Rev. Calvin O. Butts, III, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, was among several NYC clergy members publicly vaccinated last month as a part of the Choose Healthy Life initiative which aims to increase testing, vaccine awareness and preventative health education. (302870)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

More people in the city are headed back to the office as more New Yorkers get vaccinated. This as COVID restrictions loosen, the threat of variants continues and cases rise.

As of March 23, there have been over 800,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York City. Over 30,500 people have died from the virus. Over 3.4 million people in the city have been vaccinated and, this week, eligibility was expanded to New Yorkers 50 years and over. More vaccines are expected to arrive in the city in the first week of April.

During a press briefing this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he wants 5 million people fully vaccinated in the city by June. He also announced that all city workers who work in offices will go back to work May 3.

“We’re going to use all of the tools that we’ve learned about distancing, about ventilation, the right way to allow workspaces,” de Blasio said. “We’re going to make it safe, but we need our city workers back in their offices where they can do the most to help their fellow New Yorkers. And it’s also going to send a powerful message about this city moving forward.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New Yorkers must continue to wear masks and wash their hands. New variants are accounting for a large number of new cases that are highly contagious. Cuomo confirmed that the state has its first case of the Brazilian variant. The patient, in their 90s, lives in Brooklyn with no travel history.

Cases are also seeing a small spike in the state. The seven-day average was 3.3.% but on Tuesday, March 23, officials reported a positivity rate in the state of 4.7%.

“The pool of eligible New Yorkers is now larger than ever before, which means we need to do more to reach everyone who is eligible,” Cuomo said. “Over the next few weeks we expect to see vaccine production ramping up, and we have to make sure we have the capacity and the willingness to take the vaccine.”

New research suggests that having high vitamin D levels may lower the risk of COVID-19 infection, especially for Black people. The research was done at the University of Chicago Medical Center gathering data from over 3,000 patients who had previously had their vitamin D levels tested within 14 days before a COVID-19 test.

Vitamin D can be obtained through diet or supplements, or produced by the body in response to exposure of the skin to sunlight. Most individuals, especially people with darker skin, have lower levels of vitamin D.

“These new results tell us that having vitamin D levels above those normally considered sufficient is associated with decreased risk of testing positive for COVID-19, at least in Black individuals,” said David Meltzer, MD, PhD, chief of hospital medicine at UChicago Medicine. “This supports arguments for designing clinical trials that can test whether or not vitamin D may be a viable intervention to lower the risk of the disease, especially in persons of color.”

As with many other parts of the nation, New York City has loosened COVID-19 restrictions. On Monday, fitness classes began operating at 33%, and public gathering capacity was increased to 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors. High school students also returned to in-person learning. Starting April 1, stadiums and entertainment venues can reopen at 20% capacity.

Also increasing is public transit ridership. Officials say bus and subway usage has steadily increased in recent months. On Friday, March 12, the MTA recorded the highest single-day ridership since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With city workers due to go back into the office in May, the number is predicted to go higher.

“We have a long way to go for our transit system to fully recover from the pandemic, but the picture looks better than it did even a few months ago, with federal aid on the way and ridership increasing,” said Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral candidate Eric Adams.

As more people are using public transit to travel around the city, concerns are shifting toward an increase in travel across the country that could result in COVID spikes. Starting April 1, New Yorkers will no longer have to quarantine after traveling from a U.S. state or territory.

The Transportation Security Administration reports that 1.3 million people were screened at airport security checkpoints last Friday. As states begin to ease COVID-19 restrictions dramatically, with some being 100% open, travelers from New York are going to states including Florida, California and Georgia.

With spring break season in full swing, concerns linger that travelers could be spreading highly contagious COVID-19 variants.

“I have concerns about this,” de Blasio said. “The introduction of the virus from outside has been one of the biggest and toughest X factors in this whole crisis and something we worry about very much going forward.”