Hochul warns of the emergence of new COVID-19 variant as school year begins

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Ahead of the new school year, Gov. Kathy Hochul is warning about the emergence of a new variant of COVID-19 and an increase in reported cases and hospitalizations this summer. 

All viruses change over time and the changes can affect how contagious each is, how well each responds to treatment and how severely each impacts people, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Earlier this month, a new variant of COVID-19 called BA.2.86 was detected in Denmark and Israel and two cases have been identified in the U.S. The CDC reports it is too soon to know whether the new variant might cause more severe illness compared to previous variants.

Hochul said the updated COVID-19 vaccine that will target Omicron variants is expected to be released next month and she is urging people to receive it. The CDC has assessed the new vaccine and estimates it will be effective in reducing severe disease and hospitalization. 

“While New Yorkers might want to be done with COVID-19, COVID-19 isn’t done with us,” Hochul said in a statement. “With the increase in hospitalizations and reported cases this summer, I strongly urge everyone to take appropriate precautions to protect themselves and their communities. To keep New Yorkers safe, my administration will continue to monitor this situation, share information on the new boosters as soon as it’s available, and continue to make N-95 masks available statewide.”  

Since the pandemic, the state has conducted ongoing wastewater surveillance and laboratory analysis at the Wadsworth Center located in Albany. According to Hochul’s office, collaborators at Syracuse University and analysts have confirmed the new strain has not yet been detected in the state in the last six months. 

The CDC reports the BA.2.86 variant may be more capable of causing infection in people who have previously had COVID-19 or have received COVID-19 vaccines. 

“The Department of Health remains vigilant for changes to the virus that could further threaten our public health,” state Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said in the release. “We continue to monitor as new strains have emerged, with a particular focus on BA.2.86, the most genetically different strain we have seen since the original Omicron variant. These significant changes are important to note as mutations may allow the virus to evade prior immunity. Remember, COVID is now a treatable disease and tests are both easy and highly accurate. Antivirals such as Paxlovid are most effective when started within five days of the onset of symptoms.”

Hochul is recommending schools promote vaccinations and testing and encourage students, teachers and other faculty to stay home if they are sick or exhibiting symptoms. The recommendation comes at a time when the state is facing a teacher and substitute teacher shortage. A U.S. Department of Education report released this fall shows that enrollment in teacher education programs has declined by about 50% and more than one-third of teachers will soon be eligible for retirement. 

The state also recommends schools teach and promote proper handwashing and maintain improvements to indoor air quality to reduce the risk of germs spreading through the air.

The state is continuing to provide N-95 masks and test kits are available to state and county officials by request and those looking for them should contact their county health departments or local emergency management office.

By Ashley Hupfl

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