LETTER FROM NEW YORK : During the first, local wave of the Coronavirus pandemic in New York, the public health system collapsed, leading to a shortage of hospital beds and medical equipment. A confinement order helped to "flatten the curve" of the pandemic. A second, local wave has eased due to restrictions and vaccinations. But the spread of a new variant poses challenges as Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo make a second attempt to reopen the economy. Photograph by Faetous (CC BY-SA 4.0) ; image was cropped from the original.

In New York, an élitism informs the economic reopening, even as a foreign COVID-19 variant, B.1.617, continues its spread

As they reopen the economy, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo ignore the lessons about the spread of new variants, including B.1.617, in the U.K. and Singapore.

By Progress New York Staff

Updated 23 May 2021 20:00 For the second time, Government officials in New York are acting like the Coronavirus pandemic has come to an end. Critics of the changes in Government policy have accused Mayor Bill de Blasio (WFP-New York City) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) of making the same mistake they did late last summer, when they moved the goalposts that governed confinements in order to expand the reopening of public schools, a significant Government service that supports the employment of working parents. Now, as then, critics suspect the Government makes these attempts knowing that they can reverse bad decisions when the next spikes in infections, or outbreaks, become known rather than to wait for the Coronavirus to stop mutating.

The offices of Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo did not answer interview requests for this report.

The moves made by New York to reopen the economy are taking place faster than in the U.K., an area with a higher vaccination rate, even if with more than triple the population. The mayor first proposed to reopen the economy by 1 July, but Gov. Cuomo pushed for lifting most restrictions by 19 May.

Even though the U.K. has administered at least one vaccine dose to a higher percentage of its adult population compared with New York State (70 per cent., compared with 63,3 per cent.), the British Isles remain in their final stage of lockdown until 21 June. The U.K. administers the Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca vaccines, whereas the U.S. administers the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Amongst the chief concerns for U.K. health officials is the spread of Coronavirus variants. For example, a variant first detected in India and that has been reportedly ravaging that South Asian Nation, the B.1.617 strain, has been forecast by CNBC to become the dominant variant in the U.K., according to a report. Separately, data analysis by the scientific group Independent Sage and shared online by Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist formerly with Harvard and John Hopkins universities, showed that the B.1.617.2 substrain was now spreading in one U.K. community amongst school-aged children and the well-vaccinated older age groups, raising questions about the public health sector’s preparedness for variants. The CNBC report added that the swift spread of the B.1.617 variant within the U.K., despite its high vaccination rate, foreshadowed concern for other Nations with lower vaccination rates.

Across New York State, the rate of new vaccinations is falling — with a noticeable drop of 43 per cent. in vaccinations from early April to mid-May, according to a report published by the Wall Street Journal. The lower vaccination rate and the drop in new vaccinations in New York does not inspire confidence in an economic reopening that appears to be ignoring the threat of the B.1.617 variant.

So much emphasis has been placed on reducing community transmission, a goal that appears to have been again reached in New York following the second, local wave of the pandemic. But that sole focus ignores the threat of variants. After only two New York City variant sequencing reports that contained information about the B.1.617 strain, the B.1.617.2 substrain nearly doubled its prevalence from 2,3 per cent. of cases for the week ending 2 May to 4,1 per cent. for the week ending 9 May. If the B.1.617.2 substrain can spread with the U.K. with its much higher rate of vaccination, then it can certainly spread in New York, Government critics say.

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In New York, Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo have been marketing a perceived ending of the pandemic in order to facilitate a speedy reopening of the economy.

Within the five boroughs of New York City, only 49 per cent. of the population over the age of 16 has received at least one Coronavirus vaccine dose. Even compensating for the expanded inclusion of some teenagers, that’s a low accomplishment, putting New York City at risk for the emergence and spread of variants, concerns raised in a report published by the New York Times in March that somehow ignored the possibility of the B.1.617 variant arriving in New York. Even the much-heralded success story of Singapore’s response to the Coronavirus was no match for the B.1.617 variant. In the island Nation, where the first-dose vaccine rate exceeds 33 per cent., health officials traced recent Coronavirus outbreaks to vaccinated essential workers. As a result, “the country shut schools, restaurants and bars after losing control of outbreaks at the airport and a hospital,” according to a report published by the Washington Post. Singapore administers the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The experience emerging in public health around the world is that vaccinations alone are not enough to counter extremely communicable variants, validating the concerns expressed in the CNBC report. When coupled with the new advisories issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, namely, that the vaccinated can resume pre-pandemic activities without a mask or social distancing, then vulnerable communities face added risk. As a bombshell analysis by the New Yorker magazine showed about the early response to the Coronavirus pandemic, successful public health responses to a pandemic encourage the public to change their behaviour. But many signals now convey that there’s less need to worry. As a result, behaviours will change to match the Government’s signaling instead of matching the data.

Staten Island at 46 per cent., Brooklyn at 43 per cent., and the Bronx with 40 per cent. have even lower rates of first dose administration than the City-wide average of 49 per cent, making communities that lack healthcare infrastructure more vulnerable to exposure to variants. When those inoculated were measured by race or ethnicity, the disparities were even worse : Only 33 per cent. of Latinxs and 27 per cent. of Blacks have received at least one vaccine dose in New York City. The economic reopening underway now is arguably not safe for vulnerable communities, whose rates of health and wellbeing have lagged those of Whites. In contrast, the U.K., where the conservative leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is coming under fire for a reported bungled COVID-19 response, has managed to vaccinate 59 per cent. of Black adults at least once — nearly double Mayor de Blasio’s rate.

To critics, Mayor de Blasio is merely returning us to the status quo by reopening the economy at a pace swifter than in the U.K. He’s demonstrating by omission that the Government isn’t interested in ending the racial disparities in healthcare before shifting the responsibility of the mandatory public health advisories from everyone to only those individuals, who reflect such risk sensibilities. Since the reopening of the economy is doing nothing to address systemic racism that leads to healthcare disparities based on race, many of the more prevalent existing health conditions that have been known to likely lead to hospitalisation and death from COVID-19 — such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and HIV infection, to name a few — will be brought with us into a future certain to include Coronavirus variants.

Against the backdrop of healthcare vulnerabilities based on race, the political and wealthy élites have enjoyed special access to healthcare unavailable to the general public.

Not long after the Coronavirus pandemic began, Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller, began to telegraph the Government’s real priority. In a section on the state of the City’s economy in his annual comments to the Fiscal Year 2021 adopted budget, Comptroller Stringer’s office revealed that the Government viewed school reopenings as the predominant issue affecting economic activity. “If public schools don’t reopen, parents of up to a million school children will have to provide their own childcare on at least a part-time basis, inhibiting many parents’ ability to return to full-time work,” the report indicated. The Government has solely been focused on a return to the status quo, not a recovery from the conditions that first placed so many vulnerable people at-risk of disease and death due to the pandemic.

Because the Government has become dysfunctional as a result of political bossism and the corrupting role of campaign contributors, the Government has faced accusations of withholding data about infections and deaths in order to advance an economic reopening. Last year, Gov. Cuomo withheld data about Coronavirus deaths traced to New York State nursing homes. As reported by Progress New York, Mayor de Blasio withheld both Coronavirus testing data last March after test positivity results began to approach 15 per cent. in some New York City zip codes and Coronavirus sequencing data earlier this month before the Government’s first disclosure that the B.1.617 variant had been detected in New York City. As the B.1.617.2 substrain has been spreading within New York City, the variant reports have been sequencing ever fewer total samples, raising questions about the accuracy of its reported values. The only way the general public could be eased back into an economic reopening would be to minimise possible sources of worry, even if that meant either delaying the release of health data or releasing less reliable data, during a pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, the Government has countenanced privileges for wealthy. For example, Gov. Cuomo and many business and Government officials were granted special access to COVID-19 tests at a time when the tests were new and scarce, according to a series of reports published by the New York Times. Wealthy individuals have also had access to at-home COVID-19 test kits for months. Rock star Courtney Love claimed on an Instagram post that she and her wealthy friends have used test kits since at least the early summer of 2020, according to a report published by the U.K. news Web site, the Independent. And before the advent of the vaccines, the wealthy were reported to be buying their own personal ventilators and on-demand doctors, as revealed by a report published by the Wall Street Journal.

When viewed through a prism of corruption and racism, it would make sense that the Government was not worried that an economic reopening would put vulnerable people at a disadvantage, because those of privilege have always had a way of purchasing their own care.

So much of politics is vanity, and of course Mayor de Blasio would offer to give obligatory lipservice to addressing racial disparities in New York by first breaking a promise to form a commission to study racial disparities before making a similar promise once again. This was the same mayor who, after all, defended his administration’s use of race-based policing tactics and who tolerated racial segregation in public schools throughout his two terms in office. The systemic racism, which was exposed by the Coronavirus pandemic, has been the product of the multiple terms in office by Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo.

The same Government officials, who pushed for the reopening of the economy just before the second, local wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, have reopened the gates again, even as the signals from Nations, like the U.K. and Singapore, predict outbreaks of B.1.617.2 substrain — and possibly others.

Postscript

The Pfizer and AstraZeneca Coronavirus vaccines were found to be less than effective against against the B.1.617.2 substrain, as compared against the current, prevalent variant in the U.K., the B.1.1.7 strain, according to a report published by the Evening Standard, a U.K. newspaper. Earlier, a report published by the Hindustan Times noted that the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were less than effective against against the B.1.617.2 substrain, as compared against other strains.

Christina Pagel, a U.K. professor of operational research at University College London, noted online that the lower efficacy of vaccines against the B.1.617.2 substrain has not been sufficiently acknowledged by Government ministers, adding that any vaccine escape (the ability of strains to escape coverage by vaccines) could lead to a mass outbreak. Even when there was no vaccine escape but higher transmissibility, there could still be a mass outbreak. Prof. Pagel’s analysis was informed by data modeling.

A mass outbreak in a scenario where a Coronavirus variant does not threaten vaccine escape but does possess higher transmissibility, as the latter has been reported about the B.1.617.2 substrain, would be possible, because so many communities, particularly those at-risk for other diseases, have yet to be vaccinated in the face of changing public health advisories about the wearing of masks and social distancing.

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