Welcome to the latest edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter. I’m journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and while I’ve generally tried to stay away from the all-encompassing Covid-19 pandemic in this newsletter’s coverage, the time has come for us to revisit the persistent pathogen and its health and political implications.
Many of you may already have heard about the new variant known as Omicron. The ominous name and the prospect of yet another mutation that has the potential to evade vaccine protections has upended what many people saw as sort of the final sprint against the pandemic, but the most important thing to note right now is how little we have in the way of certainties. We simply don’t know how worried we should be about it, which is definitely a problem for health authorities and policymakers tasked with preemptively responding to the latest winding turn in an already two-year-long catastrophe.
Here’s the rough lay of the land: Omicron was first indexed and identified in South Africa, though it’s not clear that it actually emerged there (for its trouble keeping tabs on developing variants, the country and several of its regional neighbors were hit with a travel ban to the U.S.). It appears, given some of its mutations, to be more easily transmissible than prior variants, including Delta. However, crucially, early data suggests it is also less dangerous than prior variants, with a short study in South Africa showing that infected patients were much less likely to go to and stay in the hospital for Omicron infections. One working theory that explains both phenomena is that the virus essentially incorporated components of the common cold, making it more infectious but less deadly.
Vaccine manufacturers have been racing to figure out whether Omicron circumvents the shots, with Pfizer-BioNTech announcing this week that two doses of their vaccine did indeed appear to provide fewer antibody protections against it, though they also found that this impact disappeared when subjects had received a third booster dose (which means it’s probably a good idea at this time for you to get boosted if you haven’t already, as all adults in New York are eligible; here’s a handy FAQ and appointment-finder from the State Department of Health).
This constantly shifting panorama is ultimately how science works, but it’s not really how public policy does. Political leaders know that they’re caught between two chasms here. On one side is the possibility of overdoing the response to what may ultimately be a manageable or even relatively mild hazard. This will enrage an already pandemic-fatigued public, potentially tank the recovering economy, further delay children’s education, and force people back into some measure of social isolation right around the holidays, with all the negative impacts to mental health and social cohesion that might entail (not to mention the concurrent opioid overdose epidemic).
On the other side is the possibility of underestimating the threat and under preparing for it, in which the consequences are dire: preventable hospitalizations and deaths that political leaders will be directly blamed for, and which will eventually lead to the same exact Covid-19 countermeasures that they fear enacting preventively, except too late. It’s a bit of an impossible position, but someone has to make a decision, and New York’s political leaders have gone in different directions.
Gov. Kathy Hochul preemptively issued a state of emergency, which went into effect last week but took a relatively measured approach, mostly setting the groundwork for the eventuality of a surge that could tax hospital capacity by delaying nonessential medical procedures at some facilities, quickly ramp up stores of hospital supplies, and shore up staffing shortages with state personnel. She’s been encouraging New Yorkers to get their booster shots and take basic precautions, but there’s no indication that she’s planning anything more drastic, like shutdowns or curfews. It’s probably a smart move politically, and it’s hard to say she’s wrong for taking this approach. There are real and serious consequences to heavy-handed but unnecessary counter-measures, and at the end of the day she’s running for reelection next year as a pragmatist who will act deliberately and without succumbing to the pressures of transient political tides.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, on the other hand, has acted forcefully, issuing sweeping new vaccine mandates that have puzzled some observers and come under legal scrutiny. Among other things, these mandates would require children between the ages of 5 to 11 to provide proof of at least one dose before entering any restaurant, gym or entertainment venue starting on December 14, and require all private sector workers in the city who work in-person at an employer with at least two employees to be fully vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.
The over 180,000 businesses expected to be impacted—restaurants, barbers, gift shops, nail salons, tailors, chiropractors, everyone—have complained that the mandates in tandem are a sledgehammer to their recovery, with little notice and extremely unclear enforcement parameters. They claim that the mandates are fundamentally unnecessary in a scenario where nearly 90% of adult New York City residents have already received at least one dose, and that its primary impact will be to sow confusion.
There’s also the fact that it’s rumored that Mayor-Elect Eric Adams does not support these latest mandates, which is a problem for their implementation given that they’re going into effect just days before he takes over (the incoming mayor has stopped short of outright taking a position so far). Which begs the question of whether these orders are truly in furtherance of the public health, or whether they’re a part of de Blasio’s expected run for governor next year.
It’s obvious now to point out that the continuing response to Covid-19 will be a significant issue in the race, particularly as a pandemic-weary public grows increasingly impatient with even the prospect of additional restrictions after years of fighting this battle. For her part, Attorney General Letitia James, until this week another prominent candidate, doesn’t quite have the same executive decision-making role as de Blasio or Hochul, but staked out a forceful position in going after Amazon in court for supposedly easing Covid-response measures at its sprawling warehouse on Staten Island, indicating that she believes in somewhat of a more interventionist approach, even if she is no longer running for the office. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, another gubernatorial candidate, has made a number of strongly worded but ultimately empty statements on preparations for Covid-19, given that his position is almost pure bully pulpit with little in the way of direct authority.
In any case, what’s important to remember is that the political dimensions are not exactly the same as the public health imperatives. There’s a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to preventative measures, which goes something like this: if you implement strong preemptive restrictions, and they work, i.e. transmission remains low and there aren’t large numbers of excess deaths, people tend to think it was an overreaction because they worked. To some extent, the better you are at taking effective and decisive action, the more the public will believe that you acted disproportionately, because ultimately nothing happened (which, of course, is what you had intended). This contradiction will almost certainly color the way political figures continue to approach the Omicron threat.
Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado hit the streets to find out what New Yorkers are saying about the Omicron variant:
These statements are the opinions of New Yorkers, some statements regarding vaccines and Covid-19 are incorrect. Here are some resources you can read to stay informed:
“I got one vaccine dose, but I’m not sure whether I should get the second dose, because I have heard about the variant and they say it is very strong, but so far everything looks normal. It is nothing like before, when everything was closed and you constantly heard the ambulance sirens and the ambulance running around, people falling sick. It’s nothing like last time. Maybe it’s just to scare people off, maybe. It’s like a fear tactic to tell people to get vaccinated, because this is the new variant and the one who doesn’t get a vaccine will die.”
~ Domingo Jimenez, 50, street vendor
“I know it’s a new variant and that nobody knows what’s going on with it and they are so worried about it, I believe, is something they’re not telling us, because, why are you so worried? But you have no idea what it is. I’m a former military [man]. I know a lot of secrets that people have and they don’t tell the civilians what’s going on. But in my case I have two 9-year-old kids. They have already been fully vaccinated. I have my booster. You need to take care of yourself.”
~ Maximo Urena, 45, Attorney
“If the people are vaccinated up to the booster dose, then everything is fine in my opinion. Getting vaccinated is the most appropriate thing, and we have to wear the mask always. But nobody with the Omicron virus, nobody is affected in the area and nobody is in the hospital as far as I know. So let’s see what happens in the future. But now everything seems okay. When we are vaccinated, we are protected, but we have to make ourselves strong.”
~ Kanchan C., 36, travel consultant
“I don’t know a lot about the variant but I took the booster like two weeks ago, so I feel more safe. The variant does interfere with my travel plans because my family is in Israel, so I need to fly to visit them. So right now, it’s not an option for me because I am too afraid to go to do that.”
~ Shani, 29, dental assistant
“The new variant was supposedly discovered in South Africa, but potentially the Netherlands was first. California was the first recorded one in the U.S. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. [There is] fear, because I mean, it just means that the virus has mutated. You know, this isn’t going to end soon, so there is still fear. It’s about to be three years now.
~ Reina Yamazaki, 30 & Adin Markulim, 30
“From what I’ve heard about, the information that came out at least initially was that they couldn’t necessarily tell that it was either worse nor better than the other recent strain. But I mean, nonetheless, like the fact that there’s another strain to me just means it’s getting it’s kind of a bad thing because you don’t want variants in general. That means we’re not doing enough to stop the spread. I have been just practicing social distance from the beginning, and since I have a young daughter who can’t get vaccinated, my plan is just to continue doing that.I’m actually getting my booster shot today, and I definitely support people getting their vaccines, getting their boosters, anything that they can do because honestly, even just to protect the kids. It’s helping.”
~ Maran Goram, 27, homemaker
“The truth is that I know that even if we are vaccinated, I know that we are at risk of [getting Covid-19] because there are so many irresponsible people who have not [gotten vaccinated] and I think this is my opinion, that because of those people Covid has been mutating, because you know they are not vaccinated and they get it. And although I know that many people who are vaccinated will have less risk of death, I know others can [die] because of their condition. Maybe they are diabetic or have very big problems and although they may be vaccinated, they could also possibly die because their body may not resist [Covid variants].”
~ Leyla Hernandez, 55, nanny
“I have heard that so far it comes from Africa and that some of the vaccinations don’t work for the new variant. It makes me a little bit nervous, but if the variant comes we can take precautions as usual and it might not be so scary. I am vaccinated and I believe in them, but still I heard they don’t work for the new variant. So I’m not so scared, but also not feeling so safe.”
~ Nanami, 35, unemployed