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Lifting of restrictions might make it harder to persuade New Yorkers to get shots

Anthony Santella, an associate professor of health professions

Anthony Santella, an associate professor of health professions at Hofstra University, reasons that two days of data isn't enough to determine if there will be a sustained drop in COVID-19 inoculations. Credit: Johnny Milano

New York’s lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions could make it more difficult to persuade people who are not vaccinated to get the shot, because they may see few incentives for doing so and incorrectly perceive the coronavirus is no longer a risk, experts say.

The state's quick, "rip-the-Band-Aid-off" reopening, complete with fireworks in celebration, "sends false messages that we’re back to complete normality, instead of what should be being messaged, which is it’s a normality that’s somewhat different than before," said Perry Halkitis, a public health psychologist and dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey.

He was alluding to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ending most COVID-19 rules Tuesday, his announcement that "we can now return to life as we know it," and the fireworks shows across the state that followed, including at Jones Beach.

"I’m worried this gives the impression the pandemic is behind us and we should just move on," said Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. "We know we still have vulnerabilities … with the potential of surges and clusters of cases within unvaccinated groups."

State data show the number of Long Islanders getting newly vaccinated dropped sharply since the reopening announcement: from 8,129 people receiving first doses in the 24 hours ending 11 a.m. Tuesday, just before the lifting of restrictions, to 4,057 in the 24 hours through Wednesday morning and 4,428 through Thursday morning.

Anthony Santella, an associate professor of health professions at Hofstra University, said two days of data isn’t enough to determine if there will be a sustained drop in inoculations.

But, he said, if he were not vaccinated, "Tuesday’s announcement is all I needed to hear to say, ‘You know what, I haven’t gotten vaccinated and I don’t plan on getting vaccinated because now the government is telling me we can more or less go back to a pre-COVID life. There’s no carrot dangling in front of me to get vaccinated anymore.’"

There are few restrictions remaining for unvaccinated people. They're required to wear masks in most public places, but that rule is often ignored and not enforced, Santella said. In large sports and concert venues, full capacity is only allowed for vaccinated fans, but that likely won't have a big effect on vaccination decisions, he said.

More effective, Halkitis said, are requirements by some employers that workers be vaccinated, and mandates by universities like his that students get inoculated.

Only about 51% of New Yorkers are fully vaccinated, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Cuomo has focused on the percent of adult New Yorkers with at least one dose: 70.4%.

"The more people who remain unvaccinated, the more risk there is to them and to people who are vaccinated," because no vaccine is 100% effective and there's more potential for the spread of vaccine-resistant and highly contagious virus variants, Santella said.

Summer weather will help control the spread of the virus somewhat, because people spend more time outside, but "fall and winter will be problematic," Halkitis predicted.

Nationwide, states like New York with vaccination rates above the national average tend to have significantly lower COVID-19 rates compared with states with a lower proportion of people vaccinated, CDC data shows.

With vaccine demand subsiding over the past several weeks, the state and counties have been closing their vaccination sites. Nassau County closed its four community vaccination sites and now only runs a once-a-week site on Wednesday nights at the county health department’s main office in Mineola, county spokesman Vicki DiStefano said in an email. Pop-up vaccination sites are continuing, including one Friday at a veterans event in Freeport, she said. The state will have a pop-up site on Friday in New Hyde Park.

"If needed, we can adjust, but right now the vaccine is in abundant supply and readily available at many locations throughout the county, including doctor’s offices, pharmacies and state-run facilities," DiStefano said.

Suffolk County officials did not respond to questions about vaccination sites and its vaccination strategy.