State officials are calling it the “Winter Surge Plan 2.0,” but it’s more like version 1.1. New York’s new plans for the Omicron wave, announced by Governor Kathy Hochul and state officials in a New Year’s Eve press conference on Friday, are mostly tweaks to existing state strategies. It seems clear the virus can mutate and propagate faster than the policy machine.
The Hochul administration’s plan for keeping the state afloat through the Omicron wave, which is expected to send local infection rates soaring over the next month or so, is built around five broad goals. The new policies announced on Friday are mostly aimed at getting more resources into local hands, and steer clear of imposing new mandates, except for a few specific situations. New York’s five-point plan is laid out below: what you need to know, what’s new, and where the greatest challenges might be.
Goal: Keep Schools Open
The heart of New York’s plan for keeping public schools open through an intense spike in cases is “Test to Stay,” a state policy based on recently revised guidance from the CDC, and laid out in a December 23 memo from the Department of Health. The policy allows students that have been exposed to a known COVID-19 infection to stay in school instead of doing a required quarantine, as long as they are asymptomatic and continue to test negative on several followup rapid tests during the week after exposure.
New York State officials sent more than five million tests to local school districts this week to support the approach, and more than six million are expected to arrive at schools next week also. Schools will be able to send rapid test kits home with exposed students so they can self-monitor with their families.
Local health departments have the authority to decide whether or not to adopt Test to Stay practices. Because the decision is up to local authorities, Test to Stay policies may be rolled out at different times in different school districts.
Test to Stay policies may keep more students in school, but if local infection levels surge high enough to cause critical staffing issues, schools may be forced to shut down anyway. Last week, Albany public schools shifted to remote learning a few days before the holiday vacation, after rising infections put at least 21 bus drivers temporarily out of commission.
Most elementary school students are still unvaccinated, making them more vulnerable to infection and hospitalization than their older peers. According to New York State data, about 72 percent of teenagers 12 to 17 have been vaccinated as of December 31, but only about 29 percent of children 5 through 11. Like Delta and other variants before it, Omicron is less dangerous to children than to older people, but the explosive growth in cases is fueling a spike in pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations in New York. Most of the children currently hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state are unvaccinated, said state Health Commissioner Mary Bassett at the Friday briefing.
So far, state officials are not talking about making COVID-19 vaccination required to attend primary school. On the college level, it’s a different story: Hochul announced Friday that SUNY and CUNY schools would require boosters for all students on campus starting January 15, and all faculty members must be vaccinated.
Goal: Keep Masking, Keep Testing
New York’s existing mask-or-vax mandate, announced by Hochul on December 10, is getting a two-week extension, and will now apply til at least February 1. The mandate directs businesses to require either vaccination or indoor masking for all employees and patrons.
A big challenge in this arena: Omicron is so contagious that ordinary cloth masks, and even surgical masks, won’t work as well to prevent infection as they did during the Delta wave. A far more protective option is an N95 or KN95 mask—and although the Hochul administration is distributing KN95 supplies through county health departments and state legislators, there’s no mandate for anyone to wear them, and many people who comply with mask requirements might not make the shift.
At the Friday press conference, Hochul demonstrated a double-masking technique, donning a KN95 mask with a Buffalo Bills cloth mask layered on top of it. “Keep your fun mask, but make sure you wear it over one that gives you more protection,” she said.
Testing access is getting a state-level boost also: 13 state-run testing sites opened last week across New York, and six more will open next week. But many rural areas are far from any public test site, and sky-high testing demand is still straining the system in both urban and rural places.
Goal: Preventing Severe Illness and Death
State officials are hoping to keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed—and because Omicron cases so far have had a lower hospitalization rate, especially for vaccinated people, there are hopeful signs on that front. But the sheer number of cases might mean that even if Omicron is less lethal than previous variants, it might hit hospitals harder. “The challenge before us is simply the numbers,” Bassett said on Friday.
A temporary halt on “elective surgeries”—a category that includes many vital and lifesaving procedures, such as cancer surgeries—is already in effect at some upstate hospitals where staffed bed capacity has dropped below 10 percent, thanks to an executive order signed by Hochul on November 26. More hospitals will follow suit if they become overwhelmed.
In an effort to increase healthcare capacity, New York State will train 80 additional National Guard members to serve as EMTs by February. Some federal help is also rolling in: A 35-member disaster medical team from FEMA is deploying to SUNY Upstate, along with a 23-member Department of Defense medical response team headed for Erie County. Fifty new federal ambulance teams are deploying to New York City soon, a move Hochul said would free up 30 teams already on the ground to respond to go farther upstate.
New York is receiving some doses of Pfizer’s newly authorized antiviral drug Paxlovid from the federal government, but availability is still very limited.
So far, the biggest tool in the state’s arsenal for increasing hospital capacity seems to be limiting care for non-COVID patients—and that approach was already being deployed for the Delta wave. If the rising surge of Omicron cases overwhelms the state’s already-stressed hospitals, it seems clear that care will suffer for both COVID and non-COVID patients alike.
Goal: Expand Access to Vaccines and Boosters
Booster shots are coming soon for the 12-to-15-year-old demographic, with Pfizer on the verge of FDA emergency use authorization for a booster dose. Hochul said Friday that the state would work to increase vaccination among 5-to-11-year-olds, as well as getting older teenagers boosted, but so far, state officials aren’t talking about vaccine mandates for children.
Nursing homes are another arena where state officials are hoping to get more people boosted. All nursing homes will soon be required to demonstrate plans to increase vaccination and booster rates among residents, Hochul said.
The state is also petitioning the federal government for the authority to require vaccination for nursing home visitors, at least for the next two weeks, Hochul said Friday.
Goal: Work with Local Partners
Though there has been much-publicized pushback from upstate officials on Hochul’s mask-or-vax mandate, New York’s current Omicron strategy is more carrot than stick. In many places, enforcement of mask requirements is spotty to nonexistent at both the state and local level. State officials are mostly focused right now on getting resources out locally: more tests, better masks, more vaccine access, and a few healthcare disaster first responders to the most hard-hit places.
Will that be enough to keep schools, hospitals, and other vital community institutions operating through an intense spike in infections? That remains to be seen—and in areas with low vaccination rates and poor access to healthcare, Omicron’s disruptions will hit harder.
A Note from Us at The River
Even if Omicron infections are milder across the board, the rising wave will have a cost in human lives, especially among the unvaccinated and people who are immunocompromised or medically vulnerable. New York State officials, like their federal counterparts and their peers in other states, have apparently decided that that cost does not warrant the enactment of policy that would be expensive or politically unpopular—like shutting down high-risk businesses in an effort to keep local schools and hospitals open, or enacting broader vaccine mandates for participating in work or school.
As of the last day of 2021, at least 58,917 lives have been lost in New York to COVID-19, and that number is poised to climb higher in the next few weeks and months. Much of the responsibility of preventing more death, disease, and widespread logistical disruption is falling on ordinary New Yorkers—and as a news outlet, we’re doing our best to make sure you have the information you need to keep yourself and the people in your community safe. Check out “How to Weather Omicron,” our Hudson Valley- and Catskills-oriented guide to what’s ahead, and what we know so far.
Another word of advice, as the Omicron wave gathers momentum in your community: Keep in touch with your local institutions. In the weeks to come, county public health departments, hospitals, local governments and community institutions, and school districts will be getting federal and state help to make more resources available at the community level. In a fast-changing landscape, communication can suffer, and it helps to keep yourself informed.