New York may expand its legal authority to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine in public school districts after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday that school administrators should prepare to take aggressive action as virus cases rise with the emergence of the delta variant.

New York’s COVID infection and hospitalizations have climbed for weeks after health experts around the globe warned about the spread of the delta variant — the more contagious strain of the deadly upper respiratory virus that originated in India.

New York’s coronavirus positivity rate was 2.23% Wednesday after the state had one of the nation’s lowest infection rates of 0.34% on June 23. Statewide virus hospitalizations increased by six people Wednesday to 591 patients statewide after a low of 330 patients July 5.

“A school can become a superspreader,” Gov. Cuomo said Wednesday during a virtual coronavirus briefing in the state Capitol. “We’ve seen that too many times in the past, so I think school districts have to keep a very close eye on the numbers. If they continue to grow, I think they have to consider dramatic action.”

State and national health officials track each new confirmed COVID infection, hospitalization and death, with detailed mapping and granular data.

School administrators can review the data to appropriately assess their COVID-19 infection risk.

“If the numbers continue to go up, I think school districts have to take a serious look at what they’re doing,” Gov. Cuomo said.

The governor and the state’s team of health experts on its Coronavirus Task Force are carefully reviewing U.S. Centers For Disease Control & Prevention’s new masks guidelines released Tuesday. The new guidance urges fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors, especially in high COVID-19 transmission areas.

State officials continue to review the federal rules, and vaccinated New Yorkers are not legally required to wear a mask or facial covering in most public settings or businesses as of press time Wednesday.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday the new guidelines include schools, and everyone in K-12 school districts, including teachers, staff, students and visitors should wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

“This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations,” Walensky said of the spreading delta COVID variant.

Employers are permitted to mandate their workers receive specific vaccinations by law. The state’s 730-plus school districts employ thousands of teachers, bus drivers, aides and other service staff.

“The school district can say, as an employee, you must get vaccinated,” Gov. Cuomo said during Wednesday’s briefing. “I think we have to watch these numbers. If the numbers don’t get under control, September is right around the corner.”

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s two-shot COVID vaccine and Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose injection under Emergency Use Authorization.

The vaccine cannot be legally mandated in schools or other private-owned properties without final approval from the FDA.

Gov. Cuomo called on the FDA and federal government to expedite granting the three vaccines’ final approval to end emergency use authorization restrictions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the state’s vaccine Clinical Task Force separately approved Pfizer and Moderna’s two-dose coronavirus vaccines in December under Emergency Use Authorization. Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine was approved for emergency use in late February.

“This vaccine is under Emergency Use Authorization — under emergency use, states are limited to what they can mandate,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Once the vaccine is finally approved, the state has more legal authority to mandate the vaccine.”

Reporters and members of the press were not permitted to ask the governor questions following Wednesday’s announcements. Gov. Cuomo answered a few prepared questions from his staff about the new vaccine mandate for state employees, and ongoing public safety issues, but did not elaborate on other topics.

“The virus feeds on our lack of action and on our apathy and on our fear,” the governor added.

The CDC classifies a community as having substantial transmission with 50 to 99 new virus cases per 100,000 residents or if the positivity rate remains between 8 and 9.9% over the last seven days.

New virus cases are highest in the Capital Region at 2.86% Wednesday.

The north country has the second-lowest infection rate at 1.73%, which has ticked up from about 1.45% earlier this week.

Seven New Yorkers died from COVID complications Tuesday, bringing the state’s virus death toll to more than 54,218 fatalities. The state’s coronavirus death toll has remained flat below 10 daily deaths for nearly two months.

Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

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