New York Has Tamed the Virus. Can It Hold Off a Second Wave?

By J. David Goodman

The sustained low rate of infection has surprised local health officials. But a resurgence may be inevitable, despite the state’s and city’s best efforts.

New Yorkers are dining outside, and even in the suburbs where indoor dining is permitted, many people prefer outdoor tables.
New Yorkers are dining outside, and even in the suburbs where indoor dining is permitted, many people prefer outdoor tables.Credit...Brittainy Newman for The New York Times
J. David Goodman

Health experts in New York City thought that coronavirus cases would be rising again by now. Their models predicted it. They were wrong.

New York State has managed not only to control its outbreak since the devastation of the early spring, but also to contain it for far longer than even top officials expected.

Now, as other places struggle to beat back a resurgence and cases climb in former success-story states like California and Rhode Island, New York’s leaders are consumed by the likelihood that, any day now, their numbers will begin rising.

The current levels of infection are so remarkable that they have surprised state and city officials: Around 1 percent of the roughly 30,000 tests each day in the city are positive for the virus. In Los Angeles, it’s 7 percent, while it’s 13 percent in Miami-Dade County and around 15 percent in Houston.

The virus is simply no longer as present in New York as it once was, epidemiologists and public health officials said.

“New York is like our South Korea now,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

But nothing is static about the viral outbreak, experts cautioned. The question now is whether the state, where 32,000 people have died of the virus, can keep from being overwhelmed by another wave, as threats loom from arriving travelers, struggles with contact tracing and rising cases just over the Hudson River in New Jersey.

ImageSo far, the opening of beaches in the city has not sparked outbreaks.
So far, the opening of beaches in the city has not sparked outbreaks.Credit...September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times

In more than a dozen interviews, epidemiologists, public health officials and infectious disease specialists said New York owed its current success in large part to how New Yorkers reacted to the viciousness with which the virus attacked the state in April.

State officials shut down schools and businesses, sacrificing jobs and weakening the economy to save lives. Adherence to mask wearing has been strong. Many vulnerable New Yorkers are still sheltering in their apartments. Others decamped to second homes.

And, critically, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio reopened cautiously, deciding in late June against allowing indoor dining and bars after seeing those activities connected to outbreaks in other states.

“People in New York have taken matters much more seriously than in other places,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a historian of epidemics at the University of Michigan. “And all they’re doing is reducing the risk. They’re not extinguishing the virus.”

More New Yorkers are riding the subway, though numbers are still way below pre-pandemic levels.Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Still a resurgence is all but inevitable, public health experts said.

Local beaches have filled on hot weekend days. Diners flock to outdoor restaurants with plywood patios. More than 1.2 million people took the subway on a recent Tuesday, down dramatically compared to a year ago, but more than double what it was on a Tuesday in May.

The same models that predicted an increase in New York City for the summer now see a rise coming in the early fall. Life can be lived outside for now, but will move indoors as the weather cools — just as the flu season is ramping up. Schools are set to open in September.

And confidence in the good numbers themselves could breed complacency about masks and distancing. Already, the city has seen a number of large illicit dance parties and a worrisome spike in cases in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

“I’m not optimistic about a sustained end to Covid-19 in New York,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University. “Even though we had that horrible peak in April, when we were the epicenter, there are still millions of people who are vulnerable.”

Among the biggest threats, officials and epidemiologists said, were out-of-state travelers, who continue to arrive in New York despite a state-mandated 14-day quarantine.

The governor instituted the quarantine requirement for anyone coming to New York from a state with high infection rates. Eight states were initially affected; the list has since grown to 31 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

More than 160,000 people have been subject to the quarantine since the start of June, state officials said. But enforcement of the order is near-impossible, and the state could not say how many have actually quarantined.

About 20 percent of new positive cases in New York City have been connected to out-of-state travel, city officials said, with Florida, Georgia and New Jersey the top departure points. Last week, Mr. de Blasio said drivers entering the city could be pulled over at random to be informed of the state’s quarantine rules.

The majority of those reached by the city’s contact tracers have not shared the names of anyone they might have infected: More than 12,500 people who tested positive did not give their contacts to the city, out of about 22,000 total. Those who did shared an average of between two and three contacts.

But city officials could not say how many of those testing positive for the virus were already known to contact tracers — in other words, how many new cases had a connection to a previous positive case. That is considered by infectious disease experts to be a key metric for gauging how under control an outbreak is.

Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior adviser for public health, said the city’s program had prevented “thousands” of new infections, based on the number of people identified as symptomatic contacts who said they were in quarantine. Just over 200 people have isolated themselves in a city-funded hotel since the start of June.

“I don’t think it’s correct to insinuate that the work that we’re doing is not having an impact when you clearly see the impact in terms of disease numbers in New York,” Dr. Varma said.

Patterns of infection around the state suggest New Yorkers, like most Americans, are chafing under pandemic restrictions.

Updated August 17, 2020

    • The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It's a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it's windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
    • As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
    • The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
    • It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.

In New York City, neighborhoods with the highest rate of infection are increasingly found in Manhattan — Hell’s Kitchen or the Financial District, for example, which are home to wealthier residents — in addition to the parts of the Bronx and Queens that have long been hard hit.

In younger, wealthier parts of the city, infection numbers are higher, but mask wearing is largely prevalent.Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times

She said the most important factor in New York’s success so far has been broad acceptance of masks and social distancing, adding, “I think it would be foolish of us to not plan for an inevitable second wave.”

Fatigue with the rules has already sparked localized outbreaks in parts of the state: a high school graduation in Chappaqua that resulted in the infections of 28 people; a July 4 party in Albany that drew 200 people.

Pediatricians in Westchester County became alarmed when families recently began seeking coronavirus tests in order to go to children’s parties where proof of a negative test was required to attend.

“Unfortunately, people still really don’t understand what the testing means,” said Dr. Sherlita Amler, the county’s health commissioner. “It’s just a moment in time. It’s not a get-out-of-jail card.”

While antibody surveys have suggested one in five New York City residents may have already been exposed, public health officials do not believe herd immunity is behind the low numbers, or could be relied on in the future.

What may protect New Yorkers who decide to buck the rules and gather in groups without masks is the fact that so many of their neighbors are still masking up, said Dr. Barbot.

“If a new infection gets introduced into the community, it will be a terminal transmission, meaning that it won’t go any further,” she said. “More people wearing face coverings seems to be in line with that.” She cautioned that it was a theory and the data is not yet there.

And even at the currently low levels, the number of new virus cases in New York City — 386 reported positive on Tuesday out of 46,185 tested, according to state data — is still too great for its contact tracers to effectively determine where people are becoming infected, said Dr. Barbot. The new norms of behavior have to continue for the foreseeable future, she said.

“I think that we are changing the culture,” said Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, adding that social distancing and masks are now almost “a reflex.”

Such changes have been evident from new behaviors. In Westchester County, where indoor dining is allowed, patrons are opting to eat outside. Some restaurants still only offer outdoor seating.

“When the weather turns colder, that will be the test of whether people are comfortable dining indoors,” said Noam Bramson, the mayor of New Rochelle, which had the first reported cluster in New York in March. The city of 80,000 had 33 active cases at the end of July, he said, down from more than 1,000 in the spring.

The ways New York has contained the virus are varied, and together offer a preview of what life may look like for months if not years to come.

“The work force is going to be different for a while,” said Jim Malatras, who has been advising Governor Cuomo on the virus response. He wondered aloud when and how things like gyms or movie theaters would be able to open safely in the state. (On Monday, the governor announced gyms would be allowed to open with limited capacity on Aug. 24.)

“We’re taking it slow,” he added. “Dave Matthews isn’t performing at Madison Square Garden anytime soon.”