“Critical point”: is New York returning to normal too soon after the pandemic?

Easing COVID-19 restrictions in New York and other states could reverse gains in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, health experts say.

“It’s a little confusing and alarming to see this,” said Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in Manhattan.

With COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations still relatively high and the full effects of more contagious variants still unknown, it is premature to relax restrictions so dramatically, said Dr. William Schaffner, Medical Director of the National Infectious Disease Foundation and a Professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

“We are at a critical juncture,” said Schaffner, who believes the rollbacks are likely to lead to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths. “We vaccinate quickly and furiously. We have to hold out a little longer as a society.”

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has announced a series of relaxations to regulations in recent weeks, pointing to the decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations since the peak after the vacation – although the number remains is far higher than last summer.

Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, finds New York’s pace of reopening alarming amid the threat of variant and persistent high numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Image Credit: Corey Sipkin

The maximum indoor dining capacity will increase to 75% outside of New York City and 50% inside the city on Friday. Weddings of up to 150 people are allowed starting Monday, with limitations like 50% capacity, masks when not seated, and negative coronavirus test results. Art and entertainment venues will open from April 2nd at a 33% capacity, with up to 150 people indoors and 500 people outdoors, with restrictions. Domestic travelers will no longer need to quarantine upon their arrival in New York as of April 1.

Other states have gone much further, including Texas, which recently lifted a mask mandate and lifted capacity restrictions. Connecticut is removing restaurant capacity restrictions starting Friday, and Massachusetts did so on March 1st.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on March 1 that she was “very concerned that more states are adopting the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19 have to take back. ” With the proliferation of variants, we are completely losing the hard-earned ground that we have gained. “

According to Schaffner, some of the new rules in New York add significantly to the risk. “Groups of 150 to 500 people are just too big at this point,” Schaffner said, predicting that many people at events will ignore masking and social distancing requirements. Tests miss the newly infected and can lead to false negatives, he said.

Jack Sterne, a Cuomo spokesman, said in an email that New York’s moves cannot be compared to those in states like Texas, “which ruthlessly reopened” 100% “while mask mandates were lifted. New York’s reopening remains on thoughtful and methodical process based on data, science and security. “

The opposition to lifting restrictions is not universal. Dr. John Zerwas, a coronavirus advisor to Governor Greg Abbott, executive vice chancellor of health at the University of Texas system, told The Dallas Morning News that he supported Abbott’s lifting of all restrictions as the state’s COVID-19 numbers plummeted.

In New York, the rate of positive coronavirus tests has remained constant since late February, averaging between 3.1% and 3.2% for 7 days, after falling from 7.9% on Jan. 4.

The decline in hospital stays since early January has slowed. The number of New Yorkers hospitalized with COVID-19 remains above 4,600 after peaking at 9,273 after the January 19 vacation. Nearly 1,050 New Yorkers have died from COVID-19 in the past two weeks.

El-Sadr said, although the numbers have been going down since January, “We don’t want to have complacency, that people consider this a success, that we have this very high plateau that we are on. Success is what we achieved last have summer, and we’ve been able to keep it up for months without vaccines over the summer. “

During the summer, positivity rates were typically around 1% or less, and nationwide hospital stays fell 410 to 11 times lower on September 10 than Thursday.

New York has the second highest number of new coronavirus cases per capita every day, according to CovidActNow, a nonprofit website run by epidemiologists and other experts.

A man walks past a shutter last month

A man walks past a closed store for rent on Lower East Side Manhattan last month. While many companies have been hit by the pandemic shutdown, some experts are questioning whether the state will reopen too soon. Photo credit: AP / Mark Lennihan

Find a balance in the return of the economy

Richard M. Bivone, co-chair of the Long Island Business Council, said easing restrictions is helping businesses find it difficult to survive while maintaining mask and socially distant mandates to protect public health.

“There has to be a balance that everyone can live with,” he said.

Sterne said the state is monitoring metrics like hospital stays and positivity rates, and if there is another spike, “we’ll act quickly” by reversing some rollbacks.

Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief infectious disease at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, said it was “a tough question that must be absolutely answered” when it comes to increasing the capacity of restaurants and concert venues, for example to reopen. These places could disproportionately attract young people who are less likely to get COVID-19 but also more likely to spread the virus because they often have no symptoms, he said. Older people with health problems should be extra careful no matter what the law allows, he said.

However, following recently issued CDC recommendations, he said that, for example, two vaccinated couples can socialize without masks.

Normadeane Armstrong, a professor of epidemiology and public health at Molloy College at Rockville Center, said she was invited to a wedding later that month but declined because a close family member has health issues that make it susceptible to COVID-19 increase.

“When you’re in an area with 150 people, it’s like living with 150 potential exposures,” she said.

Armstrong said some of the state’s moves are sensible, such as allowing sports arenas to hold up to 10% capacity – as long as requirements like wearing masks, social distancing and negative test results are enforced.

El-Sadr said while vaccinations continue and if COVID-19 infections and hospital stays drop significantly, it might be appropriate to lower restrictions.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “But we still have to go through this tunnel before we get to this light.”

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David Olson covers health care. He has been with Newsday since 2015 and was previously responsible for immigration, multicultural issues and religion at The Press-Enterprise in Southern California.

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