New York may return mandatory masks and vaccine checks

Children are seen walking to school on the first day of the lifting of mandatory indoor masks for DOE schools aged K to 12 in Brooklyn, New York, NY, USA March 7, 2022.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

New York City could return mandatory masks and proof of vaccination status to go to restaurants, bars and other places if Covid hospitalizations rise to alarming levels, the city’s top health official said.

Earlier this week, the city raised the Covid alert level from low to medium as the infection rate topped 200 per 100,000 people due to the more contagious omicron BA.2 subvariant. For now, health officials are asking residents to exercise extra caution by voluntarily wearing a mask indoors and being tested before and after gatherings.

However, Health Commissioner Ashwin Wasan said New York could restore mandatory masks and vaccinations if the city raises its Covid alert level to high.

“It is clear that if we were to move into a high-risk, high-alert environment, we would seriously consider returning these mandates,” Vasan told CNBC on Tuesday.

New York notification system based on new Covid Community Levels developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which run safety protocols based on hospitalization rates and infection rates per capita. The city will go on high alert if the number of hospitalizations rises to 10 patients per 100,000 people or if inpatient beds are 10% full on average over seven days.

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

“We need to get those levels up to benchmarks so we can move into the higher risk category,” Vasan said. “I think the choice we make now will be decisive.”

Mayor Eric Adams canceled mandatory vaccine checks at restaurants and other enclosed spaces in early March, as Covid infections plummeted from micromicron levels. Adams also removed the mandatory use of masks for students in public schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Children under the age of 5 are still required to wear masks at school, although this requirement has become the subject of legal action. 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 more than 90% below the peak of the omicron wave in early January. Wasan said the city is moving from an emergency phase of a pandemic to an endemic phase, when the virus is not as devastating to society. However, he said the city needs to endure a long period of low Covid transmission before it can truly declare an end to the pandemic.

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

Masks are still required on New York City subways, buses and trains, despite a federal court ruling last month that overturned the CDC’s mandate to use masks on public transportation. While New York State controls the city’s public transportation, Vasan said the city will maintain the mandate until Covid transmission is low or nil.

“Spending long periods of time underground without ventilation, in a bus with limited ventilation, or on an airplane all come with a high risk of contracting an airborne virus,” Vasan said.

When a city might enter a sustained period of low transmission is unclear. Many epidemiologists expect a spike in infections in the fall as colder weather encourages people to spend more time indoors. Wasan said New York City has a high wall of immunity against Covid, with almost 80% of the population fully vaccinated, but that protection will weaken over time and a variant more immune evading could always emerge.

“We don’t know what the drop will bring,” the health commissioner said, although he doesn’t expect omicron levels to spike. “I would be very surprised if we saw something like an omicron again,” he said.

However, according to Vasan, the city needs to be prepared for a possible surge in the future. He urged Congress to provide additional Covid funding, saying the city depends on federal support for additional vaccines and expanded access to antivirals like Pfizer’s Paxlovid.

“Now is not the time to go back to it,” Vasan said. “The pandemic is definitely not over.”

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