What to Know
- New York state is seeing ongoing progress around some COVID metrics but concerning trends around others, describing those as "moving in the wrong direction," Gov. Kathy Hochul says
- Hospitalizations are up 206% since Aug. 1 and NY reported its highest single-day death toll (35) in months Tuesday amid a U.S. case surge fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, though local transmission rates appear to be stabilizing at least a bit
- With so many students not of eligible age for vaccination yet, NYC officials are taking extra efforts to ensure them and their parents (as well as their teachers) that schools will open safely on Monday
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is working to finalize the state's COVID vaccine booster shot program as she combats months-long highs in both hospitalizations and deaths driven by the delta variant that she warns could force aggressive actions. Those aren't needed just yet, the Democrat said Wednesday.
And with the nation's largest public school system planning a full in-person return in a matter of days, Hochul is well aware the latest numbers have parents and personnel alike asking the same all-important question: Is my building safe?
New York state and city officials assure them all school buildings that are open or will be open are -- and subject to rigorous safety and inspection standards. Hochul unveiled a new Vax to School campaign Wednesday, one similar to the effort launched in New York City more than a month ago, and spoke directly to the fears.
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"We've dedicated enormous state resources to getting New Yorkers of all eligible age groups vaccinated, but initially the state focused on the most vulnerable citizens, and now we need to focus on our youth," Hochul said. "New York's young people are less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19 but they can still spread the virus, and we need them to take it seriously."
"We know the delta variant is continuing to rage. I feel comfortable with what we've done up until now and the numbers of New Yorkers getting vaccinated," she added -- and pleaded with anyone who has any "influence" in terms of increasing rates among eligible students and others to leverage that with the utmost urgency.
If that doesn't happen and begins to endanger the viability of in-person schooling for any part of the state, Hochul said when asked that she would consider mandating COVID vaccinations for eligible kids like the state mandates immunizations for measles, mumps, polio, chickenpox and other diseases.
Daily positivity rates have more or less stabilized since the latest delta-driven case surge across most New York regions though there have yet to be sustainably significant declines. Hospitalization increases seem to have plateaued as well, though total statewide admissions are still around early May levels.
Hochul called those numbers "troubling" Wednesday but said, "If we can keep them from spiking upwards, we're going to be OK." Should the situation change dramatically, which the governor noted it can do "overnight," she reserves the right to consider more dramatic measures to preserve hospital capacity across the state.
More than 2,400 New Yorkers were hospitalized with COVID as of Hochul's latest report, which marks a more than 200% increase since Aug. 1. The rapid admissions increases that jolted the state last month, though, appear to be stabilizing. Deaths are a lagging indicator, so that number may continue to rise, as the data shows it is, even as other core viral metrics decline before they stabilize as well.
Nationally, some states are struggling far more, especially where vaccination rates are low. More than 95% of all U.S. counties are considered "high transmission" rate areas by the CDC. Florida is in the grip of its deadliest wave of the pandemic so far, while Idaho has started to ration its health care amid its ongoing COVID surge.
Even though the delta variant has been linked to more severe outcomes, research shows vaccinated people are substantially less likely to be hospitalized or die of the virus. That's the point Hochul makes, especially as out-of-home activity rebounds.
"The delta variant remains very much a threat but the vaccines are working," Hochul said Wednesday, calling that the "best news we have" as schools begin to fully welcome back more than a million New York students for the first time since 2019.
Not everyone is eligible yet for vaccination, though, which underscores the need for heightened protection when it comes to the most vulnerable, children in particular.
With hundreds of thousands of New York City public school students returning to classrooms in six days, officials are closely monitoring COVID-19 numbers following a busy holiday weekend that experts had warned could fuel new case surges across the country. They're also continuing to push student vaccinations.
To date, 65% of 12- to 17-year-olds have had at least one vaccine dose, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday. He says that's "higher" than the national average.
"That's going to make an extraordinary impact," said de Blasio, who previously announced a citywide vaccination mandate for NYC Department of Education personnel. That won't be enforced until Sept. 27 and staff are only required to have at least one dose by then. At this point, 72% of NYC teachers meet that mandate.
Among other precautions, New York City's Department of Education has unveiled a slate of new and revised COVID policies that take into account the vaccination factor as well as the delta variant one. Learn more about those here.
There is no remote learning option this academic year. The goal, city officials say, is to keep kids personally in school safely. They cite proven long-term benefits of in-person learning over remote learning as the critical reason for the approach and insist they would never put children in an environment they didn't think was safe.
NYC Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter had a clear message Wednesday for parents and personnel who have lingering concerns: "We are ready for this school year. And a team of facilities experts are laser-focused at ensuring our schools open with the gold standard of health and safety measures on Monday."
Despite the vaccination push, the CDC cautioned in its holiday travel warning that even vaccinated people weigh the risks of potential exposure to the delta variant, which evidence has suggested leads to more severe infections among kids as the strain became dominant in the U.S. and the world.
The rate of hospitalization for COVID-19 among kids ages 0-17 rose five-fold from late June to the middle of August as the delta variant took hold in the United States, the CDC said last week.
The COVID-associated hospitalization rate for children and adolescents the week ending Aug. 14 was 1.4, an increase of almost five times from the week ending June 26 and nearly an all-pandemic high, the CDC said. Its findings were based on data from New York, Connecticut and 12 other states.
The latest research has added fuel to the raging debate about how kids should return to school and social activity safely, especially since no vaccine has been federally emergency-use authorized for children younger than 12 at this point.
More COVID News
To help protect kids who aren't eligible for vaccination, Hochul and the state health department have mandated masks in New York schools for "anyone who enters a school building," regardless of vaccination status.
Hochul says she's working toward a statewide teacher vaccination mandate like the one New York City imposed but says she doesn't have the authority to make it legally binding. For now, weekly testing is required for unvaccinated educators.
New Jersey has also reported significant severe case increases connected to the delta variant, which accounts for more than 98% of positive COVID samples sequenced over the last four weeks, state data shows.
Both hospitalizations and deaths in the Garden State are at four-month highs, as are the number of COVID patients on ventilators and in ICUs, Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday.
He is among the Democrats who recently instituted statewide vaccine mandates for teachers as well. Masks are also required for all school personnel and students regardless of vaccination status. It's not clear when that mandate might change.
The CDC says such ongoing precautions are proven to reduce COVID transmission and severe outcomes among kids alongside the ongoing spread of delta. The agency also found that among vaccine-eligible kids ages 12-17, the hospitalization rate was 10 times higher for the unvaccinated than for the fully vaccinated.
The first federal authorization for Pfizer's vaccine booster shots, meanwhile, is expected in less than two weeks, Hochul says. Pop-up community sites and a bevy of other locations will assist in New York's effort to roll them out.
At this point, it appears Moderna will take longer to earn booster approval for its vaccine. There is still no timeline on boosters for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.