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Light impact so far as COVID variant BA.2 spreads in NY

Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett say BA.2 is becoming the dominant strain of COVID-19 in New York, but they do not expect it to create another big wave of infections here.

BA.2, a subvariant of omicron, has been gradually increasing as a percentage of positive tests statewide even as the overall number of daily new infections has plummeted in the last two months. It now accounts for 42% of new infections in New York, Bassett said Monday at a news conference with the governor.

BA.2 is blamed for a recent, sharp increase of new infections in the United Kingdom.

“We have not seen the kind of rate of growth and this dominance that we’ve seen in the UK and in Europe,” Bassett said. “BA.2 is more transmissible, as you know, than the original variant, but it does not appear to cause more severe illness and it doesn’t appear to have any more ability to evade the vaccination immunity.”

The state has gone through three distinct surges of COVID. In one six-week period, the most surge resulted in 1.9 million of the 4.9 million lab-confirmed positive tests statewide since March 1, 2020.

Amid the steep and rapid decline of infection and serious illness since late January, Hochul has relaxed some restrictions but continued to press for New Yorkers to get vaccination and booster shots. “We never had a high-five moment and said, ‘It’s over,'” she said Monday.

“That is why I’m not standing down our testing sites or our vaccination sites, even though we’re having very few people come at this time. I want to see how we manage through this next — I don’t know if it’s going to be a wave, I don’t anticipate a surge — but we have to be ready for anything.”

Bassett noted that positive tests are not as good a gauge of the pandemic as they once were because so many people are using self-tests at home, which are not tallied in official results.

A better metric, she said, is hospitalizations. The COVID-positive patient census stands at a 7.5-month low in New York.

That said, the rate of lab-confirmed infections per-capita has stopped declining in many counties and has slightly increased for the state as a whole. The numbers remain a tiny fraction of their early-January peak.

NUDGE

Also Monday, state Attorney General Letitia James held a news conference of her own, appearing with leaders of the 1199SEIU healthcare union to advocate for nursing home employees.

The state last year enacted two nursing home reform laws in 2021, one mandating minimum staffing standards and another limiting profits at certain facilities under certain circumstances.

In late December, Hochul put both on hold for a month via executive order, noting the surging COVID caseload and a severe shortage of available workers. She has since extended it twice more, and it now extends to March 31.

James on Monday urged Hochul to let the rules take effect.

“It’s time to lift the pause on both of those bills,” she said.

She said she hadn’t spoken to the governor about this before calling the news conference Monday.

Instead, she spoke with nursing home workers and their advocates. “They have revealed to me conditions that are appalling,” James said. Some are working double and triple shifts, she added, and patient needs are going unmet in some cases.

James also noted that the one-house budgets proposed by the state Assembly and Senate both contain provisions for increased resources for nursing homes and increased salary and benefits for nursing home workers, while Hochul’s budget does not.

She urged that the final budget that emerges from negotiations between Hochul and leaders of the Assembly and Senate contain these provisions.

Workers deserve more, 1199SEIU President George Gresham said, decrying the idea of for-profit healthcare operating at the expense of patients and their caregivers.

The Attorney General’s Office, in a January 2021 report, criticized the administration of then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo for failing to publicly report COVID’s full death toll in New York nursing homes and for taking steps that may have worsened the death toll.

This drew widespread attention, but the wording was fairly succinct and neutral. The bulk of that report’s criticism was reserved for the for-profit nursing home industry.

The report stopped short of absolute declarations of cause and effect but repeatedly cited the business practices of for-profit nursing homes as counter to the mission of resident care and infection control.

Many for-profit facilities allocate revenue first to profit, then to resident care, the report said. And they have a clear motive to maximize patient count while minimizing employee count — every empty bed and every additional staffer reduces profit.

“What do we value as a nation and a society?” James said Monday.

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