December 7, 2022
Albany, NY

Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Updates New Yorkers on Winter Health Preparedness Efforts

Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Updates New Yorkers on Winter Health Preparedness Efforts

Governor Hochul: "New York State government will continue to do its job. I will do my job. I also need New Yorkers to do their job to help us make sure that we come out of this winter season healthy, happy, especially as we look out for our most vulnerable. So, we are going to continue working, embrace the holidays, but not let our guard down. That is the message of today."

Hochul: "I want to let you know, we will continue to be a clearing house. New York state understands our responsibility to manage an existing crisis, be forward thinking, prepare for it, but also be a clearing house for information. So, people who are seeing news from all kinds of sources, get the story straight here."

Earlier today, Governor Kathy Hochul updated New Yorkers on winter health preparedness efforts in New York City.

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. I thank the hardy souls who came in person, appreciate that. Today, we're going to give our winter public health update. And I'm joined by members of our dream team, Kathryn Garcia, the Director of State Operations, Dr. Mary Bassett the Commissioner of New York State Department of Health, and a special guest who's going to help us dissect an illness that is very concerning, particularly to parents with young children, Dr. Sallie Permar, the Chair of the Department of Pediatrics from New York Presbyterian. And I will look forward to hearing from her. She's a preeminent physician as well as a scientist, and she focuses primarily on the treatment and prevention of neonatal viral infections.

So, later in the program, you'll be hearing from both of them, but the last time I gave a public health update was October 26th. It was also the day I received my flu shot. Really glad I did. As we continued to encourage all New Yorkers to get the flu shot, we'll be talking about how there's been a dramatic increase in the number of individuals who have succumbed to the flu. Dealing with that right now. Many people we know, friends, family, coworkers are dealing with it, but it's a bad situation. Oh, and we said that back then that things could get worse with the holidays, especially as we were talking about more families gathering over Thanksgiving. And unfortunately, that prediction came true. And as I mentioned back then, and even over the summer, we saw this trifecta coming. You have this situation where COVID cases go up in the winter, flu cases go up in the winter, and now we have layered on that, the dreaded RSV that you'll have explained by a real expert here, so all parents know.

We are going to be talking about the fact that flu cases are spiking. They'll have an update on that in a minute, but it's not just New York. I mean, this is nationwide. You can see this is - you watch the news in the morning and the numbers, the states are filling in with that bright red and I don't see anything that tells us this is going to abate anytime soon. So, we have a lot more flu cases than last year. They started earlier, which is deeply concerning to us, but it's anticipated, but still alarming when you see it. So, as the Governor, I'm taking these trends very, very seriously, and maybe that's because I'm seared in the knowledge of what we went through last year.

Many of you gathered with us or we did it remotely at a time when we had just gotten through Delta, we were so happy to be done with Delta. And on November 26th, right around Thanksgiving, the World Health Organization named Omicron as a new variant. And we were slammed with it. I mean, it was a variant of concern. Boy, was that an understatement. And so, that led to record numbers of cases and hospitalizations and, you know, we had to work around the clock at that time and under really intense circumstances because our priority was during those winter holidays, is to make sure that our children were back to school in January. And we succeeded, but, and I also know that that was the time, Dr. Bassett joined us. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for getting us through that really difficult time. But, you know, so we know from that experience that winter is our most vulnerable time. And so, we've been talking to our team since last summer - preparing, anticipating, making sure that we are never in a reactive position, but a proactive position. So, we are prepared for this triple threat.

As I mentioned, RSV, for mostly children, the flu and COVID. So right now, parents, it's what you're thinking about. You have children, you're worried and you're seeing the national news stories every day that talk about the overflowing hospitals. Is there enough room? So, you know, some are even in other states, turning away children because of a lack of capacity. That's a big fear. You're a parent, your baby needs help, you want to know that that help is right there and it's a stressful time for our families. And so, in a frightening scenario would be if your child was sick and you were turned away. We are working day and night to make sure that that does not happen here in the State of New York. And I want to take a minute to assure all New Yorkers, not just the intensity on which we're focusing on this, but our Department of Health, Dr. Bassett is in constant communication with our hospitals, checking on pediatric admissions, checking on bed capacity, monitoring our regional bed capacity, so we have opportunities to shift people from one hospital to another.

We know how to do this because one of the lessons we learned from the past is you cannot wait until the hospitals are overwhelmed before you take aggressive steps. So, hospital capacity is always under pressure, and we know that part of it was because we lost a lot of health care workers during the pandemic. Some of them lost their lives because they were exposed. Others just, you know, the stress was, you know, untenable, they went on to other positions. And so, we lost a number of people. So, we still don't have the number of health care workers we had before the pandemic in our ranks, and we're focusing on that. We talked about last year in our State of the State how we're working to rebuild that workforce, but it does take time.

And so, you talk about the combined impact of these, you know, the triple threat of COVID, RSV and the flu. And also, well, one of the reasons why our Department of Health is saying to parents, you know, before you go into an emergency room, and maybe exacerbate a situation that's already under stress with a child who does not need that care, touch base with your primary provider. And I'll let the doctors talk about this, but you know, even if you can get on a Zoom call and get someone to take a look at your child, do they really need to be in the emergency room? And if the answer is yes, get there. And we're doing everything we can to make sure that they will have the attention they deserve. But let your doctor decide if that's the best course to take.

And again, last year, last summer, earlier in the summer, talking about how we are ready in case we need supplies. Do we have enough ventilators? Do we have enough test kits? Do we have enough PPE and vaccines available? And I even asked about the ventilators. You're seeing cases where people are on ventilators dealing with either the combination, or at least the RSV. We have 7,857 ventilators available today in state warehouses, ready to be deployed. A hospital calls and say it's going to be there. And I want to reassure people that unlike what we were dealing with in the past, when everybody was scrambling to get ventilators, if this is necessary, it's available. We already distributed 20 ventilators, 10 to Oishei Children's Hospital in Buffalo, five to Albany Medical Center. So, we just want to get that word out there.

Also, making sure that we have the test kits available to everybody. And this is how you can limit the spread. This is not a news flash, we've known this is available, but we also know that you get a little complacent. Complacency is our enemy. That is my biggest fear, that people are so desensitized and feeling that "Well, it is the norm." Yes, it is become our norm, but it does not have to be the norm that everybody gets sick. That's what we're trying to fight against and say, "Get tested." We have almost 17 million test kits - COVID test kits in our stockpile. We're still making them available to schools, to nursing homes, our vulnerable populations, and again, we have to keep kids in schools.

So, here's the message, and I don't know how many did it over Thanksgiving, but we're encouraging people to step up this time. Step up in December and January and get us through February, get us through the worst times. If you're going to see somebody that's in a vulnerable situation, just get tested. Just get tested, and just take these precautions and there's no reason not to. I was just tested again today. Why not? Because we are surrounded by people who have COVID because so many have been vaccinated, and even more should be getting the booster, but those who had the booster, the effect is not as dire, but it can still spread to people who are in a vulnerable situation. So, little spoiler alert to my family: Holiday stocking, look for your test kits. They'll be buried deep in there along with some other treats. So, we're making sure we have the COVID vaccines available too. And so, while we have a high vaccine rate overall in New York, I was very proud that, as I mentioned, our booster rate is still too low, and this is something Dr. Bassett will mention. Only 13 percent of the population over five has received a booster shot, 13 percent. Now parents, you can reduce that stress level that I know comes with being a mom or dad. You can reduce it if you've done everything for your child, and the guilt will be there if your child gets sick and has to be hospitalized and you could have had that, your child, your most precious person in the whole world to you, they could have had a booster shot.

Even our over-65 population, we're doing great in terms of getting people that first shot. But they do wean, they wear off. And only 32 percent of our most vulnerable population over 65 has received this booster shot. So, again, big transition from where we were a year ago, when we were scrambling just to get any doses we could find. Now there's plenty of appointments for the booster all across the State. Enough doses for everyone. Everybody can, so there's no excuse not to, unlike in the past when they had to be rationed out based on categories of vulnerability. So, we're going to continue monitoring orders, making sure it's available, coordinating with our local public health departments. They're truly the ones on the front line. Our mission has been to embrace them, not push them aside but embrace them and make them part of the solution as well. And if necessary, if we need to set up vaccination, popups, we know how to do it. We don't need a lot of lead time. We have the resources.

I'm also keeping in place my Executive Order Number Four, and I'll tell you why. We need to have our hospitals be able to have the flexibility on staffing. That's all it does, it's not procurement, it is simply flexibility, whilst giving hospitals and providers the ability to troubleshoot where they see shortages in staffing, so we can bring in professionals from other states. This is what the executive order allows us to do. It allows more professionals to administer vaccinations and tests. Believe it or not, you need to have authority from an executive order to do that, so it basically helps our health care workers meet the needs of New Yorkers, which is the most important goal. So, there will come a time when it won't be necessary, but I'm really glad we have this in place as we're experiencing this winter surge. And that's why it was smart to keep that, even when things were looking better a few months ago. So, we're watching for local signs, and local areas we need to deploy extra help to - looking for any spikes and surges. And, you know, we're also encouraging Congress to remember. We appreciate all the support from the past, but a lot of the programs are not providing the same level of assistance. So, if they can provide funding for our states and our health care system so we can be ready for this. So, federal funding has been a key component to our strategy to make sure that we're ready for anything. So, we'll keep working closely with our hospitals, our providers and understanding what's going on.

So, we feel good about where we are, but we're not taking anything for granted because circumstances can change rapidly as they did last year. So, New York State government will continue to do its job. I will do my job. I also need New Yorkers to do their job to help us make sure that we come out of this winter season healthy, happy, especially as we look out for our most vulnerable. So, we are going to continue working, embrace the holidays, but not let our guard down. That is the message of today.

So, we're going to continue alerting the public on what's going on. We're not out of the woods. The threat is real. And we have cases. You remember this, we were watching this intensely just last November, January. I mean, that spike was frightening how quickly that went up and it took a long time, it seemed to really level out. You can see our seven-day average is 27 cases per hundred thousand. At the time you can see how high it was before. Long Island, we have 45 cases per hundred thousand. New York City, 35, Mid-Hudson, 28, and 10 to 20 new cases per hundred thousand people. So, it doesn't look frightening, but it didn't look frightening last October either. That's what the caution is. And our hospital admissions have increased. You can see that trend line going up. Hospital admissions are going up. We have about 607 admissions. You look at the average for a region, how we're doing with that, Long Island has a higher-than-average percentage of people. 3.7 admissions per hundred thousand. Other areas about one to three, which doesn't sound like a lot, but all of a sudden it can escalate.

Since October, more than 60 percent of COVID hospital admissions have been people 65 or older. That's what we're talking about. That is a population that we all need to look out for with our personal behavior, but also those who are in congregate settings need to continue to get the help. Now, let's turn to the flu. Look at that jump. What you see is the 2022 numbers are the gold numbers. I'm sorry, 2022-2023. So, that's where we are. Historically, lighter blue 2019, the mid-blue 2020 - nowhere near, nowhere near the dramatic jump that we are seeing in a short period of time. So, that's what we're concerned about. A dramatic jump compared to previous years. A 75 percent increase in positive flu cases since the beginning. And the flu season only started eight weeks ago. That's why these numbers are spiking way too early compared to historical trends. And we have 27,000 positive cases right now. It's been widespread throughout New York. Cases are rising across the country. And again, this is not just us, it is across the country. We've had 22 lab-confirmed influenza outbreaks in long-term and acute care facilities. And we actually had one flu-associated pediatric death in state that occurred at the end of November, and others are being investigated. So, that's the first one this season. It's tragic.

We need to make sure that more people have flu shots, and I'll let our doctors talk about that as well. Finally, RSV, you usually see a rise when this is not a new phenomenon. Didn't hear about it as much in the past, but it started earlier just like the flu. And it is the combination where people can be exposed and contract this combination. And it is a lot for the human body or a child to have to deal with. And these cases are not reported to us individually like it is for COVID. So, we don't have a handle on this. We track how many cases go to the emergency. We'll know that number, but for those that, you know, parents take care of their child at home and they don't have to be hospitalized, we don't know those numbers. So, the reason we're watching this is again, the categories of vulnerable people, elderly, those who are immunocompromised and certainly our children. So, been a lot of coverage on this. I know anxiety levels are high, and that's why we're going to bring in the expert.

Your Governor is not an expert in this space, but I do know I'm an expert at bringing in experts. So, I want to let you know, we will continue to be a clearing house. New York state understands our responsibility to manage an existing crisis, be forward thinking, prepare for it, but also be a clearing house for information. So, people who are seeing news from all kinds of sources, get the story straight here. So, that's why I'm happy to be joined by Dr. Sallie Permar, and she'll talk more about RSV. And then we'll ask Dr. Bassett to give some overall thoughts on how we prepare for this winter.

Governor Hochul: So, Dr. Permar.

Dr. Permar: Thank you. Thank you for the invitation today and for highlighting the situation in pediatrics, which is a lot of RSV that we've been dealing with. I want to thank the Governor and Dr. Bassett for their attention to this issue and also all that they're doing for public health and children.

So, RSV, as you've heard the Governor introduce already, is a common cold virus. It's something that circulates typically every year, often in the late winter to spring. It’s a virus that can cause mild disease, like a cold, or up to severe disease. But those that are at risk for severe disease are those vulnerable populations like elderly, immune compromised, and especially very young infants.

One thing that's different this year is RSV is really circulating at the same time that other respiratory viruses are circulating. As we just talked about, the flu cases going up very high, COVID remaining with us, and other respiratory viruses that are common in the fall. RSV cases rose really quickly during that season and was very low level the last couple seasons. And so, there are a lot of children who have not previously been exposed who are getting RSV now. It is something that we don't have antivirals to treat, but we do have a lot of strategies to help children through an RSV infection. Things like, controlling fever goes a long way for making them feel better and breathe easier.

Things like treating underlying asthma. Many of these things can be done at home when the disease is mild or in consultation with a pediatrician like using over-the-counter fever medications like Tylenol and Ibuprofen at the correct doses, working on your asthma controller medications if prescribed, and even rescue inhalers if prescribed. But we know that sometimes the disease becomes severe. And one thing that we tell – our pediatricians tell our patients to look out for is, you know, first a reason to call your pediatrician might be a prolonged fever. Something that you know, could signal that there's something else going on. Or if you're concerned that the current medications are not controlling difficulty breathing. But then when you really should bring your child to medical attention is when you start seeing your child have difficulty breathing, and rapid breathing, and breathing that makes it hard for the child to drink and remain hydrated are good times to think about looking for medical care. Also, if your child has signs of dehydration, like not urinating in more than six hours. So those would be times that the emergency room is always available and also, in guidance with your pediatrician.

Of course, prevention is the best strategy of all. And while we don't currently have widespread vaccines for RSV, there's a lot of hope that there are new vaccines that recently have shown positive testing in trials that I have great hope will be available to us next season. And next season may look totally different, which will be a huge win for science and for pediatricians everywhere and parents. But right now, the strategies that we have are the same strategies that were used to prevent COVID before we had a vaccine – and even now. Things like staying home when you're sick, things like hand washing is very important. Wearing a mask when you're in indoor, especially crowded, situations. We found out how well masks work through the COVID pandemic.

And then also because this virus is circulating at the same time as other two big viruses where we have vaccines, so including COVID and flu, to make sure that your children and your family are vaccinated as recommended for those two viruses. There are COVID vaccines available for children all the way down to six months of age. The same with flu vaccines. They are extremely safe, effective, and highly recommended by all pediatricians. And so, the best thing that you can do for your children this respiratory season is to make sure they're up to date on their vaccines. And when you have children that are less than six months old and not eligible for vaccines yet, make sure that your other family members and, parents especially, are vaccinated, even pregnant women. You will not only protect yourself as a pregnant woman who's getting these vaccines, COVID and flu, you will also protect your infants by transferring antibodies to that infant before birth.

So, again, thank you, everyone for doing their part in helping New Yorkers stay safe. and thank you for attention to this issue.

Governor Hochul: Thank you, Dr. Permar. And you answered a lot of questions. I’ve got a little grandbaby I worry about too. So, thank you for answering those questions. I didn't know you could get a flu shot at age six months. So, got to make a phone call when I leave here. I also want to take the opportunity before Dr. Bassett comes up to thank her for her extraordinary service. As I mentioned, there cannot have been any more challenging time for any public health professional to enter into a whole new position than we had last December when Dr. Bassett joined us, and we recruited her away from Harvard. We are delighted to even have this transition time, which we're grateful for, and her leadership really gave us that sense of calm, that calm when all of us needed that, and particularly the people of New York State looked to her in our press conferences with that knowledge that she possessed, but also the way she was so relatable and talked about not just those challenges, but also, as we got through today, issues like monkeypox and others where she really put a spotlight and put us ahead of other states in terms of the warning signals that went out and how to deal with it.

So, Dr. Bassett, on behalf of a grateful state, I want to thank you for your service, and thank you for being here again today as we continue to take advantage of your many extraordinary talents, Dr. Bassett.

Dr. Bassett: Wow. Thank you very much, Governor. It's really been an honor and a pleasure to have served, and I'm so delighted that you have a full four years ahead. And I'm here today to talk about what some people have called the “tridemic”. We are in fact, as you've heard from the Governor and from Dr. Permar, very about the flu season, about RSV, and about COVID. So, together with the other respiratory viruses that also will likely increase, it's important for us to send out another warning and to remind everybody of the simple common-sense things that we can do that were outlined by Dr. Permar and the Governor and the interest. It's a teaching tool, I guess, to repeat things. And I want to remind people how important hand washing is, how important it is to cover your cough or your sneeze. We got to get our kids doing this again, and everybody. We need people to be sure to stay home when you're sick.

There's a reason that people have sick leave, and you should stay home when you're feeling sick. And you should avoid and encourage other people who are sick to go home. Additionally, we've really focused a lot on the critical importance of vaccination. We have highly effective, safe vaccines for both flu and for COVID.

And the important vaccine for COVID is the new bivalent vaccine, the one that is for the first time, keyed to the circulating variants that we have. So, if you haven't gotten the bivalent flu vaccine, that's the one you should get. And anybody who's had their primary course and hasn't had another vaccine in the last couple of months should get vaccinated. It will keep you from getting very sick, even if you get infected. And last of all, I want to remind people of the importance of masks and as a way of reducing the spread of infection, especially in indoor crowded settings. And I want you to also think, as we approach the holiday season, of the most vulnerable people in your family, keeping a circle of protection around them as Dr. Permar has outlined. If it's a child who can't get vaccinated or it's an older person who has underlying conditions that might make them very sick, this is a responsibility for all of us to ensure that we have a good holiday season as we gather around our family tables. Often, people will be doing that for the first time, and also, to remind people that if you are sick with either the flu or with COVID, there are medications that can be helpful for you. We have a call line in New York State, 1-888-TREAT-NY, if you test positive for COVID and want to talk with a health care provider about whether or not you should be treated with Paxlovid, a medication that remains useful with the current strains.

And I just want to, again, reemphasize that we are seeing COVID go up across the state, across the entire state, highest rates, as you've seen in Long Island. But this is also happening across the country where we see ticking up by about 25 percent. And the testing, of course, we know people are testing themselves at home, and our testing results may not reflect the extent of positivity in the population, but COVID hospitalizations are also going up. So, we know that we are in a period of increased transmission. We expected this, as the cold weather came, as people have stopped wearing masks and started getting on with their lives. But the numbers are extraordinarily worrying. Only 13 percent of the population that's eligible for the bivalent booster, that's people who are five years and older, have received this booster. And we are most worried about elders, people 65 and over, and we are at about one third of that population. So, we can't emphasize enough the importance of people getting their shots. And we want people to be as protected as they can be from serious illness and death.

You've heard about flu, and the early and dramatic rise in flu cases. We've seen a 76 percent increase in positive flu cases in this single week. There were over 27,000 cases. In 2019, the last year that we had a sort of usual seasonal flu season, in a single week we just hit 17,000 cases. So, the numbers really are up, and they're early this year, and there is a safe and effective vaccine for anybody six months and over. We have just reported the tragedy of a death in a healthy child, and we want people to remember that very young children are eligible for the flu vaccine as they are for COVID.

So, also, I've mentioned masks. And you know we are aware, for example in Long Island, that the levels of transmission reached the levels where the CDC is recommending indoor masking. So, I know that Dr. Permar talked about RSV and that we don't currently have a vaccine, but the same preventive measures work: Wash your hands cover your cough and sneezes, avoid people who are sick, and wear masks.

And I just want to end, because this is likely the last time that I'll be in front of cameras, by thanking the Governor for caring so deeply about the health and wellbeing of all New Yorkers, and for doing throughout her tenure everything possible in her power to prepare us for the current and future public health departments and for being a leader whom I've been very proud to serve. Thank you.

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