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Hochul warns that a winter COVID surge has already begun

New York governor Kathy Hochul speaks during a ceremony to sign a package of bills to combat the opioid crisis, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, in New York.
Mary Altaffer
Associated Press
New York Governor Kathy Hochul

New York Governor Kathy Hochul is warning that the state could face rapidly rising rates of COVID-19 in the coming weeks based on early data and trends in Europe, where waves of the disease have often preceded surges in the U.S.

But she said she has no plans to try to enforce a statewide mask mandate that began Monday, instead leaving it up to local governments, business and individuals to choose to comply.

Hochul said an uptick of the coronavirus has already begun, with the infection rate rapidly increasing in recent days.

“That winter surge is in full force, and I believe it’s going to get even stronger and more virulent,” Hochul said. “We are in for a rough ride this winter season."

Her health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, presented charts that document a “substantial” surge, with hospitalization rates at the highest levels in several months and still growing. Bassett said vaccination rates have flattened at the same time, with just over 68% of New Yorkers now fully vaccinated.

“We are in the midst of a Delta surge,” Bassett said. “We have Omicron in the wings.”

Bassett said if the Omicron variant becomes the dominant strain, the transmission rate will grow exponentially.

The governor is urging New Yorkers to abide by the mandate imposed on Monday. It requires businesses to either require customers to wear masks or show proof of vaccination. Several counties have refused to enforce the new rules, saying they either do not agree with them or do not have the resources to do so.

Hochul said she is not going to use state inspectors to enforce the mandate.

“This was never intended to be heavy-handed. In fact, the best way to do this is self-enforcing,” said Hochul, who added she hopes the recalcitrant counties will change their minds if the winter surge worsens.

“They start seeing their hospitals taxed even further, and they get anxious, they may change their minds,” she said. “But it’s really up to the people and the businesses, and I thank all of them who have stepped up and said, 'We're going to do the right thing.'”

Hochul said she’d rather use staff at the state health department to focus on increasing the vaccination rates, encouraging booster shots, and getting home testing kits out to parts of the state where there’s a high percentage of unvaccinated people.

She said most of the counties are on board with the mandate, and many are following up to make sure people comply. She added that it’s not that big an inconvenience to put a mask on, and it will result in saving lives.

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.