Health experts are urging masking to slow the next wave

New York is entering its third pandemic winter with the fewest public health rules in place since COVID-19 brought a citywide shutdown in March 2020.

Mayor Eric Adams waived vaccine requirements for private employers and for public school students participating in extracurricular activities. Gov. Kathy Hochul this month ended the mask requirement on public transportation.

New Yorkers can largely live their lives as if, as President Joe Biden recently said, “the pandemic is over.”

Still, public health experts, watching cases surge in Europe, expect New York to experience another winter spike in infections. While they expect it to be less severe than last year’s spike in infections, they say they are worried about the city’s near-complete lack of rules designed to prevent virus transmission.

“The concern is that easing precautions now will make the city much more vulnerable to a surge in the coming weeks and months,” said Dr. Bruce Lee, a professor at CUNY’s School of Public Health.

While hospitalizations and deaths have been low, cases have risen slightly in the city in recent weeks, from a seven-day average of 1,980 new cases on Sept. 4 to 2,132 on Sept. 23, the most recent day for which data is available, according to city records. The city’s coronavirus dashboard labels this rise in cases as “stable.”

The hands-off approach means health experts aren’t sure how severe the coming wave could be.

The city has seen widespread vaccination for the initial doses, but less for the boosters, which are key to keeping immunity against the coronavirus intact.

“I think the city needs to do a lot more in terms of putting multiple layers of protection in a case,” said Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler, a professor of public health at Hunter College.

Adams faced questions Tuesday from reporters about how the city will prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in the temporary tent shelters that will house newly arrived migrants. Adams did not offer specifics, but said the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, will address public health needs and hold a briefing on COVID-19.

“Now that people are indoors, the weather is going to get colder, Dr. Vasan will take all of that into account,” Adams said.

Vasan led the reversal of several pandemic-era health policies, including the end of vaccine requirements for restaurant dining and entry into other establishments.

Last week, he said he hoped the new boosters, if widely adopted, would slow the transmission of COVID-19.

“People’s sense of risk has gone down, and I think that’s a good thing and should be counted as a good thing,” Vasan said. “People aren’t as afraid of COVID because fewer people are dying, fewer people are being hospitalized, and that’s a result of all of us collectively getting a boost, doing the right things, wearing masks during the worst of it .”

Still, Lee said it’s unclear to epidemiologists and public health experts whether the city’s vaccination efforts so far will be effective in stopping the spread of a possible next wave.

We don’t know, he said, what exposure during last winter’s wave came from the delta variant versus the omicron variant, the latter of which dominated infections this year. While omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are currently the most common, new variants, such as BQ.1 and BA.2.75, are increasing their share of infections in Europe and the US and may be sufficiently different in structure to avoid immune responses for earlier variants.

“This raises the question of how much protection can really be provided,” Lee said, both from earlier vaccines and from previous infections. “There’s a big difference between being boosted a year ago and getting it recently.”

Lee and Wallhandler said they are encouraging New Yorkers to get a booster and resume wearing masks in public.

“My whole family and I – we are four doctors – wear masks when we go into public indoor places,” Wallhandler said. “It would be much better if everyone did.”

Lee emphasized that masking up and making other small changes, such as keeping windows open at home or at the office, will help ensure that New York City can continue to function as normal.

“Maintaining precautions doesn’t mean derailing your life,” Lee said.

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