The New York State commissioners of education and health are recommending that communities and schools take precautions to curb the spread of respiratory viruses, as confirmed cases of influenza spike and the coronavirus remains a concern.
In a joint letter released Monday, Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett and Education Commissioner Betty Rosa recommend members of the public prevent the spread of the illnesses by staying up-to-date on vaccines; washing their hands often with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds; sneezing or coughing into their elbows, not hands; staying home when sick or symptomatic; and wearing a well-fitting, high-quality mask when in public indoor spaces.
“A host of respiratory viruses, including influenza, RSV and COVID-19, have taken hold in our state and in most of our communities,” the letter reads. “These viruses, while often manageable, can cause serious outcomes, especially for children. They have been straining our healthcare system and are taxing the availability of pediatric beds across New York.
RSV, short for respiratory syncytial virus, is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, according to the CDC. RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults. The number of confirmed cases of RSV in New York has climbed throughout the fall season.
Cases of the flu have nearly tripled over the past three weeks, according to the letter, and hospitalizations from the illness have more than doubled. Officials warn that COVID-19 still remains one of the leading causes of death in the country. New York State has a weekly case count average of 28 cases per 100,000 people; Long Island has the highest out of any region in the state with an average of 42.4 cases per 100,000 people. (Due to changes to coronavirus test reporting nationally, state health officials advise using the number of cases per 100,000 people as “the most reliable metric to measure virus impact on a community,” not the percentage of people testing positive.)
“In response, we are urging a community-wide approach, inclusive of schools, to again take precautions this holiday season and winter that can prevent the spread of respiratory viruses and protect young children, older individuals, and those with underlying health conditions,” the letter reads.
Around this time last year, coronavirus cases in New York and around the country started to soar, spiking at the beginning of January and leading to a sharp increase in hospitalizations. This “winter surge,” among other things, led to Gov. Kathy Hochul to declare a state of emergency, sent Town Board meetings virtual and led to an increase in absences in Riverhead schools at the turn of the New Year.
The Riverhead Central School District shared the letter in a statement on its website and Facebook page on Monday. The statement by Superintendent Augustine Tornatore emphasizes that the letter’s recommendations, including wearing a face mask, are not mandates.
“As always, the health and safety of our students and families are of utmost importance. We encourage you to incorporate as many of these recommendations that you feel comfortable with into your daily routine this winter,” Tornatore’s statement says.
In an email to RiverheadLOCAL, Tornatore signaled that he does not plan to recommend the Board of Education impose an indoor mask mandate to curb the spread of the virus.
“Masks are at the discretion of the parent or guardian and I do not plan on changing that,” he wrote. “We wanted to share with the community the recommendations from the state in the winter season.”
The Board of Education in a 4-1 split vote, imposed an indoor mask mandate for students and staff as a part of the reopening plan at the start of the 2021-22 school year. Soon after, Gov. Kathy Hochul imposed a mask mandate for schools; that mandate was lifted at the end of March of this year.
Tornatore did not respond to a question posed by RiverheadLOCAL about whether, should cases of respiratory illnesses increase beyond current levels, he would recommend a mask mandate.
Unless the state imposes a mask mandate, it would be up to the Board of Education to do so for Riverhead schools.
If a mandate were imposed by the state and the school district refused to enforce it, it could lead to penalties, including cuts to state aid that represents a large portion of the district’s yearly budget.
Information on how to obtain a COVID-19 or flu vaccine can be found at vaccines.gov or by calling 1-800-232-0233. The FDA in last August issued emergency use authorization for “bivalent” booster dose of the coronavirus vaccine, which provides better protection against the more-prevalent omicron variant of the coronavirus. The booster dose is available for fully vaccinated people age 5 and up. More information can be found on the FDA’s website.
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