The coming of fall means that New York is heading toward its third winter of the COVID-19 pandemic, a season that has complicated the state’s progress on the virus each year, starkly contrasting the low-case levels and relaxed restrictions seen during the warmer months.
The surge of the omicron variant last winter sent New York’s COVID-19 caseloads to levels that far exceeded those at any point in 2020 and brought a return to a statewide mask mandate that had been dropped just six months prior.
On Wednesday, while announcing that masks would now be optional on the state’s mass transit systems, Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett emphasized that a new booster shot available Wednesday will be a critical tool for the winter ahead.
That booster, approved last week by the Food and Drug Administration, is designed specifically for the highly contagious omicron variant.
“Having a booster shot tailored to a specific variant is significant. It’s the first time that we’ve been able to achieve that. And it makes me very hopeful that this will be an extraordinary effective booster shot,” Hochul said Wednesday in New York City.
The state is relying on a network of health care providers, clinics and pharmacies to distribute the vaccine.
“I’m confident that we’re going to be heading into a winter where we can contain COVID,” Dr. Bassett said.
Last week, New York hit the two-and-a-half-year mark since the state’s first reported COVID-19 case. As of Wednesday, the state has a seven-day average of 17.8 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. That number was 366 during the height of the omicron surge. Current hospitalizations stand at about 2,200.
“We’re going to continue watching the numbers, watching global trends, watching new variants, watching for any updates in vaccines, but we do believe we’re in a good place right now, especially if New Yorkers take advantage of this booster. That is how we get back to not just a new normal, but a normal normal,” Hochul said.
One of the important areas that another winter surge could disrupt is schools. With many districts in upstate back in session Wednesday and in New York City beginning Thursday, it’s front of mind for many teachers, students and parents.
“We’ll continue to do everything we can to keep our children safe in schools,” Hochul said Wednesday.
The governor said the state at this time has 3 million COVID-19 test kits for schools and has another 15 million stockpiled for the winter to prevent a shortage like there was in 2021.
“If a surge comes as we saw last winter, you know omicron wasn’t even a variant, it wasn’t defined until the end of November, and immediately there was a run on test kits,” Hochul said.
Hochul, who herself had COVID-19 in May, received the omicron-specific booster on Wednesday.
“As New Yorkers, we have one shared goal, and that is to get through this together and put an end to this era. And it’s been long and painful,” she said.