“I am deeply concerned that New York City is taking the foot off the brakes at the exact wrong moment.”
I got a migraine last week. Normally, this is an irritating inconvenience: I need to take the rest of the day off work, crawl into bed, and wait a few hours for the pain, nausea, and visual changes to subside. It’s annoying, but I can tolerate it two or three times a year. But this was the fourth migraine I’d had in five days. If this had happened a few years ago, I might have worried about some kind of environmental toxin. But in 2022, it makes sense. I had COVID.
It started with a fever, which belonged to my boyfriend. In a very endearing turn of events, he moved across the country three months ago to start a job at a New York City airport and hang out with me while I complete a graduate program. He commutes to work for an hour on the A train, where most people have stopped wearing masks, and spends all day asking people to pull down their masks to confirm that their faces match their passport photos. In the days before his Virus Day 0, many of his coworkers were out sick.
My boyfriend came home from work and immediately went to bed. The next day, he woke up with a shirt soaked in sweat. I dug out a rapid antigen test, which turned out to be positive almost immediately after it was dunked into the bottle of solution. I took my own rapid test, which was negative. My research supervisor told me not to come in, and so I went out in search of a PCR test.
This time last year, when I first moved to Manhattan, there were mobile testing sites offering free tests on almost every block. Gothamist found that half of the testing sites in New York City open in January have closed. While affluent New Yorkers can pay for tests out of pocket or through their insurance, free and accessible testing for all is necessary. Today, there are three testing sites in Washington Heights operated by NYC Health + Hospitals. I walked to the closest one and was offered both a PCR and a rapid test by a very kind healthcare worker. Her coworker yelled at her the whole time that she wasn’t supposed to do both. I am deeply grateful, because the rapid test was negative and the PCR test was positive. After I tested, neither of us left our apartment again.
New York City and the COVID pandemic are deeply intertwined: I hear it from my professors who treated patients at the height of the first wave, from front-line workers I’ve interviewed as part of a journalism project, and from people on the street. During the Omicron wave earlier this year, a person diagnosed with COVID could get a free hotel stay to isolate from their roommates. The city would send each person a free care package with a thermometer, masks, and rapid tests. People could get free food shipped to their door. The Take Care package and the GetFood Program ended on June 27, four days before we tested positive.
I don’t mention this to complain that we didn’t get free food: we are lucky to be able to afford grocery delivery, and my mom sent us pizza. Instead, I am deeply concerned that New York City is taking the foot off the brakes at the exact wrong moment. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently changed how they report certain COVID data. The city’s color-coded system which indicated the risk of catching COVID was removed from its website. All of these changes reflect our city administration’s current approach to COVID: apathy and self-assured false confidence.
Political attitudes don’t change the data. My neighborhood’s seven-day positivity rate was 16.84 percent, which is an underestimate when considering unreported home tests. New York State reported 57 percent of infections are the Omicron BA.5 variant. (The laboratory who completed my test did not return my call to ask if they sequenced my sample, but individual variant results are rarely reported.) A study from Dr. David Ho’s lab at Columbia found that BA.4/5 variants are more resistant to antibodies generated from vaccines, meaning that vaccination offers less protection from infection. It means that vaccinations, one of our best defenses, is becoming less effective.
My boyfriend and I, who are both vaccinated and boosted, who regularly wear masks in public places, who had a stockpile of rapid tests and were able to afford to take time off work to isolate, tried our best to limit the spread of COVID. But I am furious that Mayor Eric Adams, who said our COVID position is “stable” last week among increasing rates and refuses to make changes to our city’s policies. We need to listen to public health experts. We need clear messaging and risk data disseminated to the public. We need to re-introduce the mask mandate and the indoor vaccination requirement. We need to re-instate the public health measures that support people in isolation, like hotel rooms and free thermometers.
I know that COVID has been around for a long time—I have watched it eat up a fifth of my twenties. But as we head into a new surge, we can’t allow ourselves to ignore or hide the data. Each wave leads to more deaths and cases of long COVID. For most of the pandemic, I had reassured myself that as a young and healthy person, I would have a mild case. Instead I find myself tethered to the couch trying to prevent another migraine attack, and worrying about being permanently affected by frequent headaches.
With each wave, we risk our economy, as positive tests mean less people who can work. We risk our health: future disability or death. I’m not advocating that we go back to total closure, but rather that we use our data to inform our public health strategy. Mayor Adams: please join me in asking New York City to, once again, mask up.
Kate Cunningham is an M.D.-Ph.D. student at Columbia University.