The Delta variant is here.
The Centers for Disease Control calls this mutation of Sars-CoV-2 a “variant of concern,” an apt phrase falling as it does somewhere between indifference and alarm.
“This new strain of the virus is more infectious,” explained Dr. Jay Varma, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s health adviser. “And markedly more infectious than the original or sort of the classic strain of COVID.”
As it has around the world, this new version of the coronavirus, first identified in India, has muscled earlier variants out of its way, a very New York thing to do. In less than two months, it has gone from barely present here to being the source 44 percent of all infections - and rising.
In Israel, the United Kingdom and even Los Angeles, concern about the Delta variant has prompted authorities to delay re-openings or re-impose requirements for mask wearing and social distancing.
But here, de Blasio pressed ahead with reopening. Indeed, just as Los Angeles was re-imposing an indoor mask mandate for the vaccinated, New York’s mayor announced that he was lifting such restrictions on city workers.
“As of July 6th, if you’re a vaccinated City worker, you’ll be able to work without a mask and you will not have to practice the same distancing we needed during the height of the crisis,” de Blasio announced. “By September, we’d like to see everyone in our offices back to normal.”
The mayor’s desire to keep economic recovery on track is understandable, but his explanation was at best a judgment call that others are making differently. “Because vaccination has worked so well, we are able to now get more and more back to normal,” The mayor explained.
In fact, vaccination levels in New York and Los Angeles are nearly identical. They are higher in Israel and the United Kingdom, which are both proceeding more cautiously than New York.
Global health officials have complained that in much of the rich world authorities have depended too much on vaccination, versus what are called non-pharmaceutical measures like distancing, hand washing and mask wearing.
“Right now the narrative is vaccines, vaccines, vaccines,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and the World Health Organization’s technical lead on COVID-19, speaking of the world, not just New York. “While vaccines and vaccinations are an incredibly powerful tool, we’ve completely forgotten about everything else that works. And I feel that frustration.”
The schism between Los Angeles and New York seems to illustrate the point.
“What our health care team keeps saying is the answer is always the same – more vaccinations, and that’s what we intend to do,” the mayor said, stressing that the arrival of Delta variant only increases the urgency of getting vaccinated
That is true. But as even the Mayor’s health advisers implicitly acknowledge it is not the whole story of the challenge posed by the Delta variant.
“It really does raise the threshold for the number of people that need to be vaccinated until we can say that, you know, COVID is no longer a problem at all in New York City,” said Varma. In other words, whatever level of immunization was needed before the Delta variant to achieve so-called herd or community immunity, it is higher now.
Lots of Vulnerability
The city’s heath department reported that just over half of all New Yorkers have been fully vaccinated by the end of June, which is not high enough to eliminate the virus. But it gets worse. Vaccination rates vary dramatically around the city, leaving lots of vulnerability for the Delta variant to spread among the unvaccinated.
This may already be happening. While the citywide positive test rate is a reassuring .76 percent (although edging higher in recent days), in the Great Kills neighborhood of Staten Island it is a disturbing 5.07 percent. Rates in five adjacent neighborhoods have climbed above 2 percent.
The rate of full vaccination in Great Kills, an overwhelmingly white, conservative community where many city workers live, is 43 percent, well below the citywide average of 51 percent. In Manhattan the rate of full vaccination is 63 percent. In the Bronx, it is 41 percent.
Another emerging concern is the low vaccination rate among younger New Yorkers. Among New Yorkers 65 to 74, 75 percent are fully vaccinated. Among those between 18 and 24 only 47 percent are.
The disparity is particularly acute among younger African-Americans. Among those 65 and older, 56 percent of white, 55 percent of Hispanic and 49 percent of Black New Yorkers are fully vaccinated. But among New Yorkers between 18 and 44, 49 percent of whites, 39 percent of Hispanics and only 23 percent of Blacks are fully vaccinated.
New Yorkers of Asian descent stand out for their high level of vaccination across all ages. Some 76 percent of those over 65 and 74 percent of those between 18 and 44 are fully vaccinated.
City officials say they are doing everything they can to reach the unvaccinated, including home visits, mobile units and outreach through local health care providers.
“I’m concerned in general about the Delta variant,” the Mayor said. “We don’t take it lightly, but what we do know is vaccination works against it. And you’ve seen with the intensity of our vaccination effort, you’ve seen that even with the presence of the Delta variant, the numbers continue to be very positive, the indicators, the health care reality of the city is much, much better. So, we are watching very carefully, but the answer is the same. Just keep encouraging vaccination, keep making it easier for people, keep building up those incentives, and every single, additional New Yorker who gets vaccinated makes us safer against the Delta variant.”
“This new strain of the virus is more infectious. And markedly more infectious than the original or sort of the classic strain of COVID.” Dr. Jay Varma, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s health adviser