Dr. Torian Easterling is the first deputy commissioner and chief equity officer for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He sat down with the Amsterdam News for a Q&A about antiviral COVID-19 medication. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
AmNews: Where are we now in the COVID wave?
Dr. Easterling: The virus is still circulating and transmitting. We have to do the things we need to do to be safe and what we have always been looking at are the number of cases, and so right now we do see that cases are increasing. Certainly not at the same height as the Delta wave and the initial Omicron variant wave at the end of 2021, but right now we are seeing cases increase. Certainly in Manhattan we’re seeing it at a higher rate than other boroughs.
Cases are increasing, hospitalizations are also starting to trend upwards, and that tick upwards is concerning because that means that even with the vaccination coverage that we have in New York City, we are still seeing individuals get sick. Now individuals [who are] unvaccinated are certainly more at risk and the data that we have on our website clearly shows that…the subvariants, Omicron variant and the subvariants BA.2 and BA.5, those are variants that we [need to] be concerned about because there is some ability for those subvariants to evade immunity and that’s concerning…The first point to remember…vaccines have saved lives across New York City and all across the world.
AmNews: Could you talk about the impact of COVID on the Black community and communities of color?
Dr. Easterling: This virus has certainly had a really negative impact on communities of color and underserved communities. We saw how COVID-19 really amplified long-standing inequities we have. To be clear and transparent…these inequities did not start in March of 2020. These are long-standing inequities, generational inequities that are playing out right now during this pandemic…What we saw in the early part of the pandemic is that communities of color, low income communities, had higher rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths: two to three times higher than white or Asian New Yorkers. When we talk about the vaccines, if we know that vaccines are available and can save lives…we wanted to make sure that equity was centered in our approach…it was really important for us to deploy community-based organizations, work with faith-based organizations across the city to make sure that we were getting the vaccine out to the most vulnerable across the city and that we also used the neighborhoods when we saw the highest case rates and hospitalization rates and death rates to make sure we were focusing those resources in those neighborhoods.
AmNews: Could you talk about the resources currently available to people to combat COVID-19?
Dr. Easterling: One, we know that masking does keep people safe and so if you are under the age of 5, if you have underlying chronic conditions, if you are over the age of 65, you should definitely consider wearing a mask, particularly in areas where we do not know other people’s vaccination status. Vaccines are widely available [in] both primary series and boosters, and so we want to make sure people get their vaccines and get boosted…Testing [is] widely available. Our colleagues at New York City Health and Hospital continue to make testing available, both PCR tests as well as the at-home tests. There is treatment available…there’s an antiviral pill Paxlovid that is available that people can call 212-COVID-19 and they can get connected to a healthcare provider or they can see their own healthcare provider and find out if Paxlovid is the right treatment for them.
AmNews: What is Paxlovid?
Dr. Easterling: Palovid is an oral antiviral pill that you would take daily for 5 days. Individuals who test positive for COVID-19…are certainly encouraged to take Paxlovid. If you’re over the age of 65 or you have an underlying health condition such as obesity or diabetes, [or] a heart condition, then you are strongly encouraged to take Paxlovid.
AmNews: How do you get access to Paxlovid?
Dr. Easterling: You can call 212-COVID19 (212-268-4319) so you can speak to one of our health and hospital providers and then they will send a prescription to [a] pharmacy that will allow the medication to be delivered to your home, which is really important because we want to ensure access for everyone. [Individuals] can [also] call their provider.
AmNews: What are the positive aspects of taking Paxlovid if you have COVID-19?Dr. Easterling: It lowers the amount of COVID-19 in [the] body. It reduces the symptoms and helps with avoiding hospitalization. [With] vaccines, we want to prevent transmission, prevent hospitalizations, prevent someone from ever getting COVID. With this pill we want to prevent severe illness and hospitalization.