What to Know
- New York opened vaccine eligibility to those age 30+ Tuesday and will extend it universally to those age 16+ on April 6; about 17% of the state's population has been fully vaccinated to date
- The presence of highly contagious COVID variants has stoked U.S. concern; NJ officials outlined new virus projection models that suggest those may contribute to potential record daily cases in May
- Meanwhile, the reopening process continues, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's domestic travel quarantine rule ending Thursday, the same day the Yankees host fans in the stands and outdoor concerts return
Nearly 11,000 people could be at Yankee Stadium for the Major League Baseball's opening day as New York takes another step towards recovering from the pandemic.
Everyone will sit in socially distanced seats, wear masks and follow all other COVID-19 protocols as healthcare workers are celebrated for over a year of tireless work. But with the Bronx stadium continuing to operate as a mass coronavirus vaccination site, and new virus cases on the rise, the return of sports fans on Thursday doesn't mean New York is close to getting back to normal.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that the state can't remain closed much longer and touted the expansion of rapid testing as a proven way to allow businesses and entertainment venues to safely reopen.
Twenty-five new rapid testing sites will open across the state on Thursday, eight of them in New York City, and 45 others will open by mid-April, the governor said Wednesday. (Click here to see all the locations.)
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
At the same time, the state is dropping its longstanding quarantine requirement for domestic travelers. New York state health officials still recommend quarantine after domestic travel as an added precaution and international travelers are still required to quarantine. All travelers must also continue to fill out the state's traveler form as well as adhere to core COVID safety guidelines as issued by the state and federal authorities.
Also starting Thursday, fans of college sports can return to the stands with capacity at large-scale venues capped at 10 percent indoors and 20 percent outdoors. All those who are looking to attend an event will have to show proof of vaccination or a recent COVID negative test. With New York allowing performing arts and entertainment venues to open at limited capacity on Friday, it's likely that New York City streets will be more crowded than they have been in 12 months.
The previous loosening of restrictions appears to have attracted tourists to New York City. Hotel rooms are significantly more filled than they were in March 2020, according to STR. The hotel and tourism data company says the standard hotel occupancy in NYC the week of March 14-20 was around 50.8%, compared to 17% last year.
Tourists NBC New York spoke with on Wednesday said they came from as close as Hartford, Connecticut, to as far away as Russia and El Salvador.
The steps to reopen come as New York City reached a milestone of four million vaccine doses given. Mayor Bill de Blasio said he has a goal of fully vaccinating 5 million New Yorkers by June, but right now, just 1.2 million residents are fully vaccinated.
"The good news is we continue to expand our capacity, more and more sites coming online, more and more grassroots sites, more staff, everything's clicking, we need the supply," de Blasio told reporters.
On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Governors Island will reopen to the public on May 1, with an additional two new ferry locations in Brooklyn.
As reopenings take place or are on the horizon, de Blasio took the time during his Thursday COVID-19 press conference to tell New Yorkers that they should stay remain vigilant and safe since the pandemic is still ongoing, particularly as the religious holidays of Holy Week and Easter as well as Passover.
"It's an important time in terms of faith. It's an important time in terms of family," de Blasio said. "But it is also a time to be safe. We love this time of year and we love when our families gather but we have to do it the right way."
De Blasio also announced a new vaccination site opening on the South Shore of Staten Island at St. Joseph-St.Thomas Parish, as the tri-state continues to try to not only halt further spread of the coronavirus, but also rollout vaccines. This site will open on April 8.
Additionally, de Blasio announced pop-up NYCHA vaccine sites that will be up and running from April 1 to April 4. These locations are:
- Bronx: Castle Hill Houses and Forest Community Center
- Brooklyn: Van Dyke Community Center
- Manhattan: St. Nicholas Houses, Johnson Houses, Gompers Community Center
- Queens: Jacob Riis Community Center
Even with millions of Johnson & Johnson doses going to waste on Wednesday after a key ingredient didn't meet quality control standards, vaccine allocation to states is still expected to increase this month as efforts to expand rollout ramp up. New York is less than a week away from opening up vaccine eligibility for everyone age 16 and older. but Connecticut is taking that step on Thursday. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to set a date to expand access universally.
President Joe Biden has pledged to have enough vaccines for all U.S. adults by the end of May. The U.S. government has ordered enough two-dose shots from Pfizer and Moderna to vaccinate 200 million people to be delivered by late May, plus the 100 million single-dose shots from J&J.
Not sure how the process works? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here
Tri-state governors say they are proceeding on a data-driven and scientific reopening course, one that relies on core COVID protocol in all cases and on proof of negative tests and/or completed immunizations in New York state.
Murphy said last week he would halt potential plans to further loosen restrictions because of the numbers, though this week announced a series of capacity-related changes to come. In addition to expanding outdoor gathering limits to 200 on Friday (while keeping indoor limits at 25 people), the governor said he would boost indoor and outdoor seating at large state venues (those with 2,500-plus capacity) to 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
The announcement came just a few days before state officials warned about the increasing prevalence of highly contagious coronavirus variants, which could send new daily case totals in the Garden State to record levels by mid-May.
Murphy and top state health officials on Wednesday outlined updated moderate- and high-case virus projection models that take the impacts of vaccination, spring break travel, future holidays and vaccine efficacy against variants into account. Both models assume New Jersey vaccinates 70 percent of its adult population in June, though the dates are two weeks apart.
In the moderate-case scenario, which presumes current vaccines have 95 percent efficacy against variants and New Jersey adults are 70 percent vaccinated by June 1, the latest wave would peak around April 18 with a daily high of 5,445 daily cases and nearly 2,700 people hospitalized. Both those numbers are more than double what the state was reporting in early November.
The state wouldn't expect to see new daily cases drop below 3,000 until mid-June at the earliest. That means more than 2,000 new cases a day, every day, for at least another four months. Hospitalizations would top 1,000 until at least August.
And that's the moderate scenario.
In the worst case, modeling shows that peak may not come until May 18, when daily case highs could top 8,160 -- more in a single day than New Jersey has reported since the pandemic started -- while hospitalizations would top off around 3,650, an admission volume the state hasn't seen since mid-May 2020. Both "unsettling" highs could persist well into mid-June in that model, Murphy noted.
"Basically, we would be plus or minus back to where we were in December and January when the second wave was crashing on us," he said.
That more dire model presumes 65 percent vaccine efficacy on coronavirus variants and high spread impact connected to them. It also presumes the 70 percent adult vaccination goal is hit two weeks later than the other model and a higher rate of hospitalizations and new cases stemming from public behavior as well as holiday-related travel and the overall reopening process.
Murphy offered a core caveat at the start of his briefing -- one he says he's given before and one he's obliged to reiterate now.
"While these models are based on a year's worth of data, they do change practically day-to-day as new data better informs our path forward. These are projections, not certainties -- and through our behavior we can change the trajectory of the models," he said. "The more vaccinations we administer, the better we can make the model. And the more we continue to wear our masks and keep social distances even after we've been vaccinated, we can further push these projected numbers lower."
"While the numbers of projected new cases can and should give us all pause, it is the numbers in our hospitals which are of the greatest concern when it comes to determining the steps we need to take as a state," the governor added.
Some of those hospitalization metrics have been rising already, New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli shared data that shows a 28 percent jump in new admissions statewide in the last two weeks. That includes a 31 percent increase in hospitalizations among those age 20 to 29, a 9 percent increase in those 30 to 39 and a 48 percent increase among those 40 to 49, she said.
Hospitalizations for those older than 70 have been markedly less, 7 percent for the 70-79 group and 1 percent for those older than 80, Persichilli added, possibly a reflection of early vaccine eligibility targeting elderly populations.
"It is believed that the uptick in cases is due primarily to more contagious variants, for example, B.1.1.7, the U.K. variant, coupled with less cautious behaviors," the state's health commissioner said. "There is still an uncertainty ahead with this relentless virus that continues to change. All of the country is in a race to vaccinate as variants contribute to the surges."
Meanwhile, New Jersey continues to see a staggering increase in cases, with Thursday's number of new cases being the highest in two months. Since the previous day, New Jersey reported Thursday 4,699 new positive PCR tests and 1,251 new positive antigen tests. Additionally, the Garden State added 30 new confirmed COVID-19 deaths.
The heightened prevalence of more transmissible variants first identified in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa has officials at all levels of government and as high-ranking as the president warning states not to loosen restrictions too aggressively. A half-dozen states have already lifted mask mandates and more are planning to do so in the coming weeks in spite of pleas to Americans from President Joe Biden and CDC boss Dr. Rochelle Walensky to keep their guards up.
While virus mutations are a matter of course and most are not considered threats to public health, the trio from the U.K. (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351) and Brazil (P.1) are considered "variants of interest" because evidence has shown they are better able to evade immune responses and may increase risk of reinfection.
In its latest update, the CDC said nearly 12,000 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been reported in 51 states. The head of the agency said Wednesday that variant now accounts for 26 percent of U.S. cases and is starting to become the predominant strain. Preliminary data from the U.K. suggests that strain could also be more lethal than others, though experts say that needs further study.
The South African and Brazilian strains are less common, accounting for 312 cases in 31 states and 172 cases in 22 states, respectively, the CDC says.
New Jersey tracks seven known variants at the state level. Those have been found in more than 700 positive COVID samples, though the U.K. strain is by far most common (606 known cases). Ten cases of the South African (2) and Brazilian (8) variants have been identified, while the so-called "New York City" variant, known as B.1.526, was detected in 112 samples. Unlike in New York, New Jersey's travel quarantine has always been an advisory, not an enforceable order.
Murphy, whose state is currently No. 1 nationally in new daily cases per capita (New York is No. 2, Connecticut is No. 3), has said his advisory remains in effect.
Connecticut has reported nearly 400 cases of the U.K. strain locally and two and seven of the other two variants of interest. New York state hasn't updated its public accounting of variant data with any regularity, but in the city, health officials say they have found the U.K. variant in at least 590 people. That last update on March 23 marked a 35 percent increase from the previous data release.
City health officials said earlier this month that two variants -- the U.K. one and one that originated in Washington Heights last year (B.1.526) -- accounted for 51 percent of all samples studied in the most recent week of full data.
The vast majority of variant samples identified were the Washington Heights variant, known as B.1.526. That strain was present in nearly two of five cases studied overall. The U.K. strain, B.1.1.7, has thus far been reported in about 590 New York City residents, a 35 percent increase from the previous data release. One Brazilian strain case and two South African variant cases have been found, though the prevalence of all three is likely much higher than reported.
Asked about the risk of variants, specifically as it relates to any potential for reinfection, on Tuesday, Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said some of the strains, particularly the Brazilian and South African ones, "do appear to be able to evade our immune response more-so than the other variants."
"That's something that we are following closely," Chokshi added. "There appears to be evidence that people who get those variants are more at risk of reinfection even if they've had COVID-19 in the past. All of that said, based on our own observation here in New York City, we're not seeing the likelihood of reinfection growing over time."
Reinfection risk aside, the growing volume of variant cases has stoked concern nationally. It's also created preference in public vaccine choices; some worry the Johnson & Johnson single-dose shot, which was clinically tried in variant-dominant countries like South Africa and showed lower effectiveness, won't work as well against that and other variants in the United States. The Moderna and Pfizer trials were done much earlier and not subject to the same variant scrutiny.
Both Cuomo and de Blasio, among other officials, elected to have the J&J shot to underscore the point that all existing vaccines are effective at preventing hospitalization and death from coronavirus.
As Dr. Jay Varma, senior adviser to the mayor's office, reiterated Wednesday, "The best vaccine is the one that you can get right now. It's not about a brand. It's about the outcome."
Overall, health experts say they are expected to work on the variants that have emerged and those that will emerge over time, though some warn viral mutations could render current vaccines ineffective in a year or less, according to CNBC.