Public health officials are gearing up for another rise in COVID-19 cases this fall and winter. And as booster shots are rolled out, pandemic guidances relaxed and COVID-19 test kits no longer available for free through the mail from the federal government, the next phase could be a major test for returning to a semblance of normal.
This Friday will be the last day to order free COVID-19 tests kit through the mail. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Monday said she expects funding for the program will lapse.
"I think the president decided we're in a good place right now," Gillibrand said while touring the State Fair. "We've really gotten over the hump of COVID. I certainly have been able to buy home test kits in CVS any time I go."
Pharmacist and state Assemblyman John McDonald said pharmacies will still be carrying rapid test kits, an item that was in hot demand during the rapid spread of the omicron variant. This summer, federal officials extended the expiration date for many COVID-19 tests.
"Pharmacies will still be carrying the COVID tests," said McDonald, a Democrat who represents the Albany area. "We still have the ability to provide them. Most insurance plans have been covring the at-home tests, so hopefully, that will continue."
COVID-19 tests will also be made available by public health officials.
“New York State has made significant progress in managing the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak," said Cort Ruddy, a spokesman for the state Department of Health. "The State continues to distribute rapid, over the counter test kits to county Offices of Emergency Management and schools. All schools are receiving tests for distribution to students at the beginning of the school year, which for most schools is next week. You can find more information on how to get a COVID test here.”
Meanwhile, COVID-19 booster shots formulated to fight the highly contagious omicron variant could be available as soon as this month. McDonald plans to have the booster available at his pharmacy, but expects distribution could be complicated in urban areas.
"Pharmacies and medical practices are gone," he said. "You have pharmacy deserts, you have medical deserts."
There now more than 78% of New York residents have received at least two doses. A plan to make the yet-to-be-approved booster by New York officials when it is available is not yet clear.
"It's one dose. It's not mandatory," McDonald said. "Highly recommended and while you're at it, you might as well as get the flu shot at the same time."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommneded relaxed guidelines for isolation. New York state education and health officials are also easing COVID-19 rules for schools as students and teachers return to the classroom.
Republicans in the state Legislature on Monday pointed to the new guidelines as a sign further COVID-19 mandates should be scaled back and in some instances reversed.
Western New York Republican state Sen. Ed Rath in an interview said it's time to reconsider vaccine mandates for key workers, like those in the health care field. Workers who did not receive the vaccine were terminated from their jobs.
"Let's put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror," Rath said, "and let's take a hard look at how we can restore those jobs."