New York State is struggling to contain what authorities are calling a “tri-demic” of COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), but officials remain loath to reinstitute a mask mandate to contain the spread among a pandemic-weary population.
As expected, New York’s third COVID-era winter is seeing a spike in new cases. 1,621 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in New York City on Tuesday, Dec. 6, a 34% increase over a month ago. It comes as many public health measures adopted during the pandemic are relaxed and much of the populace seeks to move on, shedding masks and eager to party.
Protective measures like vaccination are also seen as less of a priority: just 13% of New Yorkers eligible for the bivalent booster shot have received one, said Gov. Kathy Hochul.
But this winter, COVID is just one prong of the state’s public health woes. Influenza cases have risen 76% week-over-week while hospitalizations are up 67%. Meanwhile, hospitals throughout the state are being slammed by unprecedented numbers of children coming in with severe RSV.
“It’s a bad situation,” the governor said during a press conference at her Manhattan offices on Wednesday. “We said back then that things could get worse during the holidays, especially as we were talking about more families gathering over Thanksgiving. And unfortunately, that prediction came true.”
The governor said pandemic policy is now to be proactive instead of reactive in fighting outbreaks: the state now has thousands of ventilators in storage ready to be deployed should they be needed. The state also has a stockpile of about 17 million COVID test kits ready to be distributed, Hochul said.
State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, who will resign at the end of the month to return to academia, encouraged New Yorkers to take preventive steps to avoid getting sick, including frequent hand washing, covering one’s mouth when they cough or sneeze, and getting up to date on vaccinations.
Bassett also strongly nudged New Yorkers to don face masks in indoor public settings.
“I want to remind people of the importance of masks as a way of reducing the spread of infection, especially in indoor, crowded settings,” Bassett said. “And I want you also to think, as we approach the holiday season, of the most vulnerable people in your family, keeping a circle of protection around them.”
“This is a responsibility for all of us,” Bassett continued, “to ensure we have a good holiday season as we gather around our family tables.”
The return of full-fledged mask mandates doesn’t appear to be on the horizon, but officials all but admitted that that’s more due to the political lightning rod masking turned into during the pandemic than based on public health best practices.
“We’ve gone through a period where people are tired of being told what to do. But we in public health are now emphasizing that people can take decisions on their own, and take decisions that are protected,” Bassett said. “Get vaccinated, consider wearing a mask in public indoor spaces. You know, there’s a limit to how much we can legislate people’s behavior.”