Kathy Hochul

‘Over That Peak:' NY Eyes End to Mask Rules as Infection Rates Ease, Most Severe Cases Climb

Could the statewide mask mandate for indoor businesses, which was extended until Feb. 2, be allowed to lapse at that time? It's possible, but Gov. Kathy Hochul says she's not yet ready to make a call on that

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What to Know

  • Core viral rates are seeing slower rates of growth across New York, even though they remain high; caseloads are declining even as the lagging indicators, hospitalizations and deaths, continue to rise
  • Gov. Kathy Hochul says she believes the trend will hold, though she expects case rates to climb upstate a bit longer; she hasn't yet decided whether to extent the state mask mandate past Feb. 2
  • Omicron now accounts for up to 99.1% of all U.S. cases, the CDC says; Pfizer and Moderna are working on omicron-specific vaccines but experts say it may already be too late to make a difference

New York core viral rates continue to show incremental signs of improvement, a hopeful Gov. Kathy Hochul said Tuesday, a day after the U.S. recorded yet another new single-day case record amid the ferocious omicron surge.

Percent positivity has declined over the last few days, with fewer than one in five Empire State COVID tests coming back positive for the first time in a month.

The state's seven-day case average per 100,000 residents is also stabilizing -- and Hochul reported a new daily caseload below 50,000 on Tuesday for the first time since before Christmas.

"Yes, it is actually going downward," a seemingly relieved Democratic governor said from her office in Manhattan. "Looks like we might be cresting over that peak. We are not at the end, but I want to say that to me this is a glimmer of hope."

Asked whether she might consider allowing her statewide mask mandate, which she extended until Feb. 2 as part of her winter surge plan, to lapse at that point, Hochul said she wanted to "buy a little more time. This trend is brand new."

ny covid rates
NY Department of Health
Positivity and case trend lines are slowing or stabilizing in NY

"I have to make sure that it holds, first of all, and I expect it will, but I'm not going to be guessing in this business," she added. "Given that we still have a couple more weeks, businesses should continue to enforce this through the month and we'll give them more guidance. It won't be very far in advance. I need the luxury of time."

Hochul does expect viral rates to keep increasing upstate for at least a few weeks even as they start to ebb downstate. It's possible she could lift mask and other COVID restrictions in some regions before others, but she's not there yet.

"I don't have a metric that I'm going to say, 'Bingo!' I'm going to know it when I see it," the governor said, adding she'll consult with experts before making any major decisions. "We could not have foreseen the scale of how this variant swept the state. Having mask and vaccination requirements allowed us to keep the businesses open. There's no textbook written on how to deal with a pandemic."

New York City still owns the highest rolling case average by a fair amount, followed by Long Island. Those two regions are the second-most vaccinated for adults among the state's 10 regions, but see substantially more testing than the others. That primarily explains the higher totals, though breakthrough infections contribute.

COVID hospitalizations soared statewide to 12,540, the highest total since April 27, 2020, and Tuesday's new death toll of 160 is the highest single-day toll since the mass vaccination rollout began, but the rate of increase is slowing measurably.

As New Yorkers so painfully learned in the early days of the pandemic, both hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators -- and the latter of the two will likely continue to rise for a few weeks once the state passes its latest case peak.

The daily totals, though, will most certainly be well below the 800 New Yorkers who were dying a day in April 2020, a testament to the power of vaccination to prevent severe COVID-linked illness and death far better than natural immunity.

With omicron causing record infections in the U.S., many are left wondering which COVID-19 test is most effective.

Preserving hospital capacity remains a top concern for the state. Hochul described the current admissions rates as still too high, especially for regions with lower overall rates but less capacity to flex resources to accommodate the influxes.

New York City and Long Island, for example, both top the charts for COVID patients hospitalized per 100,000 since Dec. 1, but they're not the regions at risk of overwhelming their facilities. Hochul said Tuesday she had paused elective procedures in three regions -- the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley and Central New York -- because current hospitalization rates there put bed capacity at risk.

covid hospitalizations nys
NYS COVID hospitalizations 2020 through 2022

Why are the hospitalization rates higher in the most vaccinated regions? It's a reflection of their population density in part. But that's not the only factor at play.

A surprising number of people hospitalized with COVID this month weren't admitted for that in the first place, state data shows. As of Jan. 9, only 58% of hospitalized COVID patients were actually admitted to hospitals because of COVID.

The other 42% were diagnosed along the way, possibly as a result of the routine admissions process. The state says it's an indication of the higher share of asymptomatic omicron patients and the higher share of those with milder symptoms, which may turn harsher for people with one or more underlying conditions. That's the group getting most sick amid this latest wave, anecdotal evidence from at least one noted Manhattan emergency room doctor says.

The ratio in New York City is even higher. State data shows 49% of the five boroughs' hospitalized COVID patients weren't admitted for COVID initially.

"It does not mean that these are empty beds," Hochul was quick to point out. "This is still a very high number of people in hospitals who need constant care, who need nurses, who need doctors, who need people to take care of them."

The data is still informative, though, because it sheds light on omicron case severity in that most hospitalized patients who test positive for COVID aren't in the hospital because they tested positive, the governor said.

It also provides further evidence that a vast number of omicron cases may never be detected, The diagnoses for the 42% of patients who weren't initially admitted for COVID may never have come had they not been hospitalized for something else, meaning the true breadth of this variant's reach may never accurately be known.

And by any account, the share of total statewide hospitalizations for non-COVID and COVID reasons has swung dramatically in recent weeks. On Dec. 21, just before the worst of the omicron hospitalization explosion, 84% of patients were admitted for non-COVID reasons. That number is now 43%, Hochul said.

The developments come as newly released state breakthrough data highlights in stark reality the viral force that crippled workforces for every key industry last month and continues to assert its power over the globe, reasons Pfizer and Moderna are scrambling to make an omicron-specific vaccine that some say is already too late.

To be sure, viral rates are still increasing across all key indicators, but the rate of growth appears to be slowing -- drastically so, at times -- over the last week. Time will tell as to whether it's a promising trend or merely a blip in this latest wave.

Dr. Anthony Fauci told News 4 Friday he thought omicron's peak could be a matter of weeks away -- and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters it was possible (though far from certain) cases could drop as quickly as they rose.

Nationally, omicron's prevalence is believed to be as high as 99.1%, according to new CDC data updated Tuesday. The agency estimates the variant's share of cases in the New York region, which for its purposes includes New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands along with the Empire State, to be as high as 99.7%.

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