As the country crosses the grim milestone of 400,000 COVID-19 deaths, New York sits at a crossroads. Some areas are reporting recent dramatic upticks in cases and hospitalizations, but fatalities remain modest. Yet, the threat of future dismay lingers, as many expert observers worry about the slow vaccination rollout and the potential spread of new, more transmissible variants of the coronavirus.
“We’re in a place where things are not nearly as bad as they were in the spring, but certainly could be headed that way,” said Dr. Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health. “Between this new strain, which could rapidly accelerate the epidemic here in New York, and the vaccine, which is fantastic to have, it’s kind of a race.”
Over the past week, New York has recorded 78 cases per 100,000 people, a rate behind only Arizona, California, and South Carolina, according to figures compiled by the New York Times. Daily hospitalizations in New York City hover around 350 people, a fraction of the 9,000 people admitted every day statewide. Both tallies are more than twice the numbers recorded in early December.
“We have what appears to be a higher daily rate of new cases compared to nine months ago, in April, but you need to unpack that,” said Dr. Jessica Justman, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at Columbia University Medical Center. “You have to remember that back then, we had approximately 6,000 cases a day, that was probably one-tenth of the actual number of cases, because of where we were with testing.”
The official caseloads still represent an undercount, Justman said, but much less relative to the first wave last year. New York State now has close to 200,000 people tested a day, among the most in the country, and New York City performs around 60,000 daily tests for COVID-19. But Justman told Gothamist much more testing is needed as the pandemic moves forward.
“The new more transmissible strains to me just underscore the need for more testing because they mean more people will more easily get infected, including from people who are asymptomatic,” she said. “The point of more testing is to find more cases, so that more people can stay home or in some other location and avoid transmitting to other people.”
Justman would like testing campaigns to focus on frontline workers, who are the most likely to be exposed to the coronavirus due to the nature of their work. Nash agreed and said the city and state government could be doing a much better job protecting these groups. Over the full course of the pandemic, New York City and New Jersey still sit first overall in COVID-19 fatality rate, and New York State ranks among the top-20.
“Their commutes and their workplaces are risky places, and both of these things are completely under the control of the city,” Nash said. “There hasn’t been much in the way of monitoring the safety of public transportation or enforcing safety in the work environments.”
Nash is also concerned that the state and city officials are not delivering on their promises of making sure the COVID-19 vaccines reach the minority communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Neither the governor nor the mayor has publicly released a demographic breakdown of the vaccine rollout, despite requests from Gothamist.
A new Siena Poll suggests a wide disparity is emerging. Only 5 percent of Black respondents say they’ve been vaccinated, about half the proportion of white and Hispanic respondents who said they’ve gotten the vaccine.
The survey also recorded more vaccine resistance among minorities. Among Blacks and Hispanics, 58% and 61% said they planned to get the vaccine, respectively. For whites, it was 72%.