February 27, 2022
Albany, NY

Video, Audio, Photos, & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Updates New Yorkers on State's Progress Combating COVID-19

Video, Audio, Photos, & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Updates New Yorkers on State's Progress Combating COVID-19

Governor Hochul: "Today we are going to be announcing that we'll be lifting the statewide mask requirement in schools, and that'll be effective this Wednesday, March 2 This came out at the end of the day, Friday, we took the entire weekend to work with our Department of Health and our team here at the Chamber, as well as reaching out to the teachers, the PTAs, talking to school superintendents, and even our Commissioner of Education, Betty Rosa, who's been embedded in this issue with us and what an amazing partner she has been."

Hochul: "We're at our lowest point in pediatric cases since July of 2021, and that was before the school year started. So this has been our trend over the school year. So as you can all see, looking at the data and the evidence that we follow, that we are in a much, much better place."

Earlier today, Governor Kathy Hochul updated New Yorkers on the state's progress combating COVID-19 in Albany.

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 is available below:

Good afternoon and thank you all for joining me on a Sunday. I'm delighted to have our Commissioner of Health, the one and only Dr. Mary Bassett, who has been on the front lines with us since almost since the beginning of our administration. I want to thank her for her incredible leadership as we talk about COVID.

But before we get there, we need to step back and acknowledge the fact that there is a war going on in the Ukraine. This was an unprovoked war. It is an issue that we take strong exception to, in fact, we strongly condemn the action of Putin and Russia for this unprovoked attack, which is now leading to atrocities against innocent human beings. And that is not tolerable. This is the State of New York and we are the home to the largest Ukrainian population in America. These are our fellow brothers and sisters. We worship with them. We go to restaurants with them, we celebrate their cultural festivals. They're an important part of the fabric of New York State. So, an attack on their country is truly an attack on all of us.

I want to say we are grateful to President Biden for his global leadership. This is a time when the country should be united behind our president because we're having an attack on democracy, the likes of which we've not seen since World War II.

We forcibly condemn these actions. We call for an immediate resolution. Let the people of the Ukraine resume their normal lives instead of having to flee for their safety and create a situation. We now have nearly 400,000 refugees. We have said we will open our hearts, our homes, our resources, to the people of Ukraine to say we stand with you. If you need a place to stay, you want to come over here, we will help you become integrated into our community as we have been opened to so many other refugees in the past, including those from Afghanistan most recently.

Because, we have the Statue of Liberty in our harbor, this is a point of pride for us to welcome all of them. And also not just welcoming the refugees, but as the governor of the State of New York, as the tenth largest economy in the world, larger than Russia, we realize the unique power that we have to join President Biden in economic sanctions, as well as to look at exactly our operations. Are we taking any steps with our agency, our acquisitions, our investments? Are we in any way supporting the government of Putin and Russia who are now attacking democracy in Ukraine? So, we are no longer going to allow New York State business to be transacted with Russian entities.

This is a testament again to our strength, but also I'm going to be signing an Executive Order and what this Executive Order is going to do, and I'm going to read part of it here. Whereas Russia and Putin have engaged in an unjustified and unprovoked attack on the sovereign nation of the Ukraine. Whereas the State of New York is home to the largest Ukrainian population in the United States and is proud to have this special relationship with the nation of Ukraine. Whereas New York stands firmly with Ukraine and strong condemns Russia's actions against the country. Whereas the State will not permit its own investment activity, whether directly or indirectly, to aid Russia as it commits these human rights violations and atrocities. And whereas this order is a testament to the values and the economic strength of New York State, which has a higher, gross domestic product than all of Russia. Therefore, I, Kathy Hochul as Governor of the State of New York, do hereby order effective until such time as the sanctions imposed by the federal government are no longer in effect, that we are going to be reviewing all of our state purchases, all of our investments, and seizing all those investments until the time was such for the notice.

We will be calling on all divestments from state money. We're working with our comptroller on that, as well as investments in any company or institution that is on a list of Russian headquartered entities. So, we are going to also continue to refrain from any future investments.

This is a strong statement. It is a statement of our priorities. It's a statement of our values and that's why in the next moment or so I'm going to be signing this Executive Order, effective immediately, again, commencing a review of all state investments and purchases and ensuring that anything related to companies headquartered in Russia or Russian state sponsored entities that they will cease immediately. That is how we're going to take the strong action in our condemnation of the actions taken by Putin and Russia.

Our hearts go out to the people of this country that is under siege and to all their family members who live in our state and we will continue to protect them. We have protestors and support of this effort out in front of our Capitol. We stand with them as well, and let all New Yorkers and Americans show our solidarity with our country at this time and stand up to this assault on democracy.

Now we're going to shift into a different topic altogether because while we talked about the war that is going on not far from here in Ukraine, unprovoked, the aggression by the Russian government, we still have another war that has been unfolding for the last two years where our country has been under siege by this unseen assailant, but it's one that has taken thousands of lives of Americans and New Yorkers.

Our priority since the first day has been to protect the health of New Yorkers, to protect the health of our economy, and in particular, as I said on day one, when I was first sworn in, I said our priority is to get children back to school.

If you recall, back in August early September, there was a lot of anxiety from parents and teachers and administrators. Is it safe to send our children back to school? But we knew one thing for certain, that the experiment of remote learning had devastating effects on the educational quality that children were receiving, as well as the effect on parents and teachers. The stress was incredible in terms of what our citizens had to endure.

In order to make sure that we got back to the classroom where learning should be occurring, we took a step at that time, literally my first day in office, six months ago this week, and said that in order to ensure the safety of our environment, get children back to schools, protect everyone in that entire system, we would require that mass be warrant on children at that time and while they're in school. And yes, we withstood a lot of criticism, a lot of objections to this, but we're going to talk about where we came from in that last six months. And you see the spikes and the infection rate that really validated the rationale and the logic behind ensuring that we had those masks in place through those spikes, especially the Omicron variant.

So, let's talk about what we see now. On January 25th, let's just step back even a short time ago, we had the winter surge. We had a talk about how we are going to handle this as children were coming back from the vacation, the winter break they had with their families over the holidays. And we saw that the numbers beforehand were starting to spike. We had taken dramatic steps to decrease them. And we said that at that time, as the numbers start coming down, we're going to be very logical about this. This is not an instinct, a reaction, it's a gut feeling of when you have a mask on or a mask off, you do it based on listening to the experts, you do it based on metrics and data that are reliable.

So, I said on the question of school masking, which we've been asked about frequently, we're going to monitor the metrics, specifically looking at pediatric data, get the tests into schools, which we did before the break in December. And as we said, we were going to do before this winter break as well, when the children come back, they will have plenty of opportunity to be tested. So, we distributed literally millions of test kits to students in schools, as well as consulting as you saw we did on the Zoom call, consulting with members of the educational community whose voices need to be heard. Our Commissioner of Education, our parents, PTAs, our school superintendents, our school administrators, our unions that represent the teachers. We talked to everyone first. We involved them. They understand what we're doing, and they agree with us.

Let's talk about some of the metrics I said we were going to examine before we would make a decision on the removal of masks in schools. Positive cases. That is a graph we've been showing for a considerable time now. A lot of anxious, anxious days, the latter part of December, we were in this very room on Christmas Eve, we were here New Year's Eve, talking about what was happening with the spike and infections. In fact, on January 7th, we had 90,000 positive cases in the State of New York. That was quite extraordinary. Now look we are today. A 98 percent drop in cases, based on the number from February 26, yesterday's day. That's an incredible, incredible journey that we all went on together.

But I'll tell you, when I look back what was going on just a short time ago, I am so happy that we did have a mask requirement in place for schools. And at the time we even had a requirement for two short months for businesses to make sure that their customers and patrons and employees were masked or vaccinated as well. That's how we kept these numbers from getting even worse. And so, putting this in the context of our state population, where we are today, we have 1,671 positive cases out of a population of nearly 20 million New Yorkers.

So you have to look really hard to find that one little person who represents the 0.008% of New Yorkers who tested positive for COVID. My friends, this is an extraordinary slide to look at, to show how long and painful this journey has been for the last two years, but this is where we are today. We also talk about, not just the drop from the peak, but how are we sustaining these numbers?

Was this just an, you know, an arbitrary drop and it's popping back up? No, this has been sustained. 51 days of a downward trend and that's what we are looking for as well. So again, watching trends outside this country, seeing if there's any opportunities for more variants to be developing, we've been watching this so closely with Dr. Bassett and her entire team and this is where we are today.

Same thing with the trend in our positivity rate, seven day average, which you watch closely, again, not paying attention to one days spikes up or down, but the whole seven day positivity rate is going down. And for February 26, it is 1.7%, down from 23% on January 2nd.

That my friends, was a very scary time, I think we all remember that. And that has been a consecutive decline of 57 days. Again, another extraordinary accomplishment. Always watch the hospitalizations. This was my nightmare, when we were starting to see hospitals overcrowded again, evoking those horrific images we saw in the early months of the pandemic two years ago, when the hospitals were overflowing, we didn't have enough ventilators, we didn't have enough protective equipment, we were scouring the earth in search of something as basic as a mask or a gown. And we were concerned about that impact on our capacity. So we started taking steps earlier, monitoring hospitalizations, monitoring capacity, looking at hospitals that were not doing as well, sending in reinforcements.

Literally the National Guard was called in to help some of our hospitals and our nursing homes. You look at where we are in terms of hospitalizations, 48 straight days of a downward trend, down from over 2000, almost 2000 cases, just a short time ago. And we've seen an amazing drop just in the last few days.

So that is another positive dynamic. And we did lose 20 New Yorkers, 20 New Yorkers still leaves families with that open wound in their hearts that they lost a loved one due to COVID. And we'll never forget the individuals that succumb to this deadly virus. But overall, we do see a downward decline in all these regions.

There was a time December 22nd, 29th, January 12th, you're watching those numbers go upward and trying to work so hard with our surge and flex plan, getting more support in there, allowing more contracts to hire flexible staffing opportunities. So, we've put everything out there in order to make sure that we could handle our hospitalizations, that is a very, very positive trajectory as well. so, we're very pleased to see that.

Vaccinations - this, as we've said from the beginning, this is our tool and how we beat back the virus. And I want to thank New Yorkers from every corner of the state for doing their part, roll up the sleeves, get that shot and make sure that they were safe, they protected their family members and protected our way of life.

I mean, all those vaccinations have made a true difference in our ability to get back to normal. And we had a, basically, a military style operation to get more children vaccinated as soon as they were allowed the first dose, the second dose, and if you look at our numbers, I am really proud of how we've done here.

Over 95% plus New Yorkers have had at least one dose, 85.5% have had their series complete over age 18. And so, I'm going to show you some calculations here, but I'm really proud of this graph. We are number one among all large states in having fully vaccinated teenagers. We are number two in all large states for having fully vaccinated five to 11 year olds, we're just a little bit behind Illinois, so I think we can surpass this. We'd like to be number one in everything we do. And also among the large states, have fully vaccinated total adult population right here. We also now, we've talked about, this is our overall state snapshot while we've been monitoring where we are today, but not just looking at our normal metrics.

We also examine very closely what is going on with our children, and that's what I want to show you next. Seven-day average cases, children five to 18, and look at where we were on January 10th. Let let's go back to the start of the school year, we had 832 cases when we first instituted our mask requirements for kids.

We went up to 14,167 cases on January 10th. That was again, a very scary time for families, seeing that there were a lot of children becoming infected with this, not many children were vaccinated at the time, we were anxiously waiting to hear when we could do the younger children. And now that number has been reduced to 229 cases.

We're at our lowest point in pediatric cases since July of 2021, and that was before the school year started. So this has been our trend over the school year. So as you can all see, looking at the data and the evidence that we follow, that we are in a much, much better place. Pediatric hospitalizations, one the last metrics I want to look at. Start of the school year we had about eight cases. At our peak, we had 38 children hospitalized, and now we have seven. So you can see the drop-off, down about 80% from our peak. So, that is again, a very positive trend.

So as I've said, all along, leading up to this mid-winter break which is just concluding, sorry, kids. Happy parents, unhappy kids. The break is about to end, and so our priority has been keeping kids in school so there's no disruption, and recognizing that we also have to do a lot more to help the children who did suffer psychological and emotional impacts because of the isolation they endured. So we're very cognizant of that and that's a different issue for another day, but we will have significant dollars in our budget to really help address that within each of the school systems.

But keeping our kids safe and in schools meant we sent out test kits, 4.8 million test kits were sent to children before the break that we're on right now. We have another 4.8 million being sent this week, and we have over 20,000,000.8 distributed statewide. And the good news is we have quite an inventory. You know, we amassed over 92 million tests kits.

So, we're going to continue testing, we have plenty, we'll never have a shortage because we took a very aggressive approach to making sure that we were never left vulnerable to supply chain issues, which other states have now found. So, that's where we are on test kits.

So, just to recap, we've reviewed the data, the trends, again, getting a lot of test kits out, making sure that we're listening to the experts. And on Friday, some of the experts that we listen to are members of the CDC, and in consultation with school experts, as well as people who are engaged in the whole ecosystem, our school system, we talked about what was announced by the CDC when they announced new guidance on masks.

So the CDC, just at the end of the day on Friday, surprised a lot of people but came out with their risk assessment by county. And this is an important dynamic for us to talk about, it looks complicated, but based on indications that they look at, infection rates as well as admissions, they've come up with a calculation of what constitutes a low, medium, or high community level.

And 70% of the population right now lives in an area that's considered low to medium risk. And that's very positive. And in low to medium, their recommendation is that there's no longer a requirement that masks be worn indoors, and that includes schools in low and medium risk areas. So given the decline in our rates, our hospitalization, strong vaccination rates and the CDC guidance, my friends the day has come.

Today we are going to be announcing that we'll be lifting the statewide mask requirement in schools, and that'll be effective this Wednesday, March 2nd. So why are we waiting till March 2nd? This came out at the end of the day, Friday, we took the entire weekend to work with our Department of Health and our team here at the Chamber, as well as reaching out to the teachers, the PTAs, talking to school superintendents, and even our Commissioner of Education, Betty Rosa, who's been embedded in this issue with us and what an amazing partner she has been.

So, we wanted to make sure that we had the advice and the wisdom of all these different groups that are really directly affected by this decision and in touch with them for a number of days. They let us know that yes, students are coming back but a lot of families are still on vacation until later tonight. A lot of people who work in the school system are not back. So they wanted a little bit of time to assess guidance that we are working on, it will be out very shortly, again, in consultation with these school leaders, this is how we do it here in the State of New York.

But we believe that by Wednesday, we'll be able to have a situation where we'll have the lifting of the mask requirement and children, that includes children who are in childcare centers, ages two and up who are covered right now.

Now this is an important point to make - we will lift the statewide requirement based on all the data that I've just outlined. However, there are some states, some counties, in the State of New York where they have a higher rate of transmission. We will allow them the flexibility to determine what's best for their county.

We would encourage them to take a look at this and follow the CDC, but this will no longer be a mandate. Not just the county, only leaving it up to the counties now. Also this is up to parents, individual parents have their own knowledge of their children, they know their own children's health, they know their tolerance for the masks, they know whether for them, if they've got an underlying health condition, that they would want to keep the mask on.

But again, this is about what the parents now want to do beginning Wednesday with respect to their children's health. But I want to send a loud message that we will have no tolerance in our school system or anywhere for any harassment or bullying of any child or their parents.

Because social media is also a platform for bullying, adults and children. They will not have any tolerance for people who are questioning someone's own personal decision to do what they want. If people want to continue wearing masks, they are allowed to continued wearing masks. And I don't want any issues related to that.

And I want to be very clear on that. We will not stand for any bullying or ostracization or harassment of an individual or a business or anyone who chooses to wear a mask as we're still going through this. And we are going to remain vigilant. We are going to continue distributing masks. We're going to continue distributing test kits. We're going to continue our aggressive vaccination strategies, making sure that there's plenty of opportunity for anyone, including our students to be vaccinated and boosted.

And also we are developing an early advanced system, early warning advanced system through wastewater surveillance. An area that is fairly new, but we can monitor whether or not there's any spike in cases. Even if people aren't getting tested as much, we'll have at the Department of Health, the ability to analyze this. And we're going to keep an eye on global trends.

Again, there was talk last October, November, the numbers are starting to decline. That was good. Do we really need the requirements in place? And then Omicron hit and was first named on November 26. First case in New York State was on December 2nd. And you know what happened after that because we've been talking about it nonstop.

So let's keep an eye on the global trends as well, and we need to retain the flexibility to make adjustments as needed. But for now this is a very good news announcement that we're going to allow the cessation of statewide mask mandates in schools.

Here's the areas we're still going to have mask requirements in effect for the time being. State regulated healthcare settings, state regulated adult care facilities and nursing homes, our correctional facility, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters. And as the federal government requires that they continue to be instituted on trains and airports and airplanes, buses, and train stations.

So, what I've done with respect to these categories, cause we're focusing on this children's masks in schools today. I've called for a review of our cases in these specific settings. And within a short time, we'll have an analysis of whether or not, in fact, these are areas that remain vulnerable, or whether or not there's been a plateauing and then a decline in cases over the similar amount of time.

So I just want to make sure we have all the data available before we would end masks in these categories as well. But that is currently under review. So this is a huge thank you to all the school districts, the superintendents, the school boards, the administrators, the principals, the teachers, the parents, and the children themselves.

We stood together as a state. This is a difficult time. There's a lot of people questioning what we're doing, but I always had that sense, if we stick with the experts and the data and let that be our guide and not let criticism and politics intervene in this decision-making, we'll end up in the right place. And that is why I feel very confident that this is the time to lift the mask requirement.

And with that, I do want to thank all the parents and everybody who have been through this. And with that, I do want to just acknowledge, Dr. Betty Rosa Commissioner of State Education. If she could just share a couple of remarks.

[ . . . ]

Thank you so much, Commissioner. And I know you'll be on a call tomorrow morning, with our Commissioner of Health, Mary Bassett, to make sure that we put together - conclude the guidance, as well as put together frequently asked questions. So we can have an opportunity to hear what those questions are in real time, but then to provide to school districts and to parents on websites, all the anticipated answers to questions they may have. And if there's more questions that we didn't have, we'll be happy to answer those as well.

So we wanted to just take an extra, you know, 48 hours here to give an opportunity for more information to be fine tuned so there's no questions. Dr. Bassett, did you have any comments about that?

[ . . . ]

And again this is the dream team we've assembled here in the State of New York, Dr. Bassett, my entire team, the administration, our health team, but also the collaboration with our Commissioner of Education is really quite extraordinary, has not happened in the past the way it should. And I'm really pleased to say that this is indeed a new day for New York.

So with that, we'll be happy to take any questions.

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