State to expand COVID vaccine

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks during her first COVID-19 briefing at the University of Buffalo on Tuesday. Courtesy of Gov. Kathy Hochul's Office

BUFFALO — State health officials are working to establish COVID-19 testing requirements for unvaccinated teachers, expanding vaccine requirements for health staff and other policies, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Tuesday, but added mandates will continue to be assessed with input from localities.

The state Health Department and the Public Health and Health Planning Council will finalize the details for mandatory weekly COVID testing for public and charter school employees who are not vaccinated against the novel coronavirus following last week’s announcement vaccinations will be required for teachers and school staff.

Legal clearance for the mandatory testing is expected this week before classes resume after Monday’s Labor Day holiday.

“Every parent — and I’m a parent — their greatest anxiety pertains to the safety of your child, and that’s why we’re making our schools safe,” Gov. Hochul said Tuesday at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine. “I’m willing to make tough decisions any day, anywhere, if I think they’ll protect the people of the state. We’ll take bold, dramatic action to protect individuals in the state, but particularly our children as we start schools.”

The state will use $585 million in federal funds for the school testing program, which is required to safely resume in-person classroom instruction, Hochul said. Districts will not separately foot the bill.

“We can no longer hemorrhage the education of our children,” the governor said. “It has to stop, and it has to stop this fall.”

The state is working to expand the vaccination and testing requirements for staff at all state-regulated facilities.

Tuesday’s late-morning event marked Hochul’s first COVID-19 briefing since taking office exactly one week ago. The new governor enacted a universal mask requirement in all New York schools on her first day in office.

Thousands of parents across the state have decried the mandate, which was in effect in all school districts for the 2020-21 academic year. Many argue masking should be a personal choice and a mandate is an infringement of their rights or impedes children’s ability to learn.

Hochul recalled her daughter, Katie, throwing a tantrum as a 4-year-old to put sneakers on to attend preschool.

“She eventually was able to handle something on her feet — kids are resilient,” the governor said Tuesday. “They can handle a mask on their face.”

Hochul vowed her administration will work with state county officials and localities in developing additional pandemic-related mandates and processes — a stark contrast from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s iron rule in the Executive Chamber.

The state’s pandemic-related mandates will not be open-ended, Hochul said.

“We’ll do it now and we’ll assess,” she added. “There will be parts of our state where the numbers drop, and we get the vaccine out to children. Those circumstances are going to change in some areas, so I’ll be very flexible in allowing localities to talk to me about what’s happening on the ground in their communities.”

The state will commit $65 million for county and local health departments to distribute third COVID vaccine doses, or booster shots, as they become available in the coming weeks to New Yorkers who received their last injection at least eight months ago. “I will be there to help — I will not dictate to them,” the governor said.

State officials are exploring options to expand COVID vaccine mandates for health care personnel and staff without a test-out option, Hochul said.

Hochul does not possess the same expanded decision-making and spending authority Cuomo had for most of 2020 through late June during the pandemic’s onslaught.

“If I did, sure as I’m standing here I would mandate it,” Hochul said of the COVID vaccine for teachers and public employees.

The governor will prioritize increasing vaccine rates for New Yorkers ages 12-17, especially with new infections on the rise with the spread of the more transmissive delta variant. Subsequent variants are expected to more deeply affect the young.

New York’s positivity rate was 3.96% Tuesday, and 3.35% over a seven-day average.

Patients hospitalized with COVID complications swelled to 2,234 New Yorkers on Tuesday, an increase of 48 people overnight, according to the governor’s office.

Twenty-two New Yorkers died from COVID-19 on Monday, bringing statewide virus fatalities to at least 55,602 since March 2020.

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