A surge in positive tests for COVID-19 in New York has spurred dread of another wave of potentially deadly infections — even calls to again require masks indoors.
Yet while the number of cases is rising quickly, fueled by the highly contagious Delta virus variant, the number of people ill enough to require hospitalization is increasing modestly compared to the previous coronavirus wave last fall. Those local numbers echo national trends, with a majority of the city’s population now protected by vaccination.
“Despite the widespread existence of Delta, I don’t think we’re going to see the kind of hospitalization rates that we’ve had before,” said Dr. Jessica Justman, an associate professor of Medicine in Epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. “I do think that the vaccines are going to keep a lot of people protected from severe illness, hospitalization and death.”
She added: “If we didn’t have a vaccine, we would be seeing a much bigger increase in hospitalizations.”
But she and other medical experts said a fully vaccinated population will stop more variants from emerging, while helping protect people who are currently vulnerable.
The vast majority of recent infections and hospitalizations involve people who haven’t been vaccinated — a population that includes more than a million New Yorkers ages 18 to 44.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who last week mandated vaccinations or weekly COVID testing for city health care workers, called Friday on private employers to “move immediately” to do the same. “We have reached the limits of a purely voluntary system,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. “It’s time for more mandates.”
On Monday, City Hall announced that the mandate will extend to all city workers, with weekly tests and masks required for those who decline to get the shots.
As of Friday, 261 New York City residents were in hospitals for COVID complications — up from a low of less than 200 for much of June and July, but rising at a much slower rate than the surge of infections that started showing up in test results earlier this month.
An analysis by THE CITY of state Department of Health statistics shows a sharp contrast between the pace of new hospitalizations now compared with the rate during the start of the second COVID wave in New York City, in November 2020.
Positive tests for COVID are on the upswing — but hospitalizations in NYC have not gone up as fast as they did as the last wave got underway
Percent change in the seven-day average of new cases and number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in New York City.
Source: NYS Department of Health
Staten Island Suffering
The vast majority of this year’s cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated New Yorkers. The city health department said 98% of the half million positive tests, 37,000 hospitalizations and 8,000 deaths through June 15 were found among those who had not received the vaccine.
Parts of Staten Island are seeing relatively high numbers of residents end up in the hospital with COVID. Residents of Great Kills are likelier than people anywhere else in the city to be hospitalized in the current wave, with nine hospitalizations between June 12 and July 9 out of the neighborhood’s roughly 30,000 people.
And the borough’s Mid-Island section sent a dozen residents to the hospital during that period, according to the city’s latest health department data.
In Brooklyn, Canarsie also had 12 residents hospitalized during that time, the stats show. Both Great Kills and Canarsie have vaccination rates well below the city average, with just 36% of Canarsie residents fully vaccinated.
People in their 70s and older who contract the virus are likeliest to become seriously ill or die after COVID infection, health statistics show.
Justman said a relatively high vaccination rate among older people has helped keep local hospitalization numbers down during the Delta wave. Three-quarters of New Yorkers ages 65 years old or older have been vaccinated. That lags the national average of 80% but exceeds that of other age groups locally.
Among New York City adults, 65% are now fully vaccinated, as are 44% of young people ages 12 to 17, according to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Children under 12 are not yet authorized to receive the vaccine.
On Friday, de Blasio announced the city is opening 25 pop-up vaccination sites at Summer Rising programs starting Monday in a bid to encourage more students to get their shots before the first day of school.
No Doses for Some
Still, city employees, including police officers and firefighters, are heavily represented among those who’ve yet to get vaccinated against COVID-19, which has already killed more than 33,500 New Yorkers.
Some of the city’s largest agencies have lower vaccination rates than the general public. Of NYPD’s 54,000 uniformed and civilian workforce, only 43% are vaccinated, the New York Post reported last week, also finding that the FDNY has a 55% vaccination rate. Roughly 42% of city Department of Correction workers are vaccinated, the agency told THE CITY, based on information it has about those who were vaccinated in the five boroughs.
Both the city’s 135,000 public school employees and 42,000 public hospital workers have a 60% vaccination rate. An MTA spokesperson estimated 65% to 70% of the transit agency’s 65,000 employees have received the vaccine.
Some local officials — including Brooklyn Councilmember Brad Lander, who won the Democratic nomination for city comptroller — are advocating to make vaccination mandatory for a wider range of city workers who interact with the public, including police, firefighters, teachers and school staff.
Lander, building on de Blasio’s model for health care workers, proposed weekly testing as an alternative for those who aren’t vaxxed. Some vaccine advocates say even that isn’t aggressive enough.
“Why do this incrementally?” said Dr. Scott Ratzan, a director of CONVINCE USA, a national research group to increase vaccine literacy and a CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy lecturer. “All city employees, including teachers, should have to be vaccinated to return to work.”
Ratzan said allowing weekly testing as a substitute gives an “out” to those who refuse to get vaccinated, “while we know people are dying from COVID still and the people who are dying are the unvaccinated.”
“They’re at risk to what is out there today,” Ratzan added. “They’re at risk for what will be out there for weeks to come until they get a vaccine.”