Hochul, Vasan warn New Yorkers to take precautions against new COVID variant

A woman gets a COVID test at a LabQ van in Flatbush, Brooklyn during the Omicron wave in December 2021.
File Photo by Ben Brachfeld

Gov. Kathy Hochul and NYC Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan warned New Yorkers Tuesday to stay vigilant of their health as a new variant of COVID-19 makes its way across the state, driving an increase in infections and hospitalizations even as the populace and government seek to move on from the pandemic.

The number of New Yorkers hospitalized for COVID more than doubled between July 28 and Aug. 28, according to state data, and cases have also risen considerably. The uptick may be due, in part, to the proliferation of BA.2.86, an Omicron variant nicknamed “Pirola,” which has begun to circulate around the world.

The NYC Health Department says it has yet to find a specimen of the new variant in the city, but says it’s “almost certainly circulating here.”

The governor says that New Yorkers should take “appropriate precautions” to prevent contracting and spreading the Pirola variant, and says her administration will make high-quality N-95 masks available to counties and local governments by request.

“While New Yorkers might want to be done with COVID-19, COVID-19 isn’t done with us,” Hochul said. “With the increase in hospitalizations and reported cases this summer, I strongly urge everyone to take appropriate precautions to protect themselves and their communities. To keep New Yorkers safe, my administration will continue to monitor this situation, share information on the new boosters as soon as it’s available, and continue to make N-95 masks available statewide.”

Hochul says that schools should follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggesting educators promote vaccinations and testing, encourage students and faculty to stay home if they feel sick, improve ventilation and indoor air quality, and promote handwashing and proper hygiene.

Vasan, meanwhile, also suggested that people wear a mask, which is proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19 but has been shunned by most New Yorkers since the end of the mandate era. Masking could be important as the new variant might be more evasive of prior immunity, Vasan said.

“This variant may be more likely to evade immunity that has developed from vaccination or prior infection than earlier variants,” said Vasan. “But there is currently no indication that it causes more serious illness.”

“As cases rise, precautions become increasingly important, especially for our most vulnerable New Yorkers who are older, disabled, or have underlying health conditions,” Vasan continued. “Staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, along with other proven prevention tools — like masking, testing, and staying home when sick — continue to be our best defense against COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses.”

The state will also promote public information on new COVID booster shots that are expected to come to market in the fall.

Though cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, COVID deaths are increasingly rare as treatments become more advanced, though deaths are still occurring in the state. Paxlovid, which inhibits the virus’s function, is now widely available.

COVID-19 has killed 62,986 people in New York State since March 2020, according to state data, including 29,670 people in New York City.