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New COVID mandate is old news for Island school

When Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced a mask mandate to take effect this week for all New York school districts, Shelter Island School officials didn’t blink. Those restrictions have been in place in the district since the pandemic became known in 2020.

Enforcement of the state’s new mask mandate for all other in door gatherings will come down to individual counties, the governor said Monday. The protocol requires individuals to wear masks in all indoor public places unless businesses or venues implement a vaccine requirement.

The mandate was implemented to help curb the spread of COVID-19 as cases steadily climb amid another holiday spike similar to last year.

A spokesperson for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone did not respond to a request for comment early this week. Newsday reported Monday afternoon that incoming Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman would not enforce the mandate. Mr. Blakeman, a Republican, defeated incumbent Democrat Laura Curran in November. He takes office Jan. 1.

Ms. Hochul said she “has faith in New Yorkers” and believes the vast majority want to do what’s right. She said the mandate is about “protecting the health of New Yorkers and the health of the economy.”

Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D., said Monday night there was no need to make any changes to comply with the mandate thanks to all the steps the district has taken, including wearing of masks by students, staff and visitors; a state-of-the-art air filtration system installed in 2020; and added sinks to frequently wash hands.

The school hasn’t seen a new COVID-19 case since early November, despite a spike in numbers throughout the County and the nation. A trip to Disney World for 8th and 9th graders last week was conducted with all necessary COVID protocols in place.

Unlike most schools throughout New York that closed down for long periods of time and offered only virtual learning, Shelter Island only briefly closed at the outset to set up protocols and take the actions that have kept most students and staff healthy.

While providing iPads and virtual learning on a few necessary days, such as when the school building was open for vaccinations of community members, there was little need for virtual learning.

The state is also requiring school districts to issue vaccination surveys to parents to gather additional data to increase vaccinations for school-age children following the recent eligibility expansion for ages 5-11.

Last week the governor said about 20% of 5-11-year-olds were vaccinated with at least one dose and about 5.8% have completed the vaccine series.

“The first wave of kids have now received their second dose,” she said. “These aren’t great numbers, but they’re going right. Last week, it was 0.5% of children in that age group who are fully vaccinated and now it’s 5.8%. That’s good, but we have a long way to go.”

The governor said officials are hoping to learn from the survey if parents are having trouble accessing the vaccine, and where they’re looking to be vaccinated, whether it be a pediatrician’s office or local pharmacies.

“We want to know what’s going on and get a better handle on the numbers and work with our local county health departments to target the high-need areas that need additional support,” she said.

Ms. Hochul said one million at-home COVID-19 testing kits have been ordered and would be distributed to county health departments with a focus on getting the tests to schools and parents. The tests will help when a student tests positive and classmates are required to have a negative test to return and therefore limit unnecessary quarantining.

Dr. Mary Bassett, the new State health commissioner, said the department is focusing on the broader impact of COVID, particularly related to children’s mental health.

Dr. Bassett said last week, that while the omicron variant is a concern, nearly all current cases have been related to the delta variant, which “remains the overwhelming dominant strain in the U.S.” There have now been 20 confirmed cases of omicron in New York, including three in Suffolk County as of last week. The variant has now been confirmed in at least half of U.S. states.

“We don’t know yet whether omicron will out-compete delta,” Dr. Bassett said.

When examining COVID cases, Ms. Hochul said state officials are looking at the cases per 100,000 on a seven-day average in each region. She said that figure provides more clarity since there’s less certainty on how many daily tests are being done with the increase in at-home tests.

Long Island is currently above the state average at 60.03 per 100,000. New York City, the most densely populated region, has the lowest rate at 30.21.

The governor said there continues to be an uptick in hospitalizations and areas with lower vaccination rates have higher rates. The Suffolk County Department of Health Services reported 237 patients hospitalized in the county as of Dec. 8 with COVID-19. The hospitalization figures are still better across the region compared to one year ago when the vaccine was first approved. This date last year still represented the early upward climb of hospitalizations, which peaked around Jan. 18 during the holiday surge, before beginning a steady decline into mid-March.

“This is not the sky is falling, we just want to make sure people take this very seriously,” Ms. Hochul said.