Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday said if more children get vaccinated against COVID-19, it may speed up the timeline for dropping a statewide mandate for masks inside schools. Credit: New York Governor's Office

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday said if more children get vaccinated against COVID-19, it may speed up the timeline for dropping a statewide mandate for masks inside schools.

The governor faces a Feb. 21 expiration date to either extend or end the mandate. The decision will be based on data, she said, including vaccination levels — which are lagging among 5- to 11-year-olds.

"We are getting there, but I would love to see that trend line of younger children more vaccinated as we start making decisions about schools, and that’s something we get asked a lot about, when are masks coming off in schools," she said at a news briefing in Kingston that focused on a winter storm upstate. "I am also watching vaccination rates."

Hochul's message to parents, school leaders, teachers and influencers: "The more children we have vaccinated, the safer they’ll be when they go to school" when the state drops the mask mandate. Ending the mandate is a goal "we are striving for — but we’re just not there yet."

While nearly 70% of children ages 12 to 17 in the state have received two vaccine shots, only 29% of 5- to 11-year-olds have, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Long Island, those figures are 68% and 24.3%.

"Our focus is really to have your younger siblings do what you did, teenagers, and let’s get them vaccinated," Hochul said.

Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Gov. Kathy Hochul. Credit: Office of the Governor

One medical expert said Hochul's message for parents to vaccinate their children was on target, but that the equation of more vaccinations leading directly to dropping masks isn't so simple.

"It’s an important message, but it’s perhaps not one of these one-plus-one equals two," said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital.

Vaccination prevents many people from getting infected, but not all, she said.

"The data does support that the more people that are vaccinated, the less likely we are to keep spreading COVID in our communities," she said. "The more vaccinated we get, the less we’re going to have these surges of COVID, and the more likely we will be able to unmask the kids."

And clearly, not getting vaccinated is not a solution, Nachman said. Stony Brook and other hospitals throughout Long Island are seeing a growing number of children developing MIS-C, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. It's a rare but serious condition that emerges in some children weeks after COVID-19 infections.

The condition causes the inflammation of body parts, including, potentially, the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs, according to the CDC.

"None of those children have been vaccinated," Nachman said. "And that’s a devastating illness, and we need to prevent it."

She doesn't think dropping the mask mandate by Feb. 21 is realistic, and instead believes that maybe it can happen by the spring or early summer when the weather turns warm and windows can be opened for ventilation.

"I don’t think we’re there yet," she said. "But on the other hand, we are getting the tools to get there."

The school mask mandate is the subject of a lawsuit filed by a group of parents from Long Island who contend Hochul and the state Department of Health did not have the legal authority to impose the order. The case has landed in state appellate court, with a decision expected some time after March 2.

But the parents did win a one-day victory last week when a judge in Nassau County ruled in their favor. The next day, an appellate court "stayed," or temporarily suspended, the ruling.

Medical experts on Long Island this week said the growing vaccination levels for teenagers is a hopeful development, and that the record-breaking omicron surge prompted many parents to get their children inoculated.

They said they hope more of the younger children start getting the shots, too.

"I think that the omicron variant and the tidal wave of diagnoses we saw, especially in children, was a wake-up call for many parents to get those sleeves rolled up and get their kids vaccinated," said Dr. Matthew Harris, medical director of the Northwell Health vaccine program and a pediatric emergency doctor at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park.

The omicron surge is fading in New York State, but is not over, Hochul said.

On Thursday, 110 people, including 13 in Suffolk and six in Nassau, died of causes linked to the virus. The state logged 7,559 new cases of the virus, a vast drop from the record 90,132 in early January, but still substantially above lows as recently as October when they were below 3,000.

Long Island had 856 new cases on Thursday, and a seven-day average positivity level of 5.81%.

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What to know

If more children get vaccinated against COVID-19, it may speed up the timeline for dropping a statewide mandate for masks inside schools, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday.

She is facing a Feb. 21 expiration date on the mandate, and must decide by then to extend or end it.

Vaccination levels among 12- to 17-year-olds are good, Hochul said, but rates among ages 5 to 11 are lagging.

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