Amid concerns over a possible “tripledemic,” state health officials held a press conference Wednesday to urge residents to take precautions as respiratory viruses including influenza, respiratory syncytial virus and COVID-19 continue to rise.
“We saw this trifecta coming … We know from that experience that winter is our most vulnerable time,” Governor Kathy Hochul said during the briefing — her first public health update since late October. “It’s a bad situation.”
The precautions remain the same as they have been throughout the pandemic: stay home if you’re sick, cough or sneeze into your elbow and wash your hands often.
According to state health department data, the number of flu cases statewide increased 76%, topping 27,000 cases in a single week.
According to state health commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, that compares with a high of 17,000 cases in a single week during 2019, which officials view as the last typical flu season. “The numbers really are up and they’re early this year,” Dr. Bassett said.
Simultaneously, the region is also experiencing an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Statewide, the most recently reported average is 28 positive cases per 100,000 people compared to 47.5 in Suffolk County. Officials have said that cases per 100,000 is now the “most reliable metric” to measure virus levels rather than positivity rates due to changes in test reporting by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Due to the dramatic increase following Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has placed the county at a high risk level and are recommending residents to wear masks in public and on public transportation.
Throughout the state and country, cases of RSV are on the rise. Though the seasonal illness typically has symptoms similar to a common cold, infection can be serious in young children, elderly and immunocompromised individuals.
Officials do not have data on just how many RSV cases are currently reported since cases are not tracked like COVID-19.
On Sunday, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn) issued a press release calling on the federal government to be prepared to respond to the “unprecedented” levels of RSV in the state. According to the release, the volume of patients coming to the emergency department at Northwell’s Cohen Children’s Medical Center alone is up about 44% when compared to the pre-pandemic time period of October and November 2019.
The children’s hospital is seeing about 300 children a day in the emergency room, the majority under two years old.
Officials have speculated that cases may be up this year due to increased viral exposure.
“We’re coming out of a period where our children were really cloistered,” Dr. Bassett said. “Kids haven’t been exposed to many common viruses that in other times, they would have been exposed to.”
Around this time last year, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was listed by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern” and prompted indoor mask mandates as winter cases surged.
Though a mask mandate is not currently in place, Dr. Bassett asked people to “be aware of the settings in which mask wearing would be wise,” which includes indoor and crowded settings.
The recent spike in cases of the respiratory viruses also prompted Dr. Bassett and state education commissioner Betty Rosa to issue a joint letter encouraging school districts to take “common sense precautions” to prevent the spread Monday, including:
- Staying up to date on vaccines, including flu and COVID-19.
- Wash your hands often with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds.
- Not coughing or sneezing into your hands; sneeze or cough into your elbow.
- Staying home when sick or symptomatic.
- Wear a well-fitting, high-quality mask when in public indoor places.
In a letter to parents, the Riverhead Central School District relayed the public health message with several caveats earlier this week.
“It is important to note that these are not mandated in any way, including the recommendation to wear masks in indoor public spaces,” superintendent Augustine Tornatore wrote in the letter to families. “We encourage you to incorporate as many of these recommendations that you feel comfortable with into your daily routine this winter.”
In addition to these precautions, health officials are encouraging eligible New Yorkers to take the bivalent COVID-19 booster shot. “We can’t emphasize enough the importance of people getting their shots. We want people to be as protected as they can be from illness and death,” Dr. Bassett said.
Just 13% of adults have received their COVID-19 booster, officials said. Children ages 5 and older may now receive the bivalent booster shots and children as young as six months can receive both flu and COVID-19 vaccines.
“People are tired of being told what to do,” Dr. Bassett said Wednesday, acknowledging that many have experienced fatigue at pandemic protocols like mask wearing.
Some precautions will remain in place at the executive level, including an executive order that allows for flexible staffing at hospitals, meaning health care workers can be brought in from other states if required.
The governor also said the state is in constant coordination with local officials to monitor hospital capacity, has stockpiled personal protective equipment (PPE) and has 7,857 ventilators available if needed.
“We’re going to embrace the holidays, but not let our guard down,” Ms. Hochul said.