New York City could bring back mask mandate, vaccine checks

Children are seen walking to school, on the first day of lifting the DOE’s indoor mask mandate for K-12 schools, in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., March 7, 2022.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

New York City could bring back mask-wearing mandates and proof of vaccination status for going to restaurants, bars and other venues if Covid hospitalizations rise to a worrying level, according to the city’s top health official.

The city raised its Covid alert level from low to medium earlier this week as infections surpassed a rate of 200 per 100,000 people, driven by the more contagious omicron BA.2 subvariant. For now, health officials are asking residents to exercise extra caution by voluntarily wearing face coverings indoors and getting tested before and after gatherings.

However, Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan said New York could reinstate mandatory mask wearing and vaccination checks if the city raises its Covid alert level to a high level.

“It’s clear that if we moved into a high-risk, high-alert environment, we would be seriously considering bringing those mandates back,” Vasan told CNBC on Tuesday.

New York City’s alert system is based on new Covid community levels designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that trigger safety protocols based on hospitalization rates and the level of infection per person. capita. The city would go on high alert if hospital admissions rise to 10 patients per 100,000 people or if inpatient beds reach 10% occupancy on average over seven days.

Hospital admissions and bed occupancy are increasing; about seven in 100,000 people were hospitalized with Covid in New York City as of April 31, and about 3% of hospital beds were occupied as of that date.

“We would have to see those levels rise to worrying benchmarks for us to move into a higher risk category,” Vasan said. “I think the decisions we make now will be decisive.”

Mayor Eric Adams ended mandatory vaccination checks at restaurants and other indoor venues in early March as Covid infections plummeted since the height of the omicron wave. Adams also removed the mask mandate for public school students, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Children under the age of 5 are still required to wear masks to school, though the mandate has been the subject of a legal battle. Toddlers and preschoolers are the only remaining age group in the US not yet eligible for vaccination.

Infections and hospitalizations in the city are still down by more than 90% since the peak of the omicron wave in early January. Vasan said the city is moving from the emergency phase of the pandemic to an endemic phase where the virus is not as detrimental to society. However, the city needs to see a prolonged period of low Covid transmission before it can truly declare the pandemic over, he said.

“Between the end of the omicron wave and the beginning of this current wave, we had maybe a month of relatively low transmission,” Vasan said. “What I would like to see is a prolonged period of low transmission.”

Masks are still required on the subway, buses and train in New York City despite a federal court ruling last month that struck down the CDC’s public transportation mask mandate. Although the state of New York controls the city’s public transportation, Vasan said the city will support the mandate until Covid transmission is low or zero.

“Spending a lot of time underground without ventilation, in a bus with limited ventilation, or on an airplane, constitutes high-risk exertion for a highly transmissible airborne virus,” Vasan said.

It’s unclear when the city could enter a sustained period of low transmission. Many epidemiologists expect a spike in infections in the fall, as colder weather prompts people to spend more time indoors. New York City has a high wall of immunity against Covid-19 with nearly 80% of the population fully vaccinated, Vasan said, but that protection will wane over time and a more immune-evasive variant could always emerge.

“We don’t know what the drop will bring,” the health commissioner said, though he doesn’t expect an increase in the omicron level. “I’d be very surprised if we ever saw something like omicron again,” he said.

However, the city needs to be prepared for the possibility of a future increase, Vasan said. He called on Congress to pass additional Covid funding, saying the city relies on federal support for additional vaccines and increased access to antiviral treatments like Pfizer’s Paxlovid.

“Now is not the time to start reversing that,” Vasan said. “The pandemic is certainly not over.”

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