A community member is tested for COVID-19 at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on Jan. 25. Hundreds of events like this one will take place in Black communities across the U.S., a partnership of Choose Healthy Life, Quest Diagnostics and the United Way. (301224)
Credit: Photo courtesy Quest Diagnostics

New York City is in a good news/bad news scenario when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news: the spread of the virus is seeing a decline, the bad news: there aren’t enough vaccines to meet the demand.

During a press briefing Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the seven-day rolling average of NYC residents testing positive for COVID-19 is 8.4% and the hospitalization rate is 5.14 per 100,000. However, the top issue is making sure the city has enough vaccine doses to get things back to a form of normalcy.

De Blasio participated in a panel of the U.S. Conference of Mayors with White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci. Vaccine supply in the city ran out last week and thousands of appointments were canceled. The opening of several large scale 24-hour vaccine sites, including Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, have been postponed indefinitely.

“Now, we are waiting, in the course of this week, for more detailed information,” de Blasio said. “This is what’s on everybody’s mind––when will the new administration be able to give us the game plan for specifically increasing the supply of vaccines? We don’t have that yet today, but we do know they’re supremely focused, they’re constantly communicating with us, they’re looking for every conceivable way to make things move more quickly.”

As of Tuesday, Jan. 26, some 650,546 doses of the vaccine have been given in the city. At the start of this week, the city only had 19,000 first doses of the vaccine and 107,000 doses arrived this Wednesday and Thursday, which still isn’t enough. Health officials can’t access second doses that are being held in reserve for the weeks ahead and use them now as first doses.

At the city’s hospitals, the rate of COVID patients coming is slowing down. About a third of the city’s ICU beds are still available and fewer people are dying from COVID-19 at hospitals.

“We have less than 10% of patients who get hospitalized or succumbing to the illness while in the hospital, and that’s because of better treatment, both drug treatment, better understanding of avoiding the ventilator unless it’s absolutely necessary and using other methods of keeping people well oxygenated,” said Health + Hospitals President and CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz.

On the state level, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week that the COVID-19 transmission rate is slowing. The statewide positivity rate is 5.4%, which is down from nearly 8% at the beginning of January. Cuomo said that even though the virus is spreading slower, he warns New Yorkers not to get “cocky with COVID.”

“This virus has been ahead of us every step of the way. You know there are certain things to do that are smart,” Cuomo said. “You know this is a changing situation. Socially distance, wash your hands, wear a mask, be smart. I know it’s been a long time, and I know the numbers look good today, but we have been down this road before, and the road has curves, and the road has potholes.”

A group 10 Black New York clergy led by Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Calvin O. Butts, III kicked off its nationwide Choose Healthy Life (CHL) initiative this week to address health disparities in the Black community through the Black Church by hosting its first COVID-19 testing event at Abyssinian Baptist Church.

The plan provides services including COVID-19 testing, vaccine awareness and preventative health education through 50 churches across five cities in a partnership with United Way of New York City, Quest Diagnostics and public health experts.

“It is critical that we remain vigilant in 2021 as COVID-19 continues to decimate our Black community. As faith leaders, we are stepping up to provide critical testing and resources to help our communities fight back against the virus,” said Sharpton, who was tested at the event.

Butts added that faith leaders are stepping up to bring much-needed testing and prevention education to our neighborhoods.

“The Black church is among the most trusted institutions in our communities and has historically risen to the occasion when our communities are in need,” he said. “Through Choose Healthy Life, we are doing so once again to address the COVID-19 pandemic and health disparities in our communities.”

Further complicating things are the various new strains of the COVID-19 virus that are making their way around the world and the nation. Strains from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil are causing the most concern. The U.K. strain is highly contagious, according to reports. So far, there are 25 cases of the strain in New York.

While the COVID-19 vaccine appeared to be effective against the U.K. strain, preliminary data shows the vaccine is not as effective against the South African variant.

In an interview with the AmNews, SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University dean and professor Dr. Kitaw Demissie said that new variants are expected considering how long the virus has been with us.

“When the virus stays with us for a long period of time, it is expected that the virus will mutate,” Demissie said. “This virus has a perforated mechanism when it splits. Because it’s staying in the community for a longer period of time, these kinds of genetic variations are very likely. The most important thing to do is stop the spread of the virus through the vaccine. If we don’t vaccinate quickly, we could see more variants.”

As far as when things could go back to normal, Demissie said while it’s difficult to tell, due to the low supply of vaccines, he does have a predicted timeline if things change.

“I think the government, the state and the city should change their strategy,” he said. “I really don’t believe that they should be using nurses only to do the vaccinations. Other people should be trained to do it. If they change their strategy we could reach herd immunity by the summer.”

As the COVID-19 vaccine continues to roll out, anxiety about taking it continues to be of concern for many people. According to a recent public opinion research study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 29% to 37% of Americans say they plan to refuse to vaccinate. Studies suggest that women and African Americans are more likely to refuse to take the vaccine.

Refusal to take the vaccine is also divided along political lines with many Republicans citing a lack of trust in the government as a reason. Just over 40% of Republicans say they will not be vaccinated.

Suspicions were raised even further after the recent death of Black baseball legend Hank Aaron. The Hall of Famer was 86 years old and died 18 days after he was administered the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Aaron took the vaccine publicly to encourage other African Americans to take it.

Doctors at the Morehouse School of Medicine, where Aaron received the dose, said in a statement that his death was unrelated to the vaccine and that he passed away in his sleep. Reports have surfaced about other elderly people dying shortly after receiving the vaccine.