for such a low number she said.

Pediatric COVID hospitalizations are rising, Hochul said calling the trend “concerning.”

The governor today discussed a “2.0 plan” as “a reminder that we’re heading into a new season, a new year, kids are coming back to school our hospitals are overstretched,” she said. “And so we wanted to amplify the policies that have been working thus far and also analyze where we’re going next.

Hochul called the 2.0 plan “simply improvements upon what we’ve been doing and again to sound the alarm that the numbers are continuing to increase” and “they don’t have to.”

The governor discussed the four components of the plan.

One, she said, is getting children back in school and keeping them there. This requires testing, which will be made available through schools.

“We want to make sure we have enough supply. So in the case where one of the classmates tests positive, everybody can take a test kit home in their backpack, come back the next day if they have a negative test and get tested again in a couple of days,” Hochul said. The experts say this is the safest way to keep children in school, she said.

State Operations Director Kathryn Garcia said the state has ordered over 37 million tests, and 5.28 million arrived this week. An additional 6 million tests are arriving through Monday, she said. The state will continue to supply school districts with masks “on a regular basis over the next few weeks… anticipating that January and February are going to be challenging,” Garcia said.

Number two is to keep wearing masks and testing. The requirement that businesses require masks or proof of vaccination is being extended two weeks to Feb. 1, Hochul said. This will be reassessed by Feb. 1 based on what’s happening with omicron then, she said.

“This is all geared toward keeping the economy open,” Hochul said. “The other alternative is to say, shut it all down. You can shut it all down. Everybody stay home locked down, shut down, businesses shut down, all the little shops and plays and all the other experiences. The reason we don’t have to do this is because we now have the defenses in place — the testing, the vaccines, the booster shots, the masks,” she said. “We’re in a different dynamic now.”

Hochul also urged people to wear N95 or KN95 masks, which health officials say are much more effective at preventing the spread of germs than surgical masks or cloth masks.

There are 1,800 state-run vaccination sites across the state and more are being added, Hochul said.

Number three in the plan is to focus on preventing severe illness and deaths. Doing this means supporting our hospitals, Hochul said. The state has asked the federal government for more resources and more medicine, she said.

Hochul stressed the importance of protecting nursing home residents, “because it is starting to spread to nursing homes,” she said.

“We’ve asked the federal government to revise their regulations that don’t allow us to have any restrictions on visitors” in nursing homes.

She said the state is also asking the federal government to make the antiviral treatment more widely available as possible. “We don’t want these allocation decisions based on population only, when you have areas of high transmission, high need, high infection in places like New York,” Hochul said, adding that the feds are looking at their policies in response to their conversations with New York officials.

The FDA gave emergency approval for two oral antiviral drugs, which State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett called a “huge advance” because it can be taken at home.

The state is also pushing for more of the monoclonal antibody treatment that is effective with omicron. “The federal government is now acknowledging that New York State has to receive (supply) not just proportional to our population, but proportional to our disease burden,” Bassett said. “So this is good news.”

However, the supply of these treatments are still “fairly small, minuscule, actually, compared to the number of infections that we’re seeing,” Bassett said.

In addition, Division of Homeland Security Emergency Services Commissioner Jackie Bray said, FEMA is deploying a 35-member disaster medical assistance team to SUNY Upstate in Syracuse. FEMA will also be be deploying a 20-plus member Department of Defense medical response team to Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo, she said. There have been 30 federal ambulance teams working upstate and FEMA will be sending 50 additional ambulance teams to New York City.

“In addition to the federal resources, we are opening our stockpiles and sending durable medical equipment to hospitals across the state, that includes oxygen concentrators, oxygen tanks and BiPAP machines and will continue to push out any supplies that are needed as we hear of emerging needs,” Bray said.

Number four in the plan is to keep increasing vaccines and boosters for adults and kids and then continue working with our elected leaders, as the state has been doing since day one, Hochul said.

“We are micro-targeting vaccines and boosters,” Hochul said,

With only 35% of kids 5-11 vaccinated, Hochul said the state needs to focus on getting that age group vaccinated. Vaccines have been available to them since Nov. 14, she said. “We’ve made some progress. I know a lot of people didn’t want to be first didn’t want to be second. But now, hundreds of thousands of children have been vaccinated and vaccinated safely,” Hochul said. One of the state’s top priorities will continue to be “getting parents to do the right thing for their children,” she said.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.