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Fewer COVID rules for schools this fall, but Gov. Hochul says the concerns aren't over

Gov. Hochul holds a COVID-19 and monkeypox briefing on Aug. 22, 2022.
Darren McGee/Darren McGee- Office of Governor
Gov. Hochul holds a COVID-19 and monkeypox briefing on Aug. 22, 2022.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday that COVID-19 rules will be eased for New York’s schoolchildren this year, and masks and social distancing will no longer be required.

The governor and state health officials also gave an update on the spread of monkeypox, which for the first time has infected a child.

Hochul said the Centers for Disease Control has relaxed its recommendations for schools, and the state is following the new rules. Face coverings, social distancing and quarantining after exposure to the virus will no longer be required. Students and teachers will still have to wear a mask for up to 10 days if they’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

“The days of sending an entire classroom home because one person was symptomatic or tests positive, those days are over,” said Hochul, who added children need “the essential experience of being together in a classroom” for their development and mental health.

Schools will be receiving a supply of 14.5 million tests from the state, enough for each student, and 6 million more are on order. Hochul said schools can do additional screening tests for students engaged in activities that require close contact, like choir or the wrestling team.

The governor said anyone who feels sick should stay home, and those who have not yet received their vaccinations should do so now.

Hochul said COVID cases currently are low -- about 22 per 100,000 New Yorkers, compared to about 35 per 100,000 a month ago. But she and her staff are still preparing in case there is a fall surge when people gather indoors and more workers go back to the office.

The governor said for those reasons, she’s keeping her emergency pandemic powers in place for another month. Critics, including Republicans in the Legislature, have said that two-and-a-half years into the pandemic, it’s time for the governor to give up those powers, and allow the Legislature to help make decisions.

Hochul said she needs to retain the authority to, for instance, continue to allow EMTs to vaccinate people, and in case there is an unforeseen emergency need for new equipment or medicines.

“This is our vulnerable time,” said Hochul, who added no one should be “lulled into a sense of complacency.”

The governor said when the current emergency order expires in September, she will take a hard look about whether to renew it, predicting that it “may come to an end soon.”

The state’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, also gave an update on monkeypox. Bassett said she is not giving out any additional information on a child who has contracted the disease, saying she wants to protect their privacy.

Bassett and Hochul said they are not worried about widespread transmission of monkeypox in the schools, but they do want to get the message out to sexually active teens.

The disease currently is most prevalent among men who have sex with other men, and health officials are gearing vaccination efforts toward them. Because of a severe supply shortage of the vaccine, the FDA is now permitting intradermal injections in the outer layers of the skin, instead of the subcutaneous method now used, which targets fatty tissue under the skin.

Bassett said the change means a lower dose of the vaccines will be needed and could stretch the limited supply five times as far.

“It’s not as pleasant to get an intradermal injection, it can scar, it’s more painful,” Bassett said.

But she said the state has been “struggling” to get enough doses and the change will “vastly expand a scarce resource.”

New York has 21,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine. About 14,000 already have been administered. State officials are trying to get access to a new antiviral drug to treat the disease.

Bassett said she’s concerned about equitable distribution of the vaccine, which has lagged in Black and brown communities.

There have been about 2,800 monkeypox cases, mostly downstate. But it’s been found in 24 counties outside New York City.

Hochul and Bassett also gave an update on a third disease that’s threatening New Yorkers – polio. So far, just one person in Rockland County has become paralyzed from the virus. But Bassett said the disease is asymptomatic in most people. She recommended that people who are unvaccinated, or unsure of their vaccination status, should receive a dose.

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.