NEW YORK — Upstate hospitals have suffered a greater reduction in available beds than downstate health facilities as health experts in Albany continue to test for the omicron COVID variant not discovered in New York as of Monday, Gov. Kathy Hochul said.
About 700 doctors, scientists and researchers at the Health Department’s Wadsworth Center Laboratory in Albany continue to test random COVID-19 samples for omicron in preparation for a strain more virulent than others and because it has indicated that people who have already contracted COVID are more susceptible to it.
“We’re monitoring it globally,” Hochul said Monday during a COVID-19 briefing in her Manhattan office — the governor’s first public pandemic-related update since the World Health Organization named the threatening variant Friday.
Officials had not discovered a confirmed case of the omicron variant in the state Monday.
Dr. Kirsten St. George, director of neurology at the Wadsworth Center Laboratory with the state Health Department said Monday officials are checking the international public genomic sequence database of COVID-19 cases and strains around the clock in case of detection of the newest variant.
“Just a few minutes ago, and still nothing in New York,” she said Monday afternoon during the briefing via webcast.
State COVID-19 specimens are randomly selected and tested for the new variant with assistance from four state laboratories.
New York City health officials Monday issued a strengthened recommendation that New Yorkers mask up indoors — but stopped short of mandating the precaution — as scientists continue to work around the clock to better understand omicron, a new strain of COVID identified in South Africa within the last 10 days.
“We talked about this variant — we know it’s coming,” said Hochul. “But here’s the good news: We’re not defenseless.
“...We cannot control a variant that arises from South Africa,” she added. “But we’re not talking about shutdowns. We’re not talking about reinstituting the harsh measures that were needed at a time when we did not have any defenses, we had no vaccination and tests were in short supply. We are in such a different world.”
COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to trend upward more severely in upstate regions and communities compared to the more densely populated downstate New York City metropolitan counties.
The state’s COVID-19 positivity rate increased to 5.31% Monday, and 4.12% over a seven-day average — up from a daily rate of 4.8% and seven-day average of 3.4% about 10 days ago.
Central New York has the state’s lowest number of available hospital beds at 8% capacity, with a low 9% available in the Finger Lakes, 10% in the Capital Region, 11% in Western New York, 15% in the North Country, 17% in the Southern Tier and 31% in the Mid-Hudson Valley.
New York City and Long Island report 28% and 27% of available hospital beds open to patients, respectively, Hochul said.
The governor signed an executive order Friday declaring a disaster emergency in the state to allow Health Department officials to curb nonessential or non-urgent medical procedures for hospitals or health care systems with limited capacity, or fewer than 10% staffed beds.
“Beginning Dec. 3, elective surgeries at the short-staffed hospitals will cease,” the governor said. “We’ll reassess that again Jan. 15. ... We’re not going to just have a hard and fast rule that doesn’t show some injection of reality into it.”
Essential procedures, including cancer treatment or prevention screenings and colonoscopies, heart surgeries and treatment for traumatic injuries will be unaffected.
Hospitalizations increased 73 virus patients overnight to 2,829 New Yorkers on Monday, with 41 deaths related to COVID complications, according to the governor’s office.
Downstate hospitals have lost about 4% of their bed capacity to virus patients since August, compared to more than a 10% reduction in upstate medical facilities.
“I’m not trying to create an upstate-downstate divide in our state, I don’t believe in that, but just looking at the numbers ... they’re very, very troubling,” Hochul said. “What I’m trying to present is, this is not a statewide phenomenon.”
Upstate areas with lower vaccination rates have the higher increasing COVID hospitalization rates, compared to downstate areas such as New York City.
Hospitals facing staffing shortages exacerbated by overworked staff, sick personnel and the health workers terminated or placed on leave after the state’s COVID-19 mandate for patient-facing health care workers and employees in congregate adult-care facilities went into effect earlier this fall.
“We have lost some workers [from the vaccine mandate] — that is regrettable,” Hochul said. “We encourage them to get vaccinated and come back to the health care family. I can’t change a policy because of some individuals who made that personal decision.”
Hochul plans to send in state National Guardsmen and women with emergency medical or health backgrounds to supplement staffing in the state’s neediest hospitals.
The state Health Department and other agencies will set up and run a pop-up COVID vaccination and booster site in any county at local officials’ request, the governor said.
Counties across New York, such as Erie in Western New York and Ulster in the Mid-Hudson Valley, have declared their own local states of emergency, reinstating public mask mandates because of the spiking number of new coronavirus infections and hospitalizations across the state, nation and countries around the globe.
“I support [Erie’s] mask mandate, and I encourage other counties to do the same,” Hochul said.
Hochul is not moving to implement a statewide mask requirement, as was in effect by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo from April 2020 through June 25, 2021, or to mandate other COVID safety protocols for all New Yorkers, but continues to hint future statewide mandates are possible if coronavirus infections continue their upward trend.
“We’ve always encouraged mask use and I’m asking businesses to encourage the same among their patrons as well as their employees as well,” the governor said.
Infections are expected to increase over the upcoming holiday season and winter months.
Health officials continue to warn of surging COVID hospitalizations in the wake of Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday.
“If there is going to be a surge in hospitalizations, which [we] would be naive to think there won’t be, and that would occur about 10 days from now — so, that’s what we’re watching for as well,” Hochul said.
At least 90.3% of New Yorkers ages 18 and older have received at least one COVID vaccine dose as of Monday. The governor encouraged all New Yorkers ages 5 and older to get vaccinated, or a booster dose for everyone ages 18 and older who were fully vaccinated at least six months ago.
To find a COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot location, visit ny.gov/vaccine
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.