Omicron COVID-19 variant: New York declares state of emergency amid virus surge

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ALBANY - Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency in New York late Friday amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and the looming threat of a new variant found recently in South Africa.

The move by Hochul comes as hospitals are again warning of being overrun with COVID patients and as the state's positivity hit 3.8% on Thursday, the highest since mid-April.

In some regions, the rates were even higher: nearly 10% in western New York and almost 9% in the Finger Lakes.

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Hochul said the omicron variant that has stoked fears of a new spread across the globe has yet to be found in New York, but warned it is likely to arrive.

By declaring a state of emergency, the state Department of Health will be allowed to limit non-essential, non-urgent procedures for hospitals or systems "with limited capacity to protect access to critical health care services."

The state said that limited capacity will be "defined as below 10% staffed bed capacity, or as determined by the Department of Health based on regional and health care utilization factors."

Shoppers wearing face masks on a crowded sidewalk in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. As the world grapples with the emergence of the new variant of COVID-19, scientists in South Africa where omicron was first identified are scrambling to combat its spread across the country.
Shoppers wearing face masks on a crowded sidewalk in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. As the world grapples with the emergence of the new variant of COVID-19, scientists in South Africa where omicron was first identified are scrambling to combat its spread across the country.

The new protocols will begin Friday and will be re-assessed on Jan. 15. The measure will also allow the state to acquire more quickly any supplies to combat the pandemic, Hochul said.

"We've taken extraordinary action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and combat this pandemic. However, we continue to see warning signs of spikes this upcoming winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it's coming," Hochul said in a statement.

Hochul said hospitals should themselves expand hospital capacity in anticipation of the variant hitting New York and because rates are rising.

The Democratic governor has yet to implement any new widespread COVID safety protocols, such as requiring masks indoors in all public spaces, as some counties are considering.

Erie County last week reestablished an indoor mask requirement as cases continue to grow in upstate New York's largest county.

"The vaccine remains one of our greatest weapons in fighting the pandemic, and I encourage every New Yorker to get vaccinated, and get the booster if you're fully vaccinated," Hochul continued.

New York does require masks in all health care facilities and schools, prisons and transit systems.

Additionally, she said the goal is to bolster New York's vaccination rate, which has jumped from 79% in August to 90% this month among adults with one dose.

Expanding access to booster shots is another effort by the state: more than 2.2 million boosters have been administered.

Counties are urging the public's support as they consider stronger protocols to stop the virus' spread through the holiday season and winter months.

"Our chief elected officials must make decisions in real time based on the most up-to-date data, and these decisions can be unpopular but they are necessary to protect our communities," Stephen Acquario, the executive director of the state Association of Counties, said in a statement.

"Our local public health officials, emergency managers, and coroners are experiencing high levels of fatigue and burnout. We respectfully ask for continued cooperation and civility as we go through this next COVID phase."

More: Ex. Gov. Andrew Cuomo misrepresented COVID-19 nursing home toll, report says

More: Will New York renew mask mandate and COVID-19 restrictions? What to know as cases surge

Joseph Spector is the Government and Politics Editor for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Group, overseeing coverage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany

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This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Omicron COVID-19 variant: NY state of emergency as virus surges

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