Gov. Kathy Hochul at a COVID-19 briefing Jan.7. Photo: Don Pollard/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Health care workers in New York State will be required to take a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot when they are eligible, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced today.

The mandate, the first one statewide in the country, will protect the integrity of the state’s health care system and reduce breakthrough infections by the omicron variant of the virus, Hochul said. The mandate will be instituted with no excuse other than a medical exemption.

“We’ve already seen what’s been happening in our health care environments,” Hochul said. “Staff is getting sick, they’re leaving. We need them to get well, we need them to have the best fortification they possibly can and that means getting a booster shot as well.”

Hochul said she expects the directive to be approved during a special meeting of the state’s Public Health and Health Planning Council on Tuesday.

The recommended time for fully vaccinated people to obtain the booster for the Pfizer vaccine was shortened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week from after six months to five months after full vaccination. Hochul said health care workers would have two weeks from the day they are eligible to receive the booster.

When asked whether she was worried the booster mandate would be resisted by health care workers and further limit the state’s health care infrastructure, Hochul said the state already went through getting 92% of their health care workforce vaccinated and they can do it again.

“Those who already overcome a hurdle, I believe that they’ll just view this as, ‘I did once, I can do it again,’” Hochul said. “So we don’t think it’s going to be that level of challenge it was the first go-round when this was a new idea.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor this year, said in a press release in response to Hochul’s announcement that a booster mandate will only worsen the current health care staff shortage.

“Our state’s hospitals and other medical facilities are already understaffed. Governor Hochul’s last vaccine mandate for healthcare workers and resulting firings made this crisis worse,” Zeldin said. “Now, she’s announced her intention to exacerbate the problem by requiring COVID booster shots. Enough with the threats, mandates, fines and firings! It’s time to respect medical freedom, follow ALL of the science, return to normal, and let New Yorkers go on with their lives.”

During the press conference, Hochul also revealed new numbers which compared how many people were hospitalized because of COVID-19 to how many people had COVID-19, though hospitalized for other reasons. 

She said the majority of the state’s hospitalizations, 58%, were because of COVID-19 as of Jan. 5. The numbers differ based on region, she said, with 64% of hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 on Long Island were because of the disease. She said 37% of overall positive cases in hospitals were asymptomatic.

Hochul said total hospitalizations across the state remained steady through the past three weeks, but the number of COVID-19 patients more than doubled from 16% to 39% of patients. Long Island has a seven-day average of 59.6 per 100,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19, which is the largest in the state and nearly equal to that of New York City. 

COVID-19 hospitalizations in New York are increasing fastest among children, according to a report released by the State Department of Health today. 

Hochul advised residents against going to the emergency room to get a COVID-19 test. She urged them to get a test at a state-run site so as to not crowd emergency rooms. 

The average number of positive COVID-19 cases and test positivity rates continued to increase this week. The seven-day average test positivity rate was 22.4% statewide and 27.3% in Suffolk County.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]