Is Covid surging in NYC right now? Is it a new variant? Should we be worried?
There are actually two new variants, and experts say neither is cause for great concern.
The EG.5 subvariant, also known as “Eris,” helped drive up Covid-19 cases and Covid-related hospitalizations in these past few weeks, as Epicenter’s Felipe De La Hoz recently reported. The uptick follows a national trend and is likely due to Eris’s greater ability to bypass immune defenses and the waning effectiveness of last fall’s booster shots, wrote Kathy Kathella of Yale Medicine.
While this variant was responsible for about a fifth of cases nationwide toward the end of August, scientists are saying it doesn’t pose a substantial threat.
Except for people who are elderly or immunocompromised, “this variant seems so far to be relatively mild,” said Dr. Mark Horowitz, a longtime partner of Epicenter-NYC on Covid-19 vaccination education, citing symptoms like sore throat, cough and congestion. “What has been found is more people are dying with Covid as opposed to of Covid, if you understand the difference.”
Then there is the BA.2.86 subvariant, or “Pirola,” which contains many mutations — as many as the first variant of Omicron. While this spooked scientists at first, the concern has been scaled back somewhat after early lab study findings.
“It’s a little too early to pass judgment,” Horowitz said. “In my own practice, I haven’t detected any major problem with this variant. People are experiencing mild illnesses. So my subjective experience is, there’s no cause for panic. We’ll know better in the next four weeks or so whether this variant escapes our immunity because it’s so different from previous variants. Most of us feel that’s not the case, but it’s a little too early to make a conclusion.”
Does my current vaccine or booster cover this subvariant?
It might not, at least compared to other vaccines and boosters.
“Based on the degree of mutations – while vaccinated people continue to be protected against serious illness – this [BA.2.86] variant may be more likely to evade immunity that has developed from vaccination or prior infection than earlier variants,” wrote NYC Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan in a statement published on Aug. 29.
Do the updated Covid vaccines cover this subvariant?
It looks promising.
Updated Covid vaccines are now available statewide. On Wednesday, Moderna and Pfizer told Reuters their updated Covid vaccines generated strong antibody responses when tested against BA.2.86 in lab mice.
Are vaccines and boosters still being offered for free?
Yes — or at least with no out-of-pocket costs to New Yorkers. If you have insurance, your insurance will be billed, but if you don’t, you still won’t have to pay. Learn more here. On Monday, the Food and Drug administration approved a new round of Covid boosters, which have been updated to include a monovalent (single) component that corresponds to the Omicron variant XBB.1.5.
Is free Covid testing — whether on-site rapid and PCR or at-home — still available?
Yes. (And these tests should be able to detect the new subvariants, experts say.)
Horowitz’s “test, test, test” mantra is an accessible one for many New Yorkers. You can pick up a free at-home Covid rapid test from one of these sites. You can get tested at one of the city’s Covid express sites, which promise to get you results in 24 hours or less by making an appointment here. You can also access PCR testing at the city’s 11 public hospitals and its public Gotham Health Centers. You can call (844) NYC-4NYC to transfer to the COVID hotline for an appointment.
Are expired at-home Covid tests still good to use?
The Food and Drug Administration extended the expiration dates for some at-home Covid tests. Before throwing away an expired Covid test, you can check if that applies to your stash here.
NYC public schools resume today — is any Covid-related guidance being offered?
The New York City Department of Education did not release any guidelines regarding Covid-19 for the first time since 2020. When visiting the Staying Healthy page on the DOE’s website, they do recommend that children have the Covid-19 vaccination and that they should stay at home for at least five days if they are diagnosed with the virus.
In terms of guidance, the site links to the official NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where information and resources are shared for all New Yorkers, including a Covid-19 Isolation and Exposure Guidance Tool.
How are parents and teachers feeling about the recent surge and accompanying lack of guidance?
Most parents we spoke to didn’t seem too concerned. Melissa Rivera, whose son is entering high school this year, told us “personally, I’m fine with it. I think at this point Covid is like the flu season. It’ll have ups and downs, so just take the same precautions.”
Jean, an elementary school teacher, told us that teachers are too busy complaining about the new curriculum. Joyce Rivera, a school counselor, told us that she is not concerned but would like to see some guidance. “I feel we have had enough experience, and now we have more accurate information so that we can individually take appropriate precautions to keep our kids healthy,” she said.
“I also have great confidence in my son’s school when it comes to prioritizing student wellbeing,” Rivera added. “Professionally, as a public school counselor, I would like to have official guidance on safety protocols and sick days before opening day so that families and staff can feel reassured that every school is prioritizing health and safety.”
But Martha, mom to an upcoming sixth grader in the Bronx, told us that she has mixed feelings. “No guidance from both schools and doctors make everything uneasy,” she said. “Do we get all three [vaccinations]? Or judge by the surges and past experience?”
Another sixth-grade parent, Jennifer Vargas, told us that she feels like the guidelines they had before “were crap.” “They didn’t really do anything. The paper forms were just something no one really read and some people even lied,” she said’ “My kids both got Covid one week into the school year last year, so the guidelines that were in place didn’t really do much of anything. General policy is fever-free for 24 hours and I know the schools still follow the CDC guidelines of five days quarantine once they test positive.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about practicing good hygiene, Vargas said. But, she added, in reality many people can’t afford time off from work, so it’s going to ultimately spread. She doesn’t expect schools to shut down unless something major happens.
How are you feeling about Covid? As always, let us know if you need help securing a test or booster, or replacing your vaccine card by filling out this form: https://forms.gle/zqjPa87JDa3GXNre6.
This is part of a series of articles exploring health equity in New York that is funded by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.
This post has been updated to include newer information about the updated Covid-19 vaccines.