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Health experts 'nervous' about Gov. Cuomo's lifting of virus restrictions

Passengers ride the train in Manhattan on May

Passengers ride the train in Manhattan on May 7. Wearing masks on mass transit is still required. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Some health experts are concerned that New York may be reopening too quickly and too soon, but they say doing so during warm weather reduces the risk of a surge in coronavirus cases.

"I feel nervous about it," said Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. "Our biggest shield against this is vaccinations, and we still have a long way to go to get sufficient coverage of vaccines."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he was ending most COVID-19 restrictions because more than 70% of New York adults have received at least one vaccine dose, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Less than 51% of the state’s total population is fully vaccinated, CDC data shows.

"I would have wished we would have held on until we had higher coverage with vaccinations," El-Sadr said. A rate of 70% to 80% of all New Yorkers fully vaccinated would have been a better time to lift restrictions, she said. That would be roughly at "population immunity," or herd immunity, she said.

But Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease expert and interim chairman of medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead, said, "It’s not clear we will ever get to the point that we would call herd immunity. It’s likely we will continue to live with some level of COVID in our communities. And right now that is a very low level."

The state’s rate of people testing positive for the coronavirus was at a seven-day average of 0.40% as of Monday, a record low. The combination of the low rate and the large number of vaccinated people, including a large majority of vulnerable older adults, "make it reasonable that things open more broadly at this point," he said.

Even so, "For unvaccinated people in crowded indoor environments, it would be wise for them to wear a mask," because they remain at risk, he said.

Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said warm weather is the best time to reopen, but "if I were making the decision, I would have taken a more stepped approach."

Some activities, like summer camps, for example, "seem to be pretty safe," he said, but "retail and malls and movie theaters seem like they’re plausibly more dangerous."

Indoor spaces with a lot of unvaccinated people would be especially risky, he said.

"We’re going to see more inside transmission than we did" last summer because of the loosened restrictions, Clouston predicted.

"We could see another surge," he said, especially if more contagious variants spread, as is happening in the United Kingdom, which is facing a major uptick in cases despite high vaccination rates.

The state should be prepared to reimpose restrictions if caseloads rise too high, Clouston said.

El-Sadr said she is worried the reopening sends a message that the pandemic is over, when it is far from over, and that it could stymie vaccination efforts.

"People may think, ‘Everything is well and good, and I don’t need to get vaccinated,’ " she said.