December 2, 2021
Albany, NY

Video, Audio, Photos, & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Updates New Yorkers on Omicron Variant; Encourages New Yorkers to Get Vaccinated and Booster Shot

Video, Audio, Photos, & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Updates New Yorkers on Omicron Variant; Encourages New Yorkers to Get Vaccinated and Booster Shot

Announces State Has Ordered 1 Million Testing Kits to Distribute to Local Health Departments

Announces 40 New Pop-Up Vaccine Sites to Launch Before End of Year

Announces Six-Figure "Boost Up NY" Social Media Campaign

New Yorkers Can Schedule Their Free COVID-19 Vaccine Here or Booster Dose Here

Governor Hochul: "Just recently, we learned from the Department of Health and Minnesota, that one of their constituents has tested positive for Omicron. This individual had spent time in New York City...We're not defenseless. We are not defenseless against this variant. And I want everyone to have the confidence that we can handle this. We're ready for it. This is not surprising. It is the fourth variant that has arisen. And there's much more information that is still to be learned as we wait for the continued research from the CDC and others."

Dr. Bassett: "It may seem like COVID has really opened up a Pandora's Box. I hope that all of you remember that there was something left in that box and that was hope. I have enormous hope about our ability to tackle this big picture. I have already watched Governor Hochul take bold steps to protect New Yorkers and, Governor, I really look forward to joining you in this."

Earlier this morning, Governor Hochul, with new Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, updated New Yorkers on the Omicron variant and encouraged New Yorkers to get their vaccine and booster shot. Governor Hochul also announced New York State has ordered one million tests that will be distributed to local health departments, plans to launch 40 new vaccination pop-up sites by the end of the year, and new marketing efforts to promote boosters and vaccines.

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 are available on the Governor's Flickr page.

A rush transcript of the Governor's remarks are available below:

Good morning, everyone. Thank you for attending our press conference this morning to talk about COVID. We've received some news this morning out of Minnesota that I want to address straight on. We know that this is not unexpected. It's not unexpected. It was literally six days ago when I instituted an executive order to give me the powers I would need to deal with the current situation, but also a future situation, which could arise if Omicron ended up showing up in the state of New York. And we believe it has.

Just recently, we learned from the Department of Health and Minnesota, that one of their constituents has tested positive for Omicron. This individual had spent time in New York City. They were at a conference at the Javits Center. We have been in touch with the Javits Center. I just spoke with Alan Steel a few minutes ago. I've been in contact with New York City, spoke to Mayor de Blasio. An individual I'm going to be introducing shortly, Dr. Mary Bassett, our new Health Commissioner has also been in touch with the New York City Department of Health.

The information is still evolving, but we understand that this individual, while they were vaccinated, they have very mild symptoms. And in fact, those symptoms have already resolved. That is good news. And what we want to make sure we know is that there is one way to address this. New Yorkers, get vaccinated, get boosted, and get ready.

We do anticipate there'll be more cases, but to the extent that they are mild, we'll address them. This is not cause for alarm. Again, it was foreseen ever since it was first reported out of South Africa that we knew it would come to New York State at some point. And I want all New Yorkers to know that their state government, in collaboration with our local governments, our cities and our counties, are prepared for this.

We are ramping up our efforts to get more vaccinations out there, ensuring that there's no area of the state where someone cannot easily access the vaccination, but we believe that vast majority of the state is covered now. Testing is widely available. And we encourage people who have been at a conference recently, at the Javits Center, during the dates of November 18th to 22nd that they also get tested and we're going to make sure that everyone knows. We have a way to contact these individuals, there is a list of individuals who attended and also they were vaccinated in order to go into this conference in the first place.

So, no confirmed cases in the State of New York, however, we are very cognizant of the fact that it is very likely soon that someone is going to test positive for this. We've been ready. We're prepared. We're not sounding the alarms. We're not overreacting to this, but I want New Yorkers to have the confidence to know that we are ready to a deal to deal with this. Continue wearing your masks. We encourage everyone to wear their masks when they're out. Get those shots, get your children vaccinated.

We're not defenseless. We are not defenseless against this variant. And I want everyone to have the confidence that we can handle this. We're ready for it. This is not surprising. It is the fourth variant that has arisen. And there's much more information that is still to be learned as we wait for the continued research from the CDC and others.

I have spoken to individuals from the White House yesterday in person, briefing our congressional delegation to make sure they were apprised of our efforts here in the State of New York. Constant communication with our county officials, our public health departments and so we are ready. Unlike what happened in March of 2020, when there was a shock factor involved, when people did not know what to expect and how long it would last and how to take action and whether there would even be a vaccination. We're in a far better place today than we were at the start of this pandemic. So, I don't want anyone to panic over this. There are steps we can take, and we encourage everyone to do this.

As I mentioned at the outset of my administration, which is just a little over three months old, I said I was going to assemble the absolute best and the brightest to ensure that I was surrounded by a top-notch team to deal with all the issues that state government must deal with. I wanted someone who had the knowledge and the expertise in particular to be able to handle working side by side with me and addressing the pandemic. I have found that individual and that person who has the experience, the fortitude and the aptitude to be able to deal with this crisis is Dr. Mary Bassett. She's a highly regarded public health expert, an exemplary public servant. She grew up in New York City, a BA in History and Science from Harvard University. Medical Degree from Columbia University. Master's in Public Health from the University of Washington. And she served as the commissioner in New York City, Commissioner of Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and has worked to address health disparities, inequities in New York City.

So, I'm very excited to have her at this moment to address her reflections on her new position. I have utmost confidence in her and we will work very closely together, as everyone knows, as I've said from the beginning, I'm a very good listener and I do take direction and advice from the experts. And I have one of the nation's premier experts now at my side and that should also give New Yorkers confidence. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Mary T. Bassett, the new Commissioner of the Department of Health. Thank you.

Dr. Bassett: Thank you very much, Governor. You know, this pandemic has really made a strong case for public service. And I thank you for the opportunity to answer that call once again.

As you've mentioned, we are monitoring the Omicron variants in close coordination with the CDC, the Minnesota Health Department, the New York City Health Department and I'm sure you'll have questions about that. But I want to start out by giving more thanks, including to the New York State Health Department for its dedication, its service, and its sacrifice. I met yesterday with the senior staff. You know, to confront a pandemic is never easy and I am so inspired by the caliber of that team, their dedication, and their determination.

I'm no stranger to crisis. When I just finished my medical training, I moved to Southern Africa where the world's worst HIV/AIDS epidemic was unfolding. Some years later, as the New York City Health Commissioner, I encountered more microbes than I ever would have predicted. There was Ebola, there was Legionnaires, therewas Zika. In three decades of public health work, I've learned the impact of truth-telling. I can't think of any better way to put it. I'll tell the governor what we know, what we don't know and what our best judgment is. And I'll tell the public the same thing.

Our knowledge is evolving. We are so much better equipped today than we were just a few short months ago. And as our understanding changes, we will change. That's how science works and public health is based on science.

If we needed any more evidence that public health is also rooted in social justice, COVID also gave us that. COVID literally pulled back the curtain on enduring and unaddressed inequities. Confronting this pandemic is a top priority, but it's not just a novel virus. This virus found its way through our failures. Failure to ensure the right to healthcare services, failure to assure available and high quality primary care in tackling obesity and other chronic conditions. COVID accelerated what's become a relentless tide of overdose deaths. And in our nation, all of these track along the problem of racism.

We recently showed nationally among adults in this country in prime working age years, that nearly ninety percent of deaths among people of color would not have occurred if we had death rates that are equivalent to that of white college educated individuals.

So, it may seem like COVID has really opened up a Pandora's Box. I hope that all of you remember that there was something left in that box and that was hope. I have enormous hope about our ability to tackle this big picture. I have already watched Governor Hochul take bold steps to protect New Yorkers and, Governor, I really look forward to joining you in this.

I'll end my brief remarks with a reminder that there are small steps that each of us can also take that will make a difference, make a big difference. Get vaccinated. If you're already vaccinated, get boosted. Wear a mask. If you feel sick, stay home. Please be safe.

We are all in this together. Thank you.

Governor Hochul: Thank you very much. Now you know why I feel so confident in our ability to address whatever comes our way, because we have one of the nation's best at our side. So thank you, Dr. Bassett, for answering the call to public service once again.

As I mentioned, yesterday I was in the White House addressing a number of issues, our COVID response, as well as infrastructure issues, and I do want to thank President Biden. Some of the elements of his winter plan have already been released. This is important. One of the differences, again, between our response now and at the outset of the pandemic in 2020, was a different president. And that required there to be people in other states who took leadership positions.

And I'm really, really proud that our White House, President Biden and his entire team have, have taken the ownership and responsibility to make sure that we have a national response to what is a national need and global crisis. And so one of the issues that we've been fighting for for a while was actually reimbursement for over the counter tests.

Up until now we did not have the authority to have private insurance companies pay for people to get over the counter tests. And we've been pushing and pushing, trying to allow this to happen. And we just receive word from the White House that they will require that insurance companies now cover the cost of over the counter tests to make sure that they're more widely available and that there's no barriers to access to those as well.

So that was important. And we also know that President Biden is pushing the ramp up of pharmacies. As you know, from the beginning, pharmacies have been one of the primary locations for people to receive a vaccination, they're so accessible. They have a direct pipeline to the White House to get the supply.

And he's ramping up that supply, which we think is critically important. Also more collaboration to get seniors boosted. Seniors continue to be the vulnerable population. When you look at the hospitalizations, they are primarily senior citizens. Some who've been not vaccinated, some who are vaccinated, but getting that booster is critically important, so we're going to be reaching out to all Medicare beneficiaries with the federal government as well.

Continuing to push the mass vaccination sites. We'll be talking about that, what we're doing ourselves, but also the pediatric vaccines and all the accessibility is coming from the federal government as well, as well as requiring Medicaid reimbursement for providers.

This is one way we can keep kids in schools, safe travel protocols, as well as another number of initiatives that we support. I just want to stand here today and say we support President Biden's bold initiatives and so happy to have him as a partner who understands that the role of the federal government addressing this, which was not there at the outset of the pandemic, and a lot of time was lost and many people suffered and I'm proud to see that that dynamic since last January has changed so dramatically.

Let's take a look at what's going on here again in New York State, we continue to see warning signs. High rates of cases across New York State continue to be higher in upstate regions compared to downstate. And there is only one reason for this, and that is the decision by individuals not to get vaccinated. It is not that there's not a supply. It's not that people are not eligible. It's not that they don't know about it. It is a conscious decision not to be vaccinated. And the direct result is a higher rate of individuals in those regions upstate as well as it has a direct correlation to the number of hospitalizations.

As you can see from this chart we're not anywhere near where we were in 2020, but we never want to get anywhere close. And so you can just see the upper trajectory of the hospitalizations correlated to the areas in particular where people are not vaccinated. We're continuing to monitor those numbers as they increase.

Some of them are starting to spike somewhat on Long Island than others, but this gets again to the number of individuals who are not vaccinated. Look at these numbers. I mean we have one of the highest percentages of individuals over the age of 18 who are vaccinated in this country, but there is no reason why it's not 100% - look at this.

We also know that there's more people who have to get their booster shot. So what we've been doing was we sent out tens of thousands of text messages, over 600,000 text messages to people who had received their one dose, but did not get the second one. That one dose does not do the job.

I don't know what people are thinking, unless it was a Johnson and Johnson. If you had Moderna or Pfizer, you have to get the second dose in order to make it effective. And even now we're talking a third dose, the third dose is the booster shot and we have to make sure that we get that taken care of.

We talked about this for months, especially last week when I announced the executive order, why we had to have steps taken now because we know human nature. People were looking forward to traveling. They traveled a great deal during the Thanksgiving holiday. Only about now when we start seeing the results of people did contract the virus when they're with family and friends over the holiday, more people in airports, congested settings.

So we're seeing exactly what we foresaw. And also the more cases, more hospitalizations puts a lot of stress on the hospital system, which is why our executive order, which was instituted and goes into effect tomorrow, says that hospitals that have less than 10% capacity have to cease elective surgeries until at least January 15th, unless they're able to get those numbers higher, their capacity higher.

However, the Department of Health is working to make sure that there's some flexibility within that. That is there's probably over 50-some hospitals that meet that criteria. The vast majority are upstate New York. We are responding with constant communication with the hospitals, the local health departments and the elected officials to find out how we can backfill and get more healthcare workers in.

It's not a shortage of beds. It is absolutely not a shortage of beds, it's a shortage of people to staff the beds. Again, think of how far we've come. Our healthcare workers, our nurses in particular, were called to do the extraordinary. They went through hell and back during this pandemic. And they all thought by now, almost two years later, that the pressure valve would finally be off. It'd be lessened. And that is not the case. There is a high burnout factor, completely understandable. People that were close to retirement have left. Those who've just said it's more than I wanted to do are gone. And those who refuse to be vaccinated - that certain number are also having an effect as well.

So we recognize that what we have now is a situation where we have to do even more to increase hospitalizations. We're being creative, that's why I needed the emergency authorization to deploy the National Guard, the trained national guards who have EMT or healthcare backgrounds that can be taken from areas where there's not high need and be deployed elsewhere.

And we have over 120 of those individuals that have been going particularly to nursing homes. When you think about why are we going to nursing homes, not the hospitals? There are hundreds of people sitting in hospitals today who could be discharged and non-COVID patients who could be discharged to long-term care facilities or nursing homes, except there's not capacity.

So we take care of the capacity on the backend, address that, and then we can have more discharges and that'll relieve the pressure on the hospitals and increase their capacity above the 10%. So this goes into effect tomorrow we're working, we'll be releasing guidance very specific to the hospitals on what metrics we're looking for forthem to come out of this, or whether there's any flexibility to be had.

Again, as I said before, we do not want people to put off important preventative screenings, such as mammograms, colonoscopies and others, because what we saw last time was a spike in people getting sick from other causes because they were not getting the medical care they needed. We do not want to have that scenario again.

So that's what we're working on right now. We know the tools, the tools are so simple. It's the vaccination, it's widely available. Get the booster, get tested if you think you've been exposed, and we'll be talking about that with respect to the individuals who participated in some of the events where the person who contracted the variant in Minnesota was as we continue our contact tracing.

Stay home if you feel sick. Even slight symptoms. One of the advantages we learned is that people can work from home. There's no reason for many people in certain professions where it lends itself to that, where they can stay home and recover and make sure they don't spread it to other individuals. And keep wearing the mask, keep wearing the mask indoors.

So that's what we're focused on. Also increasing our pop-up sites. We're having new pop-up sites everywhere. Engaging, again, the clergy. What we're doing at schools and other places to make sure that the vaccines are widely available. And again, our booster update. I know we can do better. Look at the number of people over 18. Fully vaccinated and boosted is only 16% and our vulnerable population, 65 and plus, these are the individuals who got their vaccine the earliest. They got their vaccines, many of them last December if they were in a nursing home, or January, February, they were the earliest. They need to be told, which is why we're sending and making sure that all the nursing homes in particular have capacity to offer booster shots.

But that 37% has to go much higher in order for us to address the problem. And also that'll help take some of the pressure off the hospitals if we can keep them from getting sick, because they have a booster, they won't go to a hospital and that helps abate the situation we're in right now. So we're also trying to have more booster incentives.

I want more help with boosting. We're going to be announcing a number of incentives. One of them is free ski passes for kids at our state facilities. We'll be getting that information out to everyone. We're also announcing a major 'Boost UpNew York' campaign, a campaign to get people excited about getting boosted before the holidays. We'll have banners and displays and posters and all sorts of ways to get this information out.

It shouldn't be necessary, my friends, it should be just in a category of of course we'll do this. We don't have a supply issue. We don't have a capacity issue in terms of getting the boosters out. But it's just a decision that people are making not to do this. So getting tested now, particularly as we start hearing about this variant spreading to Minnesota, no known case in New York, but we anticipate we'll be seeing people testing positive soon.

Making sure that our testing sites are ramped up as well and they have all the supplies they need. We're going to be making sure that there's plenty of coverage for this. Some tests weren't covered by insurance. Again, we're making sure that they are, and that is a change from the White House as well. So there's plenty of places to get tested - pharmacies, urgent care centers, hospitals.

So what I'm saying, there's no excuse. There's absolutely no excuse to not get tested regularly. I got tested again today. Get tested regularly. It's important to find out whether or not even if you are vaccinated, you want to make sure that you're safe.

Schools, this has been a troublesome area from the very beginning. The last thing we want to see are any more children who have to be sent home for a longer period of time. That experience, while necessary during the heat of the crisis, we want to make sure that more kids are back in classrooms because they fell so far. And many of them are going to have long-term consequences if we don't get them back in the classrooms.

So what we've done is ordered another 1 million antigen tests. We're allowing department of Health to prioritize getting them to students. We're telling them, in our communication with departments of health, get them out to the schools as well. So there's no reason why we can't do that. So over the counter antigen, rapid tests will be issued. There'll be now allowed for schools to use, to be accepted for kids to return if they had to go home because someone in their classroom tested positive. So we're getting those out to parents. And this is another tool we're talking about, issuing guidance on testing to stay. So, focused on the schools, the kids need to stay in. And what I'm saying is if we're getting testing kits out to schools, getting vaccination opportunities out to schools, what parents should be focused on is getting their kids the vaccination now. Whether through their own private providers, local pharmacies, or in their school, because as kids hit the holidays they're not going to have that opportunity. They're going to be around a lot of family around older grandparents and older relatives. And we want to make sure that all the kids are safe and vaccinated before they come back after the holiday season again. So, we're putting a major focus on testing in schools and vaccinations in schools.

We know how to do this. The answers are right before us. We can handle this New Yorkers. We've done it before. We'll do it again. And we're going to do everything we can to keep New Yorkers safe and keep our economy open.

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