Taking Stock of the Coronavirus: Community Health, Vaccinations, and More
Date: Wednesday, February 17, 2021
To: The NYU Community
From: Dr. Carlo Ciotoli, MD, MPA, Exec. Lead, NYU COVID-19 Prevention & Response Team
As we start the spring semester, I thought it would be helpful to provide the NYU community with a summary of where things stand in our efforts to combat COVID-19 and the latest guidelines and developments.
The Health of the NYU Community and the Broader Context
At this point, COVID-19 has become the leading cause of death in the United States. The return of NYU community members from winter break corresponded with high rates of COVID-19 transmission nationally and regionally. There were more than twice as many US deaths from COVID-19 in late January than there were in the period just before the start of the fall semester. We were keenly conscious of this as we required robust testing of all members of our NYU community and mandatory quarantine upon return from the break from restricted states and countries.
In line with trends nationally and locally, in January as NYUers returned from winter break, NYU experienced its highest case positivity rates since the pandemic began. Many of these cases were associated with travel and gatherings with family and friends. However, more recently, as we have entered February, case positivity has declined to rates more like those in the fall. We will continue to closely monitor trends and patterns of positive cases and will promptly take any necessary mitigation steps in consultation with public health authorities.
New Mask Guidance & the Importance of Continuing to Follow NYU’s Safety and Health Rules
My personal observations — and those of my colleagues — is that we continue to have high rates of compliance with our health and safety rules. That’s a testament to the conscientiousness of the NYU community and its commitment to keep each other safe — thank you all.
Updated Mask Guidance
Last week, the CDC issued updated guidance with regard to masks. This guidance focuses principally on the type, fit, and layers of the mask(s), the settings in which mask wearing is crucial, and steps we can take to avoid air with respiratory droplets from getting in or out around the edges of the mask. But underlying this new guidance is an existing message — the importance of wearing a mask correctly, consistently, and in any situation other than when you are alone in your room or with people you live with.
NYU’s Health and Safety Protocols
I can’t overemphasize the importance of both individual and collective responsibility in adhering to NYU’s COVID-19 health and safety mitigation strategies. We are all in this for the long haul. And while the COVID-19 vaccines are promising (more on this below), it appears that it will take some time to vaccinate sufficient numbers of people. Until then, adhering to COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, including the changes we made to NYU testing, screening, and building access procedures, is vital: they are the best tools we have for reducing the spread of the coronavirus, and they are effective.
The Costs of Letting Down our Guard
Correspondingly, we have learned that it does not take a lot of carelessness with mask-wearing and gatherings to lead to widespread transmission. As we look at other universities around the country, outbreaks have repeatedly been linked to instances of letting down one’s guard, such as joining a party or a crowd. The kind of activity common during the holidays — such getting together with people for meals or celebrations, where participants forego wearing masks — has also been a significant cause of transmission. So, even as some restrictions ease in NYC, for your own health and the University community’s well-being, I strongly urge you to avoid the kind of activities and settings that are associated with COVID-19 spread.
Vaccinations and the NYU Community
The two vaccines approved by the FDA have shown themselves to be safe and effective and hold great promise in thwarting the spread of the disease and helping to make in-person activity safe once again. The University strongly urges those who are eligible to be vaccinated to do so.
While our aim is to help NYUers get vaccinated, the key problem right now — at NYU and nationally — is the demand for vaccine substantially outweighs availability. I know that many of you are eager to get vaccinated and are frustrated by the wait, the reports of distribution problems, the lack of vaccine availability, and the uncertainty about when your turn may come. I share your sense of urgency and frustration.
The New York State and New York City departments of health — not NYU — determine who may be vaccinated and the distribution of vaccine to sites across the State. To date, NYU Washington Square and Brooklyn have not been prioritized to receive stock of vaccine, though NYU is an approved site and the University has been proceeding with plans to create on-campus vaccination sites in Bobst Library and the Student Health Center. NYU is ready to vaccinate eligible groups within the NYU community whenever we are prioritized to receive vaccine stock.
But progress is being made. Beginning last month, approximately 7,000 members of the NYU community, who meet eligibility under New York State’s Phase 1A and 1B designation, were offered vaccination through NYU Langone Health.
Beginning Monday, February 15, NYS opened vaccinations to New Yorkers with select underlying medical conditions. I should caution that even as this new eligibility group is likely to be significantly larger than prior groups, the availability of vaccine stock appears likely to continue to be limited for the foreseeable future. At this point, it appears that NYU Langone will not be able to provide vaccinations for this new group as it was able to do for prior eligibility categories.
Patience will be required of all of us. I want to remind everyone that you need not get your vaccination through NYU. If you can obtain an appointment through the City or State or through your healthcare provider, you should not hesitate to proceed. I also want to share a resource that was recently featured in the NY Times — a clever, free website, Turbovax, that aggregates available vaccination appointments in the NYC area. You may find it helpful.
Vaccination and Continuation of Health and Safety Precautions
It’s important to know that vaccination reduces — but does not eliminate — the likelihood you will become infected following exposure. This means that there is still a small chance that even a vaccinated person could become infected with COVID-19. It is also unknown how long immunity will last after a person is fully vaccinated. Additionally, most of the research about the vaccines’ effectiveness has been on preventing symptomatic infection and severe outcomes (hospitalizations, etc.); research has generally not been focused on transmissibility following vaccination, which means it is not yet known to what degree vaccinated individuals may still be able to spread the virus to others.
As such, all members of the NYU community coming on campus, regardless of vaccination status, are required to continue to participate in testing, comply with NYU’s health and safety rules, and should continue with other practices to limit exposure.
The CDC did, however, recently release new guidance that fully vaccinated individuals with an exposure to someone with COVID-19 may not be required to quarantine if they meet all of the specified criteria. NYU will be adopting this guidance, but anyone exposed to COVID-19 — regardless of vaccination status — is still required to self-report to the COVID-19 Prevention & Response Team and will be required to show proof of vaccination before being exempt from quarantine. You may not exempt yourself from quarantine. This new guidance does not yet apply to travel-related quarantine.
In the past few weeks, new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 have emerged in South Africa, the UK, and Brazil. These variants have recently been detected in the US as well. The increased contagiousness of the new variants is due to the enhanced ability of the virus to latch onto our cells, making a person who is exposed to one of these COVID-19 variants more likely to become infected. Some of these variants may also increase the likelihood of developing more severe disease.
Preventing Infection from New Variants of COVID-19
For now, the recommendations for protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 remain the same: (1) everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated should do so, availability of vaccine permitting; and (2) the best defenses we have against these new variants continue to be mask wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene, avoiding gatherings or crowds of any size (particularly indoors), avoiding non-essential travel, and other practices to limit exposure.
Scientists are still evaluating the effectiveness of the currently available vaccines, which have proven highly effective against the original strain of COVID-19, to protect against the emergent variants. Preliminary data, however, suggest that currently approved vaccines do offer some protection against COVID-19 variants.
As more information becomes available, it is possible that due to increased levels of community transmission resulting from a variant of SARS-CoV-2, mitigation strategies and guidance may need to be updated to account for new evidence on risk of transmission and effectiveness of mitigation.
The Impact on the NYU Community
NYU is monitoring trends of these variants within our community through our testing program, specifically through saliva specimens processed through Binx kits. To date, the U.K. (B.1.1.7), Brazil (B.1.1.28), and South America (B.1.351) have not been detected in any positive cases tested through Binx. BioReference, which does the nasal swab testing on campus, is working with the NYC Department of Health and providing the Department with samples. Scientists warn that the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7), because of its increased contagiousness, may come to be the dominant form of the virus in the US and elsewhere in the coming months.
Looking Ahead: Optimism, but Uncertainty Remains
In many ways, we know a great deal more about COVID-19 now — in terms of transmission, behavior, prevention, and treatment — than we did in August/September. And vaccines, whose arrival and effectiveness were very much in question at the beginning of the academic year, are now being administered across the US, with approximately 10 percent of people in the US having received their first dose, including several thousand people in our own NYU community. The recent trend of decreasing case counts and increasing vaccine availability are certainly reasons for optimism and hope that restrictions can be eased with time.
However, there are still many uncertainties as we look forward: uncertainties related to the behavior and evolution of the COVID-19 virus; uncertainties as to the impact of COVID-19 fatigue on people’s adherence with public health protocols such as mask-wearing and physical distancing; and uncertainties with policy questions in which the answers are dependent on decisions made by the federal, state, and city governments.
The NYU COVID-19 Prevention and Response Team will continue to monitor the health of the NYU community as well as the guidance from public health authorities, particularly as it relates to universities, as we work together in the coming weeks with other NYU offices to shape plans for the summer and fall 2021 semesters.
We will also continue to communicate frequently as new information and guidance emerges and to try to provide some answers to questions that are currently obscured by uncertainty.
My thanks to the entire NYU community for your efforts to help keep each other safer.