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Hochul says rising spread of COVID-19 subvariants in New York is not cause for panic

Gov. Kathy Hochul wears a mask to help stop the spread of COVID variants.
Gov. Kathy Hochul wears a mask to help stop the spread of COVID variants.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday that new variants of COVID-19 are spreading in New York, but there’s no reason to be alarmed.

She also does not anticipate imposing new mandates anytime soon.

Hochul gave a briefing on the coronavirus at the State University of New York’s Upstate Medical College in Syracuse. Two new BA.2 subvariants -- BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 -- have caused infection rates to rise to nearly 15% in Central New York.

Infection rates are also increasing in other parts of the state. Western New York and the Finger Lakes have rates higher than 10%, while the Southern Tier, Mohawk Valley and Capital Region are all approaching a 10% rate.

More than 1,400 people across the state are in the hospital with COVID, and 14 people died of the disease Tuesday.

The governor said while the new subvariant is more contagious than previous strains, there’s no evidence that it’s any more severe than the original omicron variant that emerged in late 2021.

“We’re not panicking about this,” Hochul said. “But we also want to make sure that we are smart about this.”

Hochul said the main tool for combating the spread is the use of at-home rapid tests. And she said people should take the tests if they have symptoms associated with COVID, or may have been exposed to someone who has the disease.

She said the state has amassed 92 million test kits and distributed 72 million of them to communities.

Hochul said the results of rapid tests that are positive are no longer being reported to health authorities, though, so the true number of those infected in New York state could be higher than what is currently being logged.

“There’s a gap in information,” Hochul said. “We don’t have a clear picture of exactly what is going on.”

The governor’s advice stands in contrast to a warning issued by her health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, on April 13. Bassett at that time expressed concern about the spread and recommended that New Yorkers wear masks in all indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

After the presentation, reporters asked Hochul about the health department’s mask recommendation. She said she does not want to impose any new regulations but instead “empower individuals and parents to make smart decisions.”

But Hochul does recommend that New Yorkers heed Bassett’s advice.

“Keep a mask in your pocket, and when you're around other people, we heavily encourage you to pull it out, especially in an area of high transmission,” she said.

Hochul said she does not expect the new subvariants to cause the infection rate to spike as high as it did over the winter holidays, but admitted that no one can say for sure what will happen.

“We don’t know right now,” she said

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.