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New York's health commissioner says COVID-19 is increasing at rates never before documented

Dr. Mary Bassett speaks during a news conference on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, in New York. Bassett was appointed New York's Health Commissioner by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Sept. 29, 2021.
Mary Altaffer
Associated Press
Dr. Mary Bassett, New York's health commissioner

Concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus are growing as the more contagious strain is beginning to take hold in New York.

The state reported 21,000 new cases on Thursday, up more than 40% from the day before, and the highest number since last January. The state's health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, said the best defense against the coming wave is vaccinations, including booster shots, and wearing masks in public settings.

Bassett said the science is still “evolving” on Omicron, but so far it appears to be very contagious. She said state health officials are seeing a rate of increase that has “never been documented before.”

Bassett said the variant so far is milder than previous forms of the virus, but unvaccinated people are in danger of becoming very ill.

“Now is the time to recognize that we have something new,” Bassett said. “And you may want to change your mind about getting vaccinated.”

People who have not yet received a booster shot are also at more risk of contracting a more serious illness from the Omicron variant.

Bassett said she supports Gov. Kathy Hochul’s mandate that stores, restaurants and entertainment venues require either that everyone be masked, or that all patrons provide proof of vaccination. She also said she backs the governor’s decision to not enforce the rules in a heavy-handed manner and that it should be up to individuals and business owners to comply.

“I believe that people want to be safe,” she said, “and that they will take actions to protect themselves, their families and the people that they love.”

The health commissioner said plans are in the works for expanding access to self-testing kits. She said even for vaccinated people there is a “role for testing” if you are spending time with an elderly or physically compromised friend or relative.

Bassett also offered some advice for how to safely approach upcoming home holiday gatherings. She said think about the most vulnerable person in your group. In her case, it’s her 93-year-old mother.

Bassett said she takes a coronavirus test before every visit to her mother.

“We make the plans according to our desire to protect my 93-year-old fully vaccinated and boosted mother,” she said, “who still might get infected if she is exposed.”

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.