By Linda Nwoke
On July 21, 2022, the U.S. President announced that he tested positive for COVID-19, exhibiting mild symptoms like fatigue, a slightly runny nose, and occasional dry cough, as explained by the President’s physician.
Many people are in such a situation, despite receiving the COVID 19 vaccination. They might contract COVID 19 but with mild symptoms and, in a matter of days, will recover fully.
The scenario remains one of the reasons medical personnel and experts, especially in New York City, continue to promote and put in place various measures to support and protect New Yorkers.
Some of these updates formed part of the discussions in a roundtable between the New York Health Department and journalists from various ethnic community media.
The NYC Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, acknowledged the importance of the advocacy role played by community media. He recognized their contribution to ensuring that accurate information, especially on COVID-related issues, reaches the diverse communities in New York City. “I have to give you all a vote of thanks for your continued focus on keeping your community safe. Even while larger outlets seem to have moved on to other stories.”
His colleague, Dr. Ted Long, revealed the new stages of COVID 19 management in New York City. The NYC Test & Trace Corps executive director emphasized that ‘treatment ‘has become a “defining feature of this phase of the pandemic.”.
In his view, the more New Yorkers get treatment, the less likely people will be admitted to the hospital, ultimately saving more lives.
Dr. Long explained that treatment starts with testing, especially rapid testing, which remains critical to ensuring that patients receive treatment speedily. “Time matters with treatment, and this only works if you take it early enough. Early treatment could save your life.” He explained.
Furthermore, New York City has considerably expanded the number of testing sites. Presently, over 375 testing sites focus on increasing access to rapid and home testing.
There are presently several categories of testing sites, some classified as traditional PCR testing sites. Examples include Bellevue Hospital, where individuals can go and get a PCR test within minutes. However, these types of sites only render PCR testing. Other sites have a combination of rapid and PCR tests, such as the mobile units that move daily around the city.
At other sites, treatment packs are given at the mobile units, while some trusted places serve as sites for handing out free home tests for households in New York City. According to Dr. Long, “We want to make sure that people can know where to comfortably go to get tested in whatever manner you want or wish to be tested.”
When asked about the efficacy of the treatment packs, Dr. Long proclaimed that they were highly effective. “As I tell my patients, the initial studies of this medication show that for every 18 of the patients I treat, I’ll potentially prevent one from being admitted to the hospital. In initial trials, it was 89% effective. We studied it in the real world in Israel during Omicron, and the results were even more impressive. So, we know these medications are genuinely lifesaving,” he added.
Testing and Treatment Models
The health experts reiterated two critical messages of note for New Yorkers:
Individuals should always endeavor to have a COVID home test in their homes. These are available at numerous sites, including over 930 community-based organizations and worship houses that partner with the city’s health department. Thus far, over 37 million home tests have reached various sites across the city.
Upon testing positive with the home tests, the individual should call 212 COVID 19 or place a call to the doctor. “If you’re positive and eligible, you’ll speak to a clinician in a few minutes. We’ll deliver parts of the medication that could save your life in your home that same day. You must remember to call 212 COVID19 and have the home test in your home before you get sick,” says Dr. Long.
According to the experts, the other unique service only found in NYC is the Mobile-Test-To Treat Model, which involves the availability of mobile units for rapid testing. When individuals test positive from the rapid test administered at the mobile sites, they will be opportune to speak with a clinician and get appropriate medication. “We want to tear down all barriers to people getting tested, “says Dr. Long. “So, we started a mobile fleet for testing. Today we have 30 mobile units across New York City. Where you can get a rapid test, if it’s positive, talk to a clinician, and you’ll leave that site with the medication if you’re eligible,” he adds.
Additional information on the various locations for the mobile- test-to-treat units are available on the NYC/COVID Test website. It also includes where individuals can pick up free home tests. The discussions moved to address several questions on treatment effectiveness, potential mandates, and increasing transmission rate within minority communities.
Are there differences in treating the new COVID-19 variants effectively with available drugs?
The experts explained that Paxlovid has proven effective in reducing the potential severity in patients. Dr. Long explained that they found that Paxlovid was highly effective with all of the recent variants. “In particular, we looked at those using Paxlovid during the variants in Israel. Findings show that those with a high risk of developing severe disease reduced to half by taking the medication compared to those that didn’t take it. Especially for most at-risk patients with a bad outcome from contracting COVID-19. So, in short, these treatments are effective with the new variants,” he explained.
Why was the risk alert system disabled?
The Commissioner for Health explained that the risk alert system served a crucial purpose at the pandemic’s peak in helping them keep track. The situation has changed significantly and no longer serves its original purpose.
However, Dr. Vasan recommended the practice of cautionary measures despite the changed status. “Wear a mask indoors, especially a high-grade mask if possible, get tested frequently, and get your vaccination or booster shots,” he said.
In his view, COVID is still here, and it has not gone anywhere. But, the NYC health department is more prepared to address the health impact of COVID, even though it’s not affecting human health and lives are no longer lost.
Would there be restrictions if the numbers go higher in the fall?
Dr. Vasan explained that restrictions or mandates like wearing masks or other vaccine requirements were in place to protect the population from horrible outcomes in a real emergency.
“We don’t pull those tools out lightly in public health. We don’t mandate a lot of things. We do a lot through education, harm-reduction, counseling, and information sharing. We come in with these mandates and requirements when we see a real risk to human health, an existential threat, or an urgent situation. The focus is more on what New Yorkers can do daily to keep themselves safe, ” he concluded.
Will schools re-implement a mask mandate or potentially close due to high cases of COVID-19?
The health commissioner assured public members that school closures are not in consideration, primarily due to widespread access to testing. “We send children home with tests if they are exposed. We ask parents to test frequently and keep their kids out of school.” He explains. The processes serve as a buffer against the virus compared to the situation at the onset of the pandemic.
Why is there a high positive case rate in communities that are already vaccinated?
Across the city, the health experts explained that there is high transmission across the city, albeit with slight variations between the communities, regardless of vaccination status. The current variants BA4 and BA5 appear non-responsive to the vaccines. However, it is not causing more severe diseases due to many vaccinated people.
“So, vaccination may not completely reduce your risk of COVID, but it will significantly protect against severe disease, hospitalization, and death,” says Dr. Vasan. Based on the vaccine’s performance, Dr. Vasan explained that there are discussions on the possibility of a bivalent booster tackling Omicron and its sub-variants, especially in the fall.