December 20, 2021
Albany, NY

Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Announces Comprehensive Winter Surge Plan

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Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Announces Comprehensive Winter Surge Plan
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10 Million More Free At-Home Tests Coming to New York State

2 Million Tests for Schools

Each State-Run Mass Vaccination Site to be Stocked with Tests

$65 Million to Help Counties with COVID-19 Response Costs

7 Test Sites Launching Across the State

6 Million Masks to Be Distributed

Governor Hochul: “This is not March of 2020. It is not even December of 2020…We don't even make those comparisons because they're not comparable to what we went through when we did not have vaccinations and boosters and the knowledge we have now.”

Earlier today, Governor Kathy Hochul announced a comprehensive plan to fight the COVID-19 winter surge and make vaccines, boosters, testing and masks more widely available. The plan includes steps to acquire ten million more at-home test kits, two million tests for schools, supply state-run vaccination sites with tests, and the launch of seven new testing sites. Governor Hochul also announced that she is making $65 million available to counties across New York State to help with the costs associated with administering vaccines and boosters and enforcing the mask-or-vaccine mandate for indoor public places that went into effect statewide last week.

VIDEO of the event is available on YouTube here and in TV quality (h.264, mp4) format here

AUDIO of the event is available here

PHOTOS of the event will be available on the Governor's Flickr page

A rush transcript of the Governor’s remarks is available below

Thank you for joining us, once again. We have the COVID response dream team here assembled. You'll be hearing from Kathryn Garcia, who is our head of everything, head of state operations. As well as Jackie Bray, the Acting Commissioner for the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

So, we'll get started with today's report. One thing I do want to say that we would have had one more seat here this morning to join us, but Dr. Bassett will not be joining us. She has tested positive through a COVID rapid test. Everyone who sees me is tested or all the team that comes through here is tested every day. We’re following the strict protocols. She’ll be having another PCR test just to confirm that. So, in the meantime, we're going to take all the necessary precautions and she left the office immediately and we're just waiting for those results. Of course, she is vaccinated and boosted so this would be a breakthrough case, but she's feeling fine and we're thinking about her and her family and all the New Yorkers who are just having their family plans disrupted because of this virus. So reminder, there's no better time to be vaccinated and boosted and wear your masks and your symptoms, if it's following the trends that we've been experiencing this far, will not be very serious.

So, what did I do today? I got on the road again. It was great to be here. Everywhere from Wyoming County to Tioga County to Broome County and made a quick stop up in Wayne. But, I had a chance to do some things that were important to me. First of all, to thank the healthcare workers who are on the front line every single day. When I went to the hospital, the community hospital in Warsaw, in Wyoming County, just to have a chance to talk to the nursing staff, the skilled nursing staff, the head of the hospital, as well as a lot of nurses, these individuals are just incredible. They're tired. They've been working so hard, but they never show it. They stay every single day, no matter how exhausted and exasperated they feel, because they also know that did not have to be this way. We did not have to have so many hospitalizations and even a small hospital, it has 24 beds filled with patients. Nearly half are COVID patients. And so, this is putting a real stress on our smaller upstate healthcare systems.

This is even before this Omicron surge hit upstate. We knew the winter surge was coming. We've been talking about this. It's one of the reasons I also went to a vaccination site, a test site down in Broome County, and I had a real good conversation there and thanked our National Guard. But as we talk about this winter surge and the vertical increase in the number of cases, and it is vertical, it's going straight up. This is not March of 2020. It is not even December of 2020. And I'll talk about why we don't even make those comparisons because they're not comparable to what we went through when we did not have vaccinations and boosters and the knowledge we have now.

We're taking it very seriously. This does not mean we're not being very aggressive in our approach, we've been since the very beginning, but we have to just meet this moment with action and not fear, but also just lean into the strengths we know we have, and that we'll get through this. And so, asking everyone to do something that you're going to hear from me over. Vaccinations, get the booster shot, get tested, stay home if you're not feeling well. And that's how we're going to get through this together, New York. I know we can do this.

Let's take a look at some of the numbers. Yesterday we broke another record with 23,391 cases. You can see the cases per 100,000 people has been rising a four time increase in cases from last week. We had about 6,000 last Sunday to 23,000 this Monday. So, that is a very high spike in cases. We've been watching this closely, just what we've been seeing in the places it started, another place in the world, just what we're seeing all over this country. Something that was foreseen once Omicron made its way to this nation, and we knew this was going to be the case, but we are starting to see some other encouraging news from the other nations that have been affected. Those numbers went up quickly and they dropped quickly. And that's what we expect to see happening as well as in cases where people are vaccinated and boosted. Again, the severity is not what it was at all with respect to Delta or even our early variants of this.

So, that's something just to keep in mind when we're just calibrating a response, we're going to be as aggressive as possible. And we have. But in terms of people's own personal anxiety about it, just know that it's very likely to be minor symptoms if you’re vaccinated and boosted.

Another very important metric to us, our daily hospitalizations. Sadly, we had 60 people die yesterday, their families will be devastated during this holiday season. People who had been hospitalized, very sick, and this is just a horrific time of the year to have to experience this loss and that is why our hearts go out to these individuals and their families, and their loved ones, their neighbors, their friends. But also a reminder that we have to take the steps now to make sure that everybody we love is with us for the next holiday season. And we have the power over that.

But the hospitalizations, if you look at where we were on this graph the beginning, March of 2020, April, very, very high numbers of people hospitalized in our state. Just to compare, about almost a year ago, a higher spike, you can see the trend is starting to head upward, but it also, because this Omicron variant does not result in such severe cases that require hospitalization. We may not hit those peaks again, but we're preparing.

We're preparing for the worst and that's what I've been focused on in particular. So, we had people hospitalized, but we're still under two thirds of what we were this time last year during the winter surge. So, let's just remember that, again, I mentioned it's not March of 2020, it's not even December 2020, just to keep things in perspective.

And it is milder than Delta. We're going to give a quick update on Omicron, and we're still keeping a close eye on the science and the data, but from the early reports and what we've seen in, as I mentioned, other countries and elsewhere, it does seem to be more minor and that's a very good dynamic.

What do we have to fight against here? What do we have to fight with? It's the vaccination. So, I'm really, really pleased that we've had over 3 million doses just since December 1st. Thank you, New Yorkers, those of you who may have been waiting a little bit, you wanted to have more time to think about it and, you know, have more time lapse from the beginning when this first entered the marketplace and now, I really thank you for doing the right thing. So that's an enormous jump. We'll be hitting 95 percent of people with at least one dose, that is incredible, over age 18. Completed vaccines 82 percent. Would like to see that higher. Those people who have had one dose and have not had the second one and are eligible, you do not want to wait. Don't wait a second longer. We want to make sure that you are protected.

Where we need improvements. More children need to get vaccinated. So ,mom and dads, moms and dads, use this holiday break to go into one of our ever expanding locations. You know, not just your pediatrician office if you can’t get an appointment. You can go to one of our vaccination sites. They're on every corner. They're everywhere throughout the state. There's literally thousands of locations where you can get vaccinated and we encourage you to do so. Get your children protected before they head into the next school year.

I do want to take a moment to share some of our winter surge plans that we're undertaking. Some we've spoken about and some are newer. We want to talk about again, focusing on the boosters. 80,000 people got a booster shot yesterday. I was really delighted to see that, that's nearly 1.4 million boosters since December 1st. People are getting the message. They're hearing what we're saying every single day about these. And you can see the increase throughout the state. I'm really pleased to see that.

Right now we've had about 40 percent of New Yorkers who are eligible for a booster get one, let's get that up. I'd like to see it hit 70, 80, 90 percent. There's no reason, if you're willing to get a vaccination and the boosters are now available and you're eligible again, not everyone's eligible. There's a certain timeline, a lapse between the time you received either your Pfizer or your Medina vaccination, or your J&J to get one. So, when that time hits, whether it's five months, six months, you need to be ready in line to get that booster. So, because so many people have gotten their first vaccination, typically all the healthcare workers, this fall, a lot of our workers that we required to be vaccinated. They are not yet eligible. So, this number is going to continue to move up, but it's not going to be a huge jump because we have a lot of people who won't even be eligible for a number of months, but at least they got the vaccination and they're on the path, which we're very happy about.

Also for our winter surge plan, we took a number of steps already and I want to talk about them. To recap since last week, we announced 40 new vaccination sites just since this past week. And I also want to focus on the counties that are doing the right thing, that have been our allies and making sure that we ensure that people are compliant with our protocols related to masks and vaccinations that we want to see anywhere indoor, other than residences, particularly businesses, restaurants, shops, the large big box stores, event gathering spaces.

We really appreciate those who have been on the front lines of this, making sure that this happens. I wanted to thank some of our counties out there today, the county leaders who are doing the right thing. But I also have heard from a number of them that while they support what we're doing, with masks and vaccinations, they also needed more resources to get this done. 

And I said, okay, we got them for you. So we are putting on the table $65 million to help them, associated with the costs for the protocols we put in place. And I will be ensuring that there's at least a million dollars available for the small counties, which is not insignificant, and up to $2 million for the larger counties. 

And they will be able to use this for creative ways for enforcement. Some are doing things like purchasing thousands of masks and having teams of individuals take them to the stores and the restaurants and their downtown areas to make sure that there's enough supply when people walk in the door and they can just hand somebody a mask, or if they want to help supplement the staff to make sure that there's compliance. 

Whether they want to set up a call center for people to make complaints, whether they want to ship signs to places. So we want to make sure that we pick up the costs of this. I appreciate all their cooperation and I want them to know we'll be letting them know how they can get this money as soon as possible. 

So this would be from the date that the protocol went into effect until January 15th. However, we reserve the right to assess that deadline, but if all goes well we will be able to suspend it as hoped for, but I will not be making that determination till we get a lot closer given the fluctuation in this situation. 

We also, as part of our winter surge plan, have been texting people. We sent 3.4 million texts already went out, Saturday through today, to remind people who have two doses to get their booster. We’re also reminding people who've only had the one dose that they're required to get, or we want them to get that second one unless it was J and J. 

Also we have 3.4 million robocalls going out. So pick up your phone, you may be hearing from Dr. Bassett. Those reminders are going out this week as well. So just kind of keeping that constant drum beat going that we're in a winter surge. We forecasted this, it's here. We are looking at a vulnerable gathering time, a time of great joy, and I'm glad so many families will be able to get together to celebrate Christmas in a couple of days. Christmas Eve, New Years, Kwanzaa through all of our great holidays this winter season.  

And you can do it safely. We don't want to discourage people from gathering, but do what you know is smart and keep those masks on when you're with people if you don't know if they're vaccinated for sure. So we also wanted to know that thinking of masks, we are going to be distributing 6 million masks directly to county managers, Erie County emergency managers and we'll get them out to people as soon as possible. We hope that they'll get them out to the businesses, the schools, the libraries, and other community-based organizations. So we'll have no shortage.  

And if you want to have a bad flashback, remember what it was like in the early months of the pandemic when we were scouring the earth, you know, paying exorbitant prices to places like China, because it was such a limited supply and the supply chain challenges were extraordinary. So we're in a far – again, another example of we're in a far better place with PPE and ventilators. We have 7,000 ventilators in reserve, and I'm going to get you an overview of what we're doing here. 

So also testing, everyone's talking about testing. We now have available 10 million more free at-home tests. Every single day we're putting in more purchase orders. We had our million delivered, literally the counties I was in today, I was in Wyoming County and they had just received their 3,200, they were so grateful, so happy. 

So the counties are starting to see their deliveries come out, as well as the demand we know is continuing to be, you know, increased, and so we're accommodating that. Just yesterday, we had talked about tests, 258,000 people were tested yesterday. That's incredible. A year ago we had only – far less than that. 

We'd were just a quarter of what we are today. So, we're continuing to amass more supplies, get them out to the communities and encourage people to get tests. So today we're announcing, in addition to what we've already ordered and have on order, 10 million and Kathryn will be speaking a little more about that. 

So I do want to turn it over to the crisis managers who are working to operationalize this right now, and that would be Kathryn Garcia, Director of State Operations and Jackie Bray, who is the commissioner for the Division of Homeland Security. I know you know Kathryn Garcia, but those of you who are going to get to know Jackie Bray, who came to us fairly recently, I want you to know in her background she coordinated hospital surge capacity during the height of COVID for New York City. So this is her area of expertise. We are so grateful to have someone with her background and experience to be able to help us, as well as she is the executive director of the Test and Trace corps. 

So, when you're in a foxhole and you're dealing with a war in front of you, these are the two individuals you want as your generals, so I thank them and I'll let Kathryn kick it off and let them talk about exactly where our tests are going and what's going on.  

Kathryn Garcia: Thank you, Governor. As you announced, we do have another 10 million over the counter tests coming to the state before the New Year – we will have 5 million before the New Year and another 5 million in January. And this is of course in addition to what we do on the data of the tests, because these are all at home tests. About 2 million will be going to the school districts because we want to make sure that as kids come back in January that we are keeping them in school. 

Another million tests will be going to the county emergency managers. In addition, we are going to send 1.6 million tests to New York City as well as 400,000 tests for our vaccine sites. So that if you are coming for a vaccine, you can take a test with you. I mean, this is good progress, but we still need more and we need more partnership from the federal government. 

We need them to help make sure that there are tests available to anyone who needs it, because we will continue beating the drum that we want you to be able to take personal responsibility and protect your loved ones by knowing whether or not you are positive with COVID, and to stop transmission. 

So we do call upon the federal government to invoke the Defense Production Act, to get manufacturers producing more over the counter tests, and we'll make sure that they have the letter out the door today. And we're going to keep ramping up testing, vaccine sites, boosters, so that New Yorkers can protect their loved ones. 

But please, when you are getting the home test kits, make sure they are CDC or FDA approved. We don't want anyone to use something that is not going to give them the information they need to keep them and their loved ones safe. And I want to turn it over to commissioner Bray now to go through some additional details. 

Jackie Bray: Thank you, Kathryn. As Kathryn mentioned, we're ramping up testing and we want to make sure that New Yorkers have many ways to access testing. We know that there are long lines, that's because people are doing the right thing, they're seeking a test when they need it to keep each other safe. I want to remind everyone there's over 1800 testing sites in New York State, you can locate the one closest to you at coronavirus.health.ny.gov. It's over 1800 existing sites.  

As Kathryn said, we're ramping up further. There'll be 5 million more over the counter tests that the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services will be distributing all across the state. Our commitment to you is as soon as we get them, we will get them into your hands. We're also adding tests at our mass vax sites, as Kathryn said. We're opening up seven new testing locations next week, beginning the week of December 27. We'll have new State testing locations in Steuben County, Cayuga County, Orleans, Lewis, Otsego, Nassau, and at least two here in New York City. 

And finally, we're bringing online a testing portal where New Yorkers can order at-home PCR tests. They'll be mailed overnight mail. You swab yourself, you put them back in the prepaid envelope and you get your results within 48 hours. We're finalizing a launch date for this portal and we'll have those details at the end of this week. With that, I turn it back to the Governor.  

Governor Hochul: Thank you, Commissioner. I appreciate what you've done and will continue to do, please give our regards to your team as well. And as you heard, we'll be sending a lot of testing kits to schools, and here's why: we are keeping our schools open.  

Let me repeat that – we are keeping schools open because we're dealing with a very different variant at this time. We believe that it's critically important that our children not end up in that same situation they were for so many months, when they were so displaced from their normal environment, they did not get the quality of education, despite the best efforts of those incredible teachers and parents who struggled every single day alongside their children, just to deal with these circumstances we dealt with last time. We're in a different environment, a different circumstance. 

And so part of our winter surge plan is we are committed to keeping our schools open. And so we wanted to make sure that school districts will follow the test to stay protocols and make sure that they're no longer required to have a PCR test for kids to return, but just a rapid test. But how are they going to get access to those tests? Well, we'll help out with it, we’ll take responsibility and that is why we're in communication right now with the school superintendents. There is a short break between now and January 1st through January 3rd, when the kids are back. And as we've ordered already 2 million of the tests we have, will be going right to the schools and parents will be able to receive them.

And here's what we want to have happen. Children are in a classroom, someone tests positive. Ordinarily, they would have been sent home for a long period of time. And then even if someone - they go back - someone tests positive again, the next week they're sent home again. This is so disruptive to their education, as well as the parents, who've been desperately trying to get back to a normal life, get back to their jobs. And the lack of childcare has been, just another area of friction for these families that have been really hit so hard.

So, we'll be making sure that there's, in their backpacks, they will be sent home with testing kits. Children test positive, we know it, someone in the classroom, the kids in the classroom will be sent home with testing kits. So, we're working on that supply chain right now. So starting in early January, we will be able to address that. So there's no reason why our children can’t stay in school. Really important to me. Also, talking about education, we've been in contact with the leaders of our higher education institutions, our SUNY school presidents and our private school presidents. And we're convening a symposium of those leaders to talk about getting back our college students when they return under normal circumstances a little bit later in January and making sure they follow the same return protocols.

We don't have that disruption again to their education and what the professors and teachers and they had to go through, but also the economic impact, many of our college campuses typically upstate or in small towns, that is the livelihood of their economy. Having those students in person. So, for a number of reasons, it goes to my philosophy of protecting the health of individuals, protecting the health of New Yorkers, as well as protecting the health of the economy.

I want to talk about some progress we've made. It's not all gloom and doom. Our laser focus, early on you heard me talk about this, September, October, November. Haven't been on the job that long so I know it started in September. Talking about hospital capacity and how this is really the break point. If you don't have enough capacity and you have a high volume - a surge of individuals needing medical care in a hospital - that's when the system breaks down. That's why we've been so vigilant. We've been fighting so hard against this and in constant communication, but monitoring the numbers to see what their capacity is.

So as you know, we enacted a program or a regulation that if you have less than 10% bed capacity, right now you had to suspend for now your elective surgery to free up - not just the beds, it’s not about the beds - It's mostly about needing more staff. And so, we’ve been successful in reducing the number of hospitals that hit that emergency threshold. You saw that we now have more beds, 159 more beds than we had November 22nd. And so that is a good dynamic in our hospitals that are on this list. They’ve gone from 32 to 28, some came off, but a few more went on, but this is where our hands-on engagement is really making a difference.

So there's increase in actual beds available. We've also been finding opportunities for supplemental staffing and emergency personnel. We've deployed the National Guard to assist - so we could discharge non COVID patients to nursing homes. We added 30 ambulance and EMS teams to assist with those efforts. This addition to the private teams we already have about 12 of those now. So far 21 teams have been deployed, more are coming online. Again, we're assessing wherever they need help, listening to the calls for help, and being able to respond with staff. So you can see it, this hospital capacity, if we've not taken steps, or we had not been monitoring so closely, this could have been a crisis situation already. As we saw in some of the hospitals I visited and talked about today. The number of people hospitalized from COVID is going up, but if they can suspend elective surgeries or make other surge and flex accommodations that we asked them to Institute, they're in a far better place and that’s where we find ourselves now.

Not spiking the football yet, I’m watching it closely, this could change, but at least there's some stability now in our hospital capacity. So let me recap, for our winter surge plan, we're putting $65 million on the table to support local governments who are working to ensure that they're following the mask and vaccination requirements we've put in place for businesses. So that is available for them. And we'll let them know how to get that. We have more tests. In addition to the millions we've already talked about. We have 10 million more coming. We'll keep ordering. We have more testing sites, seven new sites, more masks, 6 million are coming and more support to the hospital, 30 teams to help assist, our national guard.

So, top priorities. I think we can repeat these in our sleep. Protect the health of New Yorkers and protect the health of the economy. Our goal is to not let anything shut down. If individual businesses and venues, event venues, have their own challenges because members of their patrons or their staff have tested positive, they will certainly do the right thing and we understand that. But overall, we are avoiding a government shut down because we now have the tools available to all of us. Vaccination, booster shots, masks, and all of those, particularly with the variant that we're dealing with right now, which will become the dominant variant, is not having such serious consequences for those who follow what I just outlined.

We really, truly, don't anticipate to see any shutdowns. And so we're not going to throw in the towel here. We're going to keep fighting back. We will not surrender to pandemic fatigue, as much as we're getting exhausted from this, I'm not, I'm energized by the challenge, but I know people are just feeling enough is enough. I understand that. And as we hit this holiday season, take all these precautions. Don't isolate. Isolation is terrible. It's just so excruciating what people had to go through last year, being separated from their loved ones and not even able to visit people in nursing homes. It's a different dynamic. So, let's celebrate that we've come this far. We will get through this. We are new Yorkers. We're resilient. We can get through this holiday season.

So, I appreciate everything that's been done. I appreciate my team, and my communications team, my senior staff, and all those who are on the front lines out there every single day. This is a season of gratitude and let's spread holiday joy and love, and not spread COVID. That's all I'm asking, let's not spread COVID. So, thank you very much, everyone.

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