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Hochul says New York's first Omicron case is 'not cause for alarm'

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul wears a necklace with the word "vaxed" during an event in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021.
Mary Altaffer
Associated Press

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said the first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in New York, but she said there’s no cause for alarm.

The news comes as new cases of COVID-19 continue to spike in portions of upstate.

Hochul said a Minnesota resident who was at a conference in New York City in mid-November is the first known case of the omicron variant in the state.

“Just recently we learned from the department of health in Minnesota that one of their constituents has tested positive for omicron,” Hochul said. “They were in a conference at the Javits Center.”

The person had only mild symptoms that have since resolved. Hochul said state health officials are working with the Javits Center, and they advise anyone who was at the center between Nov. 18 and 22 to get tested.

Hochul said the best response is for those who have not yet received vaccines to get their shots, those who are fully vaccinated to get a booster shot — and for everyone to be ready for more omicron cases.

“This is not cause for alarm,” Hochul said. “I want all New Yorkers to know that their state government, in collaboration with our local governments, our cities and our counties, are prepared for this.”

Hochul already declared a state of emergency last week that will allow her to ban elective surgeries at hospitals where bed capacities are at less than 10%. Over 50 hospitals in upstate New York meet those criteria. The surgery cancellations could begin as early as Friday. The ban would continue until Jan. 15.

Hochul said for now, she is not issuing any new mask mandates or ordering economic shutdowns.

“I’m not prepared to shut down schools or the economy at this time,” Hochul said. “That would be considered an overreaction.”

Hochul, at the briefing, also introduced the state’s new health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, who formerly served as New York City’s health commissioner.

Bassett replaces Dr. Howard Zucker, who was appointed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Zucker, who resigned, oversaw nursing home policy during the height of the pandemic in 2020.

State Attorney General Letitia James found that during that time, the Cuomo administration undercounted nursing home deaths by 50%. Those incidents are the subject of a federal investigation. Cuomo resigned in August over a sexual harassment scandal.

Bassett, who is the first African-American health commissioner, said she is “no stranger to crisis.” She worked in Africa at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and she oversaw New York City’s responses to Zika, Ebola and Legionnaires' disease outbreaks. She said throughout that she’s learned the importance of “truth-telling.”

“I’ll tell the governor what we know, what we don’t know and what our best judgment is,” Bassett said. “And I’ll tell the public the same thing.”

Hochul’s event came as her political opponents are criticizing her pandemic policies. James — who, like Hochul, is running for governor in 2022 — has said the governor is not doing enough for communities with low vaccination rates. Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi, who is also running in the Democratic primary for governor, recommends the return of Cuomo-era microzones to impose restrictions and help contain the spread of the virus.

Hochul did not address her opponents’ criticisms.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.