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Hochul takes on COVID critics, cuts health worker quarantine

December 25, 2021 GMT
People line up to receive test kits to detect COVID-19 as they are distributed in the Lower East Side neighborhood in the Manhattan borough of New York Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
People line up to receive test kits to detect COVID-19 as they are distributed in the Lower East Side neighborhood in the Manhattan borough of New York Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
People line up to receive test kits to detect COVID-19 as they are distributed in the Lower East Side neighborhood in the Manhattan borough of New York Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
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People line up to receive test kits to detect COVID-19 as they are distributed in the Lower East Side neighborhood in the Manhattan borough of New York Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
1 of 2
People line up to receive test kits to detect COVID-19 as they are distributed in the Lower East Side neighborhood in the Manhattan borough of New York Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

NEW YORK (AP) — New York is shortening the amount of time essential workers must stay home after testing positive for COVID-19, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday, seeking to strike a balance between staunching the virus’ rapid spread and keeping critical jobs as fully staffed as possible.

Hochul announced the change during an address in Albany where she also went on a Christmas Eve offensive against her coronavirus critics, insisting that the state acted early and has done everything it could against the rapid spread of the omicron variant.

“We’re going to continue to spread holiday cheer, not COVID,” Hochul said in remarks at the Capitol. “We are going to keep things open. We’re going to do the right things, but we will not get complacent. We are going to get through this battle my friends. We’re smart. We know how to do this. We’re not shutting down business. We’re not shutting down schools.”

Hochul’s speech, including a timeline of measures she’s put in place since October, new plans to increase access to testing and vaccines and a Christmas-themed slideshow, appeared not only aimed at rebutting critics and reassuring New Yorkers, but also at positioning her as a pragmatic COVID fighter as she gears up for a party primary fight in next year’s election.

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One potential rival, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, has stressed in his public appearances in recent days that the time for shutdowns is over.

The governor, who didn’t take questions Friday, has also faced blowback from her recently imposed mask mandate — which she said was a way to prevent shutdowns — with some Republican officials calling the measure an overreach and an unnecessary burden on businesses.

More than a dozen counties have said they won’t enforce it. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican vying to unseat Hochul, labeled her “Andrew Cuomo 2.0” in an interview with Fox News this week.

Hochul on Friday marked four months since she was sworn in to replace Cuomo, who was in charge of the state during the worst of the pandemic before resigning in disgrace in the face of sexual harassment allegations.

Under the state’s new essential worker guidelines, fully vaccinated people working in health care and other frontline fields can return to work after five days, instead of 10 days, if they aren’t showing symptoms or their symptoms are resolving, Hochul said. They must not have had a fever for 72 hours, can’t be taking medication and must wear a mask while on the job, Hochul said.

New York’s revised guidance is similar to that of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said Thursday that health care workers will be able to return to work after seven days if they test negative and don’t have symptoms and after five days, or even fewer, if there are severe staffing shortages.

The New York State Nurses Association warned that the new guidance would only worsen staffing shortages.

“This guidance is inconsistent with proven science, vague and doesn’t provide definitions or explain standards at a time when decision-making for healthcare systems is critical,” the union said in a statement.

Hochul’s remarks Friday underscored a shift in public policy on keeping people safe as the omicron variant sweeps the state. Many people who are vaccinated and have gotten booster shots report relatively minor symptoms, but uncertainty about the variant has led people to adjust holiday plans and cancel travel.

Some Broadway performances, concerts and sporting events have been called off and, on Thursday, de Blasio announced limits on how many spectators will be allowed to crowd into Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

The state set a one-day record with 44,431 new cases on Thursday, but there have been far fewer hospitalizations and deaths than at the peak of the pandemic in March 2020 or even during a winter surge a year ago. As of Thursday, 4,744 were hospitalized in New York with COVID-19, compared with more than 7,000 a year ago.

Getting access to testing has been a problem, particularly in the New York City area, with some lines snaking around city blocks. In response, Hochul said the state will open 13 new COVID-19 testing sites on Dec. 29, including one in each of the five boroughs.

Hochul said the state has sent more than 600,000 tests to the city in the last two days and will be providing at least two million at-home tests for schools to give to students returning in January after the holiday break.