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Covid and Monkeypox: Where New York City Stands


Buenos dias. It’s Monday. Today, one topic: the state of the viruses — Covid-19 and monkeypox.

New York City is living through a sixth wave of Covid-19 at the same time that a new virus, monkeypox, has appeared. Over the weekend, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a “public health emergency of international concern.” That is a designation the WHO currently uses for only two other diseases, Covid-19 and polio.

As if Covid and monkeypox weren’t enough, there has been an outbreak of polio in Rockland County, northwest of the city, with the health department there setting up pop-up polio vaccination clinics.

Against that backdrop, I asked Sharon Otterman, who covers health care and the pandemic for the Metro desk, to assess where things stand.

You wrote that New York is responding to the latest wave of Covid with that most New York of reactions — a shrug. How troubleshooting are the positive rates and transmission levels?

A lot of people are getting Covid as the BA.5 subvariant of Omicron moves through the city — some for the first time, while others are being reinfected.

New York City’s Covid-19 test positivity rate is just under 15 percent. Transmission levels of the virus, according to federal guidelines, are high in every borough, with about 4,200 infections being recorded each day. Even hospitalizations, while far below previous peaks, have risen.

On the other hand, most New Yorkers already have some immunity, whether from multiple vaccines or earlier bouts of the virus. This is helping to keep most of us out of the hospital, even though Covid can still be difficult and prolonged for some people.

For New York, this is a contrast, isn’t it? For so much of the pandemic, so many New Yorkers were careful. They wore masks, got vaccinated and got increased in greater numbers than people in many other places. What have you changed?

To be sure, there are still some very cautious New Yorkers. Some people still wear masks in their offices, at Broadway shows, even on the street as they walk from place to place. This is sometimes to protect themselves and sometimes to protect others.

But for many New Yorkers, they just aren’t as afraid of the virus as they once were. They are less willing to shape their lives around a virus that no longer feels deadly to them and that may just be part of everyone’s lives for the long term.

The city has been distributing at-home tests as well as Paxlovid, the antiviral drug that protects against severe symptoms. How successful has the distribution been? Does the city have enough tests and enough Paxlovid to go around?

As of July 4, 82,700 courses of Paxlovid had been dispensed in New York City, according to the Department of Health, and there were tens of thousands of doses available. The city says there is enough Paxlovid for whoever qualifies.

While the city has not released a breakdown by race or neighborhood of who has gotten Paxlovid, equity has been a concern. As a result, the health department has deployed some “test and treat” mobile units that can park in neighborhoods with less access to health care.

Still, it has been easier to get Paxlovid in New York City than many other places. People with Covid can call 212-COVID19 to be connected virtually with a provider to see if they qualify, or they can get a prescription from their doctors.

As for home tests, the city has millions of them. They are available at distribution points, such as libraries, and the city has moved to a testing strategy that emphasizes them.

The city did away with its color-coded alert system as cases were climbing into the red zone. What was the motivation for doing that?

Mayor Eric Adams had instituted the color-coded alert system early in his mayoralty, but as the months passed, it became clear that he didn’t find it useful. As the alert levels moved from medium to high, he didn’t follow its suggested recommendations, such as bringing back vaccination checks at restaurants. So when the alert system was going to move back into high, after a brief stop at medium between two Omicron waves earlier this summer, I decided to scrap it.

Officially, the city is reassessing it. It seems the city only wants a high alert to be triggered in case of a serious strain on the health care system.

Let’s shift to the monkeypox outbreak. How serious is it?

As of Friday, 839 people had tested positive in New York City, a bit more than a quarter and a bit less than a third of all cases nationally.

Nearly all the cases have been among men who have sex with men, and it appears the virus is mostly transmitting through close, intimate contact. The risk is particularly high if they have multiple sexual partners or are hooking up via apps or at raves. For this reason, the limited vaccine that is available is reserved for this community.

For people not in this community, the risk right now is judged to be low. That could change, however, if the virus continues to spread.

The messaging about monkeypox has divided the Health Department. why?

Some epidemiologists think the city needs to be direct in advising gay and other men who have sex with men to limit or change their sexual behavior until this outbreak is brought under control.

But the department’s leadership believes it is more effective to simply provide information about the virus to people, as well as a range of strategies that may make it less likely for them to get monkeypox.

This is a difficult debate. Some gay men say they are offended by the discussion. They say they are already changing their behavior and don’t need the preaching, which could backfire. Beyond that, many who work in public health say an abstinence-focused message, even if it is well-intentioned, it could create more stigma around having monkeypox. And that, in turn, could keep some people from seeking help.


Weather

After a scorching weekend, it won’t be quite so hot today. Expect temps in the high 80s and thunderstorms with gusty winds in midafternoon. The showers will continue into the evening, with temps dropping to the low 70s.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until Aug. 15 (Feast of the Assumption).


Dear Diary:

I was waiting for the bus in Park Slope, my hands in fists in the bottom of my torn red gloves. When I was 15, someone told me that your hands don’t get as cold if your fingers are together, connected, and I’ve always remembered that.

There were two aloe plants on the silver bus stop seats, one at each end, with the middle seat empty. A middle-age man in a large blue coat wandered by and took a picture of the plants.

I started to get sad about my relationship having ended before the holidays. The wind bit my cheeks.

A woman came out of the realty office behind me. She smiled.

“Would you like aloe plant?” she said.

“I thought those were there for decoration,” I said.

“Please take,” she said. “I have plant inside that has grown too big for pot. I can’t keep all.”

She went inside and showed me the plant through the window. It looked like a giant green octopus. She came back out with some cuttings.

“Take one, take two,” she said. “Just put in soil.”

“OK, sure,” I replied. Thank you!

I held the bumpy creatures in my hands as the bus pulled up. After getting off, I walked toward my house, cutting in each hand.

A man passed me.

“That looks good!” he said.

I whirled around.

“Do you want one?” I asked.

“Oh no, I couldn’t,” he said.

“No, please, someone was just giving these away on the street.”

“Wow, yes,” he said. “I’d love one. My mother-in-law just gave me a pot and I wanted to get a succulent.”

I walked to my house, one hand holding my remaining cutting and the fingers of my free hand wrapped around each other into a ball. That hand was much warmer.

—Mare Berger

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.


Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — JB

PS Here’s today’s mini-crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.



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