New York joins California in relaxing mask mandate as Texas toll crosses 80,000


Even as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projected up to 978,000 Covid-19 deaths in the country by early March, New York state has joined New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon and California in easing mask requirement or proof of vaccination in indoor settings with daily new cases plummeting.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday that the statewide indoor business mask-or-vaccine requirement will be lifted starting Thursday and will remain optional for businesses, local governments and counties to enforce.

The mask-or-vaccine protocol was implemented Dec 10, 2021, as the Omicron variant caused a spike of cases in the state.

With case counts plummeting and hospital admissions declining sharply, the statewide measure is no longer needed, said Hochul.

Still, mask requirements will remain in place in certain high-density settings like hospitals, nursing homes, shelters, transportation and other related entities.

“While we are moving in the right direction, this pandemic isn’t over,” she added.

Hochul said the mask requirement in schools would be reassessed early next month based on public health data.

The announcement was welcomed by business representatives in New York state. “Governor Hochul’s decision to allow expiration of mask mandates in the workplace will encourage the return of employees to the office and accelerate the city’s economic recovery,” said Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of Partnership for New York City.

“We hope new policies will encourage New Yorkers to continue to support New York businesses still recovering from the pandemic,” said Heather Briccetti, president and CEO of Business Council of New York state.

The state added 6,041 new Covid-19 cases Wednesday with the positivity rate at 3.67 percent, according to newly issued data. Statewide Covid-19 cases fell as much as 93 percent since the peak Jan 7 and Covid-19 hospital admissions dropped 63 percent in the state since the peak Jan 12.

The CDC projection published Wednesday forecast that 5,800 to 21,700 new Covid-19 deaths will be reported during the week ending Mar 5 and a total of 942,000 to 978,000 Covid-19 deaths will be reported by that date, IANS reported.

The state- and territory-level ensemble forecasts predict that over the next four weeks, the number of newly reported deaths per week will decrease in 18 jurisdictions.

Several states apart from the ones already named above have announced plans to relax key mitigation measures as new infections drop. But CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that despite the encouraging trends in case rates, it is not time for the country as a whole to relax mitigation efforts.

“We are not there yet,” she said at a White House briefing. “We continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission – that’s much of the country right now – in public indoor settings.”

While California and New York move toward relaxation in mask and vaccine mandates, Texas, America’s second largest state, tied California for most Covid-19 fatalities despite having 10 million fewer residents.

The Texas Department of State Health Services announced Wednesday that the Lone Star state’s toll had risen to 80,000 since the start of the pandemic.

The official count based on death certificates is 80,005. Nearly 190 Texans are dying now from the virus each day on average, Xinhua news agency reported.

Moreover, the true cost of Omicron may not be known for months since hospitalizations and deaths lag weeks behind Covid-19 infections, a report from the Houston Chronicle said.

In Houston, the biggest city in Texas, 90 percent of Covid-19 patients in intensive care units are not vaccinated, said William McKeon, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, representing the city’s major health facilities and teaching hospitals.

“So many people have died as a result of choosing not to get vaccinated,” McKeon added.

Federal health forecasts say Texas could log another 4,000 coronavirus deaths by the end of February.

Meanwhile, the Omicron variant continues to find new victims around the world. The South Pacific island nation Tonga confirmed Thursday the spread of the variant as 31 new Covid-19 cases were reported, bringing the total number of active cases in the tiny country to 64.

According to Tonga’s news website Matangi Tonga Online, Health Minister Saia Piukala said at a press conference that five tests sent to Australia confirmed that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading in Tonga.

He also confirmed that 30 new cases were reported in Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu while one was discovered in Vava’u, an island group consisting of one large island (‘Utu Vava’u) and 40 smaller ones.

The confirmed cases include adults fully vaccinated and children. They are all having mild symptoms.

The island nation with a population of more than 100,000 has so far administered the first dose of the vaccine to 98 percent of its population while 88 percent are fully vaccinated. More than 2,000 people have had their booster shots as well.