Is New York Really a Coronavirus Success Story?
Four and a half months ago, the scenes and stories emerging from New York were downright apocalyptic. Chaos and death reigned inside overwhelmed hospitals, while outside an eerie quiet overtook the normally bustling streets.
The initial onslaught of COVID-19 claimed more than 30,000 lives, but through grit and dedication New Yorkers endured. Since June 4th, the state has seen no more than 100 deaths from COVID-19 in a single day. Since July 23rd, that number hasn't eclipsed twenty. New cases of coronavirus have fallen drastically and remained low.
Citing the state's detailed, phased re-opening plan, its laudable efforts at contact tracing, and steadfast leadership from Governor Andrew Cuomo, many are now declaring New York state a coronavirus success story. But that praise is questionable.
As of today, 1,696 out of every one million New Yorkers have died from COVID-19. That number is second only to New Jersey. Far from flattening the pandemic curve, as Americans were told to do in early March, New York utterly failed to contain coronavirus, experiencing a sharp spike in infections that severely strained its healthcare system almost to the breaking point. While the state only currently registers 462,294 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the real number is likely an order of magnitude higher. Antibody studies suggest that, in New York City, between 20% and 44% of residents were infected through early July. In some burroughs, the rate may be beyond 50%.
These numbers open the door to a different interpretation for New York's apparent coronavirus "success": after a devastating early outbreak in which the coronavirus tore through the population, the state – and especially New York City's metropolitan area – may be surprisingly close to herd immunity. In fact, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Brookhaven National Laboratory are predicting that there will be no second wave in New York City, provided current precautions continue to be observed. Even if they aren't, there should be only a minor bump in cases as the number of immune individuals will prevent localized outbreaks from burgeoning into big ones.
While experts initially estimated that 60 to 70 percent of a population would need to be infected to reach herd immunity to COVID-19, that range has now dropped to anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. Reaching that level doesn't mean there won't be new infections, but it does mean that large, sustained outbreaks that tax hospitals and send us scuttling back into lockdowns may not be possible. This rosy view could easily go out the window if immunity to the coronavirus does not last, but indications on that front remain encouraging.
New York was arguably the first and most severely struck location of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. And its population density compared to other parts of the nation essentially make it dry kindling for a fire of infectious disease. That New Yorkers overcame such a daunting and deadly challenge is an unqualified success. But we should not pretend that the initial response of policymakers was equally successful. The pandemic curve was not flattened as occurred in other parts of the U.S. Rather, the coronavirus blazed throughout New York, striking the state's citizens at a time when hospitals were unprepared and doctors were unacquainted with the disease, before any effective treatments were available. While New York has admirably curtailed COVID-19 throughout the summer, the state's overall response is less an example to be emulated and more a cautionary tale.