NYC Eyes July as Earliest End to Mask, Social Distancing Rules; Last Field Hospital Closes

Improvements in core COVID rates for New York have been fueled by the vaccination rollout, officials say -- and they, in turn, are fueling more reopenings; the state topped 2 million confirmed COVID cases Thursday

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What to Know

  • The last patient at the only New York state field hospital to serve people in both coronavirus waves was discharged Wednesday and the center closed; it was the first dedicated field hospital to open in U.S.
  • Improvements in core COVID rates, like hospitalizations, for New York City and state have been fueled by the vaccination rollout, officials say -- and they, in turn, are fueling more reopenings
  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced 16 NYS mass vaccine sites would start accepting walk-ins for people age 60+ on Friday; nearly three dozen city-run sites accept walk-ins now for people age 50 and older

New York City's mayor reiterated Thursday, though in less uncertain terms than earlier in the week, that the five boroughs' mask mandates will remain in effect at least through June, the same month he expects to hit his vaccination goal.

After that, Bill de Blasio said, "We'll be able to reassess." He also put the end of social distancing on the table, too -- with a critical caveat.

"If you want to get rid of the masks, if you want to get rid of the social distancing, if you want to get rid of the restrictions, go get vaccinated," he said. "We're going to have to keep mask restrictions in place until we're 100% sure we're out of the woods, and the best way to know we're out of the woods is to see those vaccination numbers go up and up and up. Just with the number of people vaccinated so far, it is just pushing down COVID, pushing down the cases and making the city safer."

The most critical COVID metrics -- hospitalizations and deaths -- continue to see up to double-digit percentage point declines every two weeks over the prior two weeks, even as new daily caseloads hold around November highs.

As of Thursday, fewer than 3,570 COVID hospitalizations were reported statewide, the lowest total since Nov. 29.

After more than a year of being used to treat COVID patients, the field hospital outside Staten Island University Hospital will no longer be used after Wednesday, with the last patient getting clapped out by the medical staff. NBC New York's John Chandler reports.

The indications of progress abound, even as New York state topped a somber milestone of 2 million confirmed virus cases on Thursday. Experts agree the actual count is likely far higher, given testing limitations early in the pandemic. But the improvement in hospitalizations has particularly inspired officials' confidence.

A day ago, the city's last remaining field hospital -- and the only field hospital statewide that was activated during the second wave -- discharged its last patient and closed its doors for what officials expect will be the last time.

The South Beach Psychiatric Center, a new but unopened Office of Mental Health facility on Staten Island, had served as an emergency field hospital since last April, providing care for more than 1,000 COVID patients over two waves. It was second only to the Javits Center in terms of state-run field hospital capacity.

The overflow center first opened on April 7, 2020, and suspended operations on May 21, 2020, after treating 217 COVID patients, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

It reopened its doors to patients as the holiday surge period began Nov. 24 and closed Wednesday after treating a total of 805 patients, more than three times its spring 2020 count. The South Beach Psychiatric Center was the first dedicated COVID field hospital to open in the United States, the governor added.

"I want to thank the doctors, nurses and facility staff who were on the front lines, putting themselves and their families at risk, to care for their neighbors and community," Cuomo said. "The best way to show our appreciation for their service is to get vaccinated and continue to do the things that have allowed us to get to this point, including wearing a mask and following the safety measures that help prevent new infections. We have come a long way and must remain New York tough." 


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Data: City of New York, State of New Jersey • Nina Lin / NBC

Cuomo has yet to talk about a potential timeline for lifting his executive order on masks, a rule he put in place early in the pandemic and one that remains in effect. Like de Blasio, he has inextricably intertwined the state's reopening course as well as its easing of restrictions with progress in the vaccination effort.

It has become easier to get appointments in the last two weeks or so as supply has become more stable, and he and de Blasio have worked to make getting vaccinated even easier. By Friday, walk-in shots will be available to anyone over 60 at 16 state-run mass vaccine sites, the first time the governor has allowed that choice.

People age 50 and older have been eligible for walk-in vaccinations at nearly three dozen city-run sites since the weekend. De Blasio says he plans to expand the vaccine walk-in option even more in the coming days.

“What could be easier than just walking in and getting the shot?" de Blasio asked. "

New York City says anyone 50 years and older can get their dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a city-run vaccination site without an appointment. NBC New York's Myles Miller reports.

The mayor last week suggested that vaccine supply could soon outweigh demand, but he didn't say he believed vaccine hesitancy was the reason for it, despite the Johnson & Johnson pause. That recommended pause could end as early as Friday, national infectious disease experts Dr. Anthony Fauci has said.

New York City never relied extensively on the J&J shot since it never had an abundant supply. Its homebound senior vaccination program was affected initially by the pause, but the city was able to switch the vaccine it used to Moderna.

To date, nearly 27% of New York City's population is fully vaccinated, while more than 3.4 million people, about 40.9% of the population, have received at least one dose. Statewide, those numbers are 29.7% and 43%, respectively.

Nationally, more than a third (34.4%) of Americans age 18 and older are fully vaccinated, while 52% have had at least one dose. The ratio is even higher among those age 65 and older, 66% of whom are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

Over the past week, the pace of inoculation in the U.S. has slowed slightly. That is partly a reflection of disruptions from the “pause” in administration of the Johnson & Johnson shot for a safety review, but also of softening interest for vaccines in many places even as eligibility has been opened to all those older than 16.

According to the latest numbers from NBC News, the United States has surpassed 32 million COVID cases since the pandemic began.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday acknowledged entering a “new phase” in the federal vaccination effort that relies on increased outreach to Americans to get their shots, both to protect them and their communities. He announced new employer tax credits and other steps to encourage people reluctant to be inoculated to get the COVID-19 vaccine as his administration tries to overcome diminishing demand.

“Vaccines can save your own life, but they can also save your grandmother’s life, your co-worker’s life, the grocery store clerk or the delivery person helping you and your neighbors get through the crisis,” Biden said. “That’s why you should get vaccinated.”

Copyright NBC New York
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