“Impending doom.” Those were the words Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, used on Monday to describe her fear of another wave of COVID-19 that could afflict the country in the coming weeks.
Walensky’s comments come at a time when spring is emerging in New York City, COVID restrictions are easing, and vaccines have become more available. In New York City, the seven-day average for cases was 5,403 on March 28. On March 21, the average was 2,883, according to the CDC. And as of March 28, New York state has the second highest rate of infection in the nation, only lagging behind New Jersey.
With the numbers rising, Walensky’s warning spooked many New Yorkers, while others, marred with COVID fatigue, took it in stride, saying that they have become numb to the daily deluge of COVID news.
“I’m basically just taking it as it comes, you know, going with the flow,” said Melanee Cann, a dog walker from Queens, who says she’s learned to accept daily life with COVID and that she does not follow COVID news on a daily basis anymore.
Dr. Calvin Sun, a per diem emergency room doctor in New York City, however, wasn’t surprised by Dr. Walensky’s pessimistic comments. “Every day since last February, every day, is dire,” he said. “This will be a permanent pandemic, unless you vaccinate 100% of the population.”
He also worries COVID-19 will become an annual disease, as non-vaccinated people give the virus many chances to mutate. “They’re going to mutate the virus, and the virus, because of the way it mutates, is going to just become more virulent and vaccine resistant,” he said. “We’re just going to have an annual COVID vaccine like we would have an annual flu vaccine.”
Elizabeth Riggle, a community organizer in Williamsburg, feels a similar anxiety from reading daily COVID updates in the news. She says she is particularly concerned that people are disregarding safety measures now that the vaccine is being distributed. Riggle, who said she was actually on her way to get her first dose, says she is glad to be doing her part to prevent the spread. “Getting the vaccination is owning responsibility for your care and the care of people around you. It is like voting,” she said.
For small businessmen like Ace Watanasuparp, who owns several restaurants including Spot Dessert Bar and Obao in Manhattan, the bad news comes at a time when everyone is excited that shops and restaurants are on the verge of reopening. He says that maintaining safety is a difficult balancing act. “I was shocked to see how many people were out,” he said. “I think businesses still need to take precautions.” That’s the reason why we have to trace, in regard to people signing in, the time that they came in just to make sure that we’re taking every precaution possible to make sure that it’s a safe environment.”
Yet, some public health professionals say there are reasons for New Yorkers to be optimistic despite the city’s high COVID rate, thanks to the city’s high number of vaccinations. Nearly a third of New Yorkers have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to NYC Health. “Things are going to probably be on the uptrend,” says Dr. Michelle Lee, resident at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell. But she added, residents and healthcare workers had to protect themselves by getting vaccinated and maintaining social distancing and mask mandates. If all that happens she added, “I think we’ll be able to come out of it.”
Lee warns New Yorkers, however, that even if they get vaccinated, they must wait two weeks for the vaccine to build an immune response. “I have had patients who got the vaccine and then they’re getting COVID because they were too lax in the days right after the vaccine,” she said. “They got it from someone because they weren’t properly socially distancing.”
With more and more people getting the vaccine, however, and as the city gradually reopens, many New Yorkers like Watanasuparp look forward to seeing a fast recovery. “People coming out and spending money, and really enjoying their time. The city will be very hopeful for a lot of small businesses, not only in the restaurant business, but all businesses,” he said. “I think everybody is bullish and very excited for that.”