ALBANY — The mask or vax mandate is lifted, effective Thursday.
Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Wednesday, Feb. 8, masks or proof of vaccination will no longer be required for indoor businesses. But, it remains in effect for schools and other congregate settings like nursing homes, transportation hubs and correctional facilities for at least another month.
The difference between businesses and schools, she said during a press conference, is that children spend an entire school day in close proximity.
“Students sit together all day long. They go to lunch together, they go to gym class together,” she said. “Adults can move around and they make their own decisions. Children need adults to look out for their health. This is all about looking out for the health of the children.”
Hochul re-implemented the mask mandate — or require patrons to show proof of vaccination — in December as the number of new infections spiked due to the omicron variant of COVID-19. It has proven to be a more contagious strain, but does not present symptoms as serious as the original strain of the virus or the following delta variant. The controversial mandate was met with criticism, and lawsuits, and was extended in January to Feb. 10.
She defended her decision by pointing to the numbers. Since Jan. 7, there has been a 93 percent drop in cases, from about 90,000 infections to about 6,000 on Tuesday, Feb. 8. On Jan. 2, some 23 percent of the people tested were positive, on Feb. 8 it was 3.7 percent. In the beginning of January, new hospitalizations were approaching 2,000 per day, a month later it was down to about 500.
At the same time, some 95 percent of those 18 and older have gotten at least the first dose of a vaccine. Of those between 12 and 17, about 80 percent have received at least the first dose.
It remains impossible to determine the effects of the mandate and other protocols on the natural progression of the virus, which is following a similar path as the infamous Spanish Flu pandemic that took hold in 1918.
“This is what we were waiting for. We have made tremendous progress over the past two year. We are not done, but we are approaching a new phase of this pandemic,” she said.
While the mask or vax mandate is lifted — while a court challenge is still pending — local governments and businesses can still require them if they so choose.
Where the mandate remains in place, the most controversial is forcing children to wear masks in the schools. A number of other governors, including those in neighboring states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut, have lifted the mandate in schools.
She said the state will revisit schools, after an examination of the data, and make a decision when students come back for winter break at the end of the month or the beginning of March. In anticipation of the masks coming off, she said preparations are being made now to establish protocols such as testing requirements and what happens if a student or faculty members tests positive.
Upon returning to school from break, when children often travel out of state to spend time visiting with family and friends, they will be tested and the results will play a decision on whether or not to continue the mandate.
“After the break, after we have kids tested, we will make an assessment and look at the combined picture … we will make a decision,” she said.
Parents, government leaders and health care professionals are decidedly split.
Dr. Dennis McKenna, the president and CEO of Albany Medical Center Hospital, said the time is now to lift the mandate in schools because, in part, the data shows symptoms of COVID are not severe and commonly non-existent in children. The detriments of wearing a mask, he said, far outweigh the possible benefits.
“What we have seen over the last two years is, unquestionably, is a spike in pediatric and adolescent mental health problems and the pandemic has absolutely contributed to that — the social isolation, the lack of visual stimulation in people’s faces, the remote learning,” he said during an appearance on Talk 1300 radio. “We need the visual cues between children and teacher, we need them to socialize, we need them to play sports and we need children to get back to the life they should have to mature socially, spiritually and medically.”
McKenna said smallpox is the only infectious disease that has been completely eradicated and it is likely COVID will always be with us, similar to the seasonal flu, and we, as a society, will have to learn to live with it.
“We have learned to educate our kids in school without masks, we have learned how to have mass gatherings and learned how to take care of hospitals with surges of patients without the involvement of elected officials and government,” he said. “We know how to do this and we can do it with COVID.”
Dr. Mary Bassett, the newly appointed commissioner of the state Department of Health, said masks in schools for another month is a wise choice but acknowledged the issues is contentious.
“It is true, children have lower rates of COVID hospitalizations than older people but we have seen the rates go up during omicron, especially among the unvaccinated,” she said. “There is a lot of discussion, this has become a polarized conversation, even within the medical community. I think it is always best to stick with facts but unfortunately even the facts become contested but I am confident we are looking at a range of facts and we are looking at the right ones.”