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Cuomo says a shutdown could be avoided if people change their behavior 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday if people control their behavior, a second pandemic shutdown could be avoided.

The governor also said he’s advancing funds to cash-strapped state contractors that are providing essential services.

Cuomo had said Monday that if the trajectory of the rising infection rate does not change, the state is headed for a lockdown similar to the one in the spring, when the virus first spiked. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also urged city residents to prepare for a shutdown in the coming weeks.

By Wednesday, though, the governor, citing negative news headlines, emphasized that a closure of all but essential services can be avoided if New Yorkers follow all of the safety recommendations from state and federal health officials.

“There’s a big B-U-T,” Cuomo said. “No one knows, because it is up to us. What will happen in three weeks? What will happen in four weeks? You tell me what you’re going to do over the next three weeks or four weeks, and I’ll tell you what’s going to happen.”

Cuomo said he hopes people learned that some Thanksgiving gatherings led to the current surge — the positivity rate has been above 5 percent statewide for several days —and people will limit social gatherings over the upcoming holidays.

Hospitalization rates are also steadily rising. More than 6,000 New Yorkers are in the hospital with COVID-19, and over 1,000 are in intensive care. In the Finger Lakes region, 743 were hospitalized as of Wednesday, and 144 were in intensive care.

Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, issued a letter to the state’s hospitals, asking them to work together to prevent any one hospital from becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

Zucker is also requiring every hospital to be able to boost bed capacity by 15 percent within three days if the numbers in their region are surging.

The governor also  updated the numbers of vaccines that the state has received. New York received 87,750 from Pfizer and is scheduled to get 80,000 more next week. The Moderna vaccine, expected to be approved within days, will yield another 346,000 doses. The first round is reserved for front-line health care workers and nursing home staff and residents.

The state is already gearing up for phase two of vaccine distribution, which is hoped to begin in late January, and major hospitals in each region of the state have been tasked with coordinating the effort. The governor said he’ll make sure every vaccine is free of charge.

“In New York state, no person will have to pay a penny for a vaccination,” Cuomo said.

Eric Linzer, president of the New York Health Plan Association, agreed. He said in a statement that the major health insurers represented by his group are “committed to ensuring that all New Yorkers receive a vaccination at no cost.”

“Making sure residents are immunized against the coronavirus is a public health imperative that will save lives,” Linzer said.

Cuomo also announced that despite the state’s $15 billion budget deficit, he’s advancing $1.5 billion to human service organizations that contract with the state. The money had been held back, along with 20 percent of some funds owed to schools and local governments, as a means of managing the budget gap. Budget director Robert Mujica explained that the groups need the money to carry out essential services related to the pandemic.

“What we are going to do is make sure that those agencies that have critical needs, we’ll be able to give them those monies,” Mujica said. “So that they have a level of certainty through the end of the fiscal year.”

Cuomo has said he thinks new taxes will need to be imposed to help close the deficit. This week, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a supporter of higher taxes on the wealthy, raised the possibility of the Legislature returning before the end of the year to raise the top income tax rates to begin bringing in revenue as soon as possible.

“Something like an income tax, if you want to get a full year’s value of it, I think you do have to consider it now,” Heastie said.

The governor asked lawmakers to hold off on making any changes to the state’s tax code. He said even though Congress has not yet agreed to a bailout plan that includes help for state and local governments hit hard by the pandemic, he believes that President-elect Joe Biden will persuade federal lawmakers to act after the Jan. 20 inauguration.

“I believe President Biden will correct this situation,” Cuomo said.

The governor was scheduled to attend a phone meeting between the National Governors Association, which Cuomo heads, and Biden on Wednesday afternoon.

Karen DeWitt is Albany correspondent for WXXI News.
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