NYC’s Phase III Reopening Should Be Delayed

Brief post today to express my growing concern about New York City’s slated July 6th entry into Phase III reopening, which, as currently planned, will allow resumption of indoor dining and personal care services (per the New York Times, “like manicures and tattooing”), and to share some articles I found interesting this week.

Rather than re-write, here’s the email I sent to an acquaintance who sits on one of NYC’s mayoral task forces on reopening:

I’m concerned that NYC’s entrance into Phase III is premature and risks renewed explosive spread of COVID-19 in the City. Obviously, there are many unknowns, and it is possible that factors as yet unidentified – such as potential COVID-19 cross-immunity with common cold-causing coronaviruses – mean [that] NYC is already at or near herd immunity, and the risk is much lower than I fear.

That being said, the national situation re: the pandemic is obviously a disaster at present; NYC’s percent positivity on daily test results has ticked back up in the last week as Phase II unfolds; our [state-wide] effective reproduction number seems to be climbing back towards 1 (after all the gubernatorial talk about our efforts being the most effective in the country, etc.) and we continue to have 300-400 new confirmed cases daily [in the City] (when, for sake of comparison, ~100 cases confirmed recently over the course of a week in Beijing was considered a major crisis); and a quick survey of this NYT article on “How All 50 States Are Reopening (and Closing Again)” suggests some correlation between renewed spikes in confirmed case counts and opening indoor dining, personal services, etc.

It’s summer in New York. It’s nice to be outside. I understand as well as anyone the eagerness to fully reopen (my wife [partner’s business] remains almost entirely shuttered/online), but if we ignore the increasingly clear science – that transmission is almost exclusively through respiratory droplets and [occurs] almost exclusively indoors – I believe we do so at our peril. Masks will certainly help, but I’m not convinced the trade-off is yet worth it to be taking the risk to extensively reopen indoor activities, like dining, for which mask wearing is an impossibility.

NYC City Councilmember, Mark Levine, shares my concerns, as do NYC Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams and another acquaintance of mine who sits on one of the task forces convened by Governor Cuomo (though the latter person confides, “Phase III likely will be delayed. We are trying … but a lot a pressure from businesses”). Understandable, of course, but reopening just to re-close will do that much more economic harm, and having once got things very very wrong here, we should now be striving, going forward, to get them right. My hope is we’ll see a convergence of informed public/political opinion around this and at least delay until we have firmer evidence around our present level of risk in NYC and to what extent resumption of indoor activities has been a key driver of explosive transmission in other states across the US.

Okay, and some articles to share:

  • Key takeaway from this National Bureau of Economic Research paper on “Black Lives Matter, Social Distancing, and COVID-19” is as follows: “[W]e find no evidence that urban protests reignited COVID-19 case growth during the more than three weeks following protest onset. We conclude that predictions of broad negative public health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests were far too narrowly conceived.” An important caveat here is that, when the authors write “too narrowly conceived,” they’re actually arguing that, while the protests themselves may, indeed, have been sources of significant contagion, overall, mobility decreased in cities/areas experiencing major protest activity, and because protesters constituted a relatively small (I’ve estimated elsewhere, low single-digit, at most) percentage of the overall population, the net effect of protests seems to have been roughly neutral, as a small fraction of the population exposed themselves to heightened risk, while the vast majority of the population actually reduced, on average, their risk of exposure, though out of fear of the “unrest” and not of the virus. Simultaneous protests and reopening of the economy in many places seems like an obvious potential confounding factor to me for this sort of study, and given the time horizon of epidemic spread (weeks to months) and the fact that protesters are not only protesters (just like meatpacking plant workers are not only meatpacking plant workers), I worry that this analysis understates the risk of super-spreading events at protests leading to ripple effects that, in the absence of contact tracing and in view of the above-mentioned conflation, will be impossible to attribute. Still, great that there hasn’t been a pronounced effect, and – as I’ve written elsewhere – I imagine my initial concern would have been significantly reduced had we known with clarity at the end of May what we know now about COVID-19 transmission.
  • My friend Ryan shared this study from Nature which shows that “Far-UVC light (222 nm) efficiently and safely inactivates airborne human coronaviruses.” Could be a promising disinfection method in some settings.
  • I think it’s wrong to say “the Virus Won” for many reasons, but this New York Times multimedia piece is instructive, nonetheless, as a breakdown of the breakdown of the US pandemic response to date.
  • Good, long, infuriating piece from Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept on “How the NYPD Weaponized a Curfew Against Protesters and Residents.”
  • Finally, David Dayen thinks the President will lose the election in November because “he’s bad at being president, and with the coronavirus he’s found a way to be bad in public.” I hope Dayen is right.

Also, not an article, but always nice when someone “come[s] clean about a lie [he] spread as a health insurance exec: We spent big $$ to push the idea that Canada’s single-payer system was awful & the U.S. system much better. It was a lie & the nations’ COVID responses prove it.”

Hope everyone’s staying healthy, sane, and engaged, and sending my love and support to friends and readers in now-hard-hit states across the US, and in India, Brazil, and countries elsewhere around the world which are now facing what we suffered through in New York not so long ago.

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