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Hochul watching omicron variant, but holding off on new mandates

 New York Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Kevin P. Coughlin
Gov. Kathy Hochul's Office
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul.

The new omicron variant of the coronavirus has been found in Canada, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she is closely watching the situation to see if any additional measures need to be taken.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Hochul issued a new state of emergency that she said could ban elective surgeries in up to three dozen hospitals in the state.

Hochul, whose Buffalo home is close to the Canadian border, said so far, there are no reported cases of the omicron variant in the state, but testing labs, including at the state Wadsworth Center in Albany, are keeping a close eye.

She said the new variant is a concern, but there are a number of tools now to better deal with the virus, including vaccines, booster shots and more widely available testing.

"We are fully monitoring this,” Hochul said. “We are not defenseless like we were one year ago.”

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Hochul issued a new state of emergency to allow her health department to limit non-essential, non-urgent surgeries in hospitals in regions that are experiencing a spike in infection rates. They include western New York, the Rochester region, the North Country and the Mohawk Valley, where rates of transmission can exceed 10%. The rates of vaccination are lower there than in downstate areas, which are not currently experiencing a surge.

There are over 2,800 people in hospitals with COVID-19, with upstate hospitals experiencing a 150% increase in patients over health care facilities in New York City and Long Island.

Hochul said 32 to 36 hospitals in the state have bed capacities of 10% or less, due to an increased number of COVID-19 cases, and they will be ordered to stop all elective surgeries.

“Beginning on Dec. 3, elective procedures at these short-staffed hospitals will cease,” Hochul said. “And we will reassess that again on Jan. 15.”

The ban does not apply to cancer treatments and cancer screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies. Hochul said people should not put off those tests.

The governor is also compiling a list of National Guard members who have medical training to be deployed to ease staffing shortages, beginning in January, at the state’s nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. And Hochul also said she’s working to get booster shots for more nursing home residents.

She predicted a new surge in the infection rate over the next few days, as people returning from gatherings during the Thanksgiving holiday might experience symptoms and get tested.

Hochul is not imposing any new mandates regarding vaccinations or mask wearing, though she continues to support rules like an indoor mask mandate imposed by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. The Buffalo area has the highest infection rate in the state.

“I support his mask mandate,” Hochul said. “And I encourage other leaders to do the same.”

Hochul’s pandemic management style is being criticized by some of her political rivals.

Attorney General Tish James -- who is running, along with Hochul, in the 2022 Democratic primary for governor -- said more efforts need to be made to target communities with low vaccination rates. Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi, who announced his entry to the governor's race on Monday, said state leaders need to be more closely focused on the pandemic every single day to avoid the regional spikes in the virus.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.