Across New York the Delta variant has caused a surge of new cases and rising hospitalizations, presenting New York’s incoming governor, Kathy Hochul, with a major public health challenge that is likely to grow between now and the day she officially takes office in two weeks.
Ms. Hochul, who is currently the lieutenant governor, declined to say much that was concrete about the direction she would take on the state’s Covid-19 policies when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo steps down. Mr. Cuomo announced his resignation on Tuesday after a sexual harassment scandal.
But Ms. Hochul, a moderate Democrat from the Buffalo area who has kept a low profile as lieutenant governor, will soon confront a raft of difficult decisions on everything from guidance on mask rules to vaccine mandates.
In her first news conference on Wednesday as the soon-to-be-governor, Ms. Hochul did not say whether she would declare a new state of emergency to respond to rising transmission, as Mr. Cuomo did last year in March at the height of the pandemic, a restriction that was only lifted in late June of 2021.
She said she would use the next two weeks — while Mr. Cuomo remains governor — to consult with health experts and federal health authorities as she formulated a plan. She added that increasing vaccinations would be her focus.
“I can assure everyone that we’ll be looking at all options, but I believe that the key to get through this has been before our eyes for months,” she said. “It’s as simple as more people getting vaccinated.”
Though the number of new infections and hospitalizations recorded each day are well below the peaks of last winter, the current totals still represent a dramatic rise since late June, when the epidemic seemed to be waning.
On Tuesday, the seven-day average of new infections in New York State reached 3,088, up from a low point of 307 on June 26, according to a New York Times database. Hospitalizations rose to 1,478, from 823 over the same period.
Ms. Hochul said she would work in communities that have high rates of infection and low rates of vaccination to combat resistance to vaccination and increase access to the shots. The current vaccines authorized in the United States protect most fully vaccinated people from developing serious illness from Covid-19, including from the Delta variant.
But getting enough people vaccinated to curb the rise in cases and bring down hospitalizations may require more than just encouragement from officials.
Understand the State of Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- Vaccine rules . . . and businesses. Private companies are increasingly mandating coronavirus vaccines for employees, with varying approaches. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. On Aug. 11, California announced that it would require teachers and staff of both public and private schools to be vaccinated or face regular testing, the first state in the nation to do so. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York. On Aug. 3, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York announced that proof of vaccination would be required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, becoming the first U.S. city to require vaccines for a broad range of activities. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
In New York, elected leaders have been reluctant to impose a vaccine requirement on workers — whether in hospitals, schools or nursing homes. Instead, many unvaccinated government employees and health care workers are subject to rules requiring them to be tested weekly — or in the case of nursing home workers, monthly.
Public health experts predict that there may be greater willingness to impose vaccine mandates if cases and hospitalizations continue to climb. Across New York State, about 69.4 percent of people 18 and over are fully vaccinated, while in New York City the number is 67 percent.
Ms. Hochul also faces questions about allegations that Mr. Cuomo’s aides undercounted nursing home deaths from Covid-19 last year to cover up the true death toll. Asked on Wednesday whether she would release full data on nursing home deaths, Ms. Hochul sidestepped the question.
“My administration will be fully transparent when I am governor,” she said. “I’m not governor yet.”