New York City raised its COVID alert level to medium on Monday as cases surpassed a rate of 200 per 100,000 people in the five boroughs, health officials said. It marks the first time the health department has adjusted that level since debuting the new system under Mayor Eric Adams' administration earlier this year.
Manhattan and Staten Island, respectively, have the highest transmission rates per 100,000 residents, the latest health data show, but it's the first borough that is having a disproportionate impact on the city's overall rolling new case rate.
Those two boroughs are also now classified as "medium" COVID alert counties by the CDC. And while the new case rates are clearly ascending, they remain well below what they were during omicron's peak surge in January.
Most importantly, hospitalizations and deaths, the far more important metrics from a public health perspective, remain on the decline.
No new COVID protocol will be implemented (or reimplemented) at this point, but should the alert level reach high -- the highest of the three laid out by health officials -- the city will consider requiring face masks in all public indoor settings again.
For now, NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan says New Yorkers should exercise greater caution than they have in the last few weeks -- and those who are at higher risk for severe disease from COVID, for whatever reason, are advised to consider avoiding crowded indoor gatherings and other higher-risk situations.
The city continues to recommend that all New Yorkers, vaccinated or not, wear a mask in public indoor settings as highly contagious subvariants of omicron continue to spread across the city, state and much of the globe.
Sign up for our Breaking newsletter to get the most urgent news stories in your inbox.
"The coming weeks will be critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and getting back to a low-risk level so we can more safely enjoy our spring," Vasan said. "And remember, the steps you take to protect yourself also protect others, especially those most vulnerable. As a city, we have the tools we need to beat back this virus. As New Yorkers, we are in this together. By incorporating these steps into our daily lives, we can continue to look out for one another and ourselves."
Vasan had laid the foundation for Monday's decision in the first few days of April. Cases were rising, he said, and likely would continue to rise for a couple of weeks, meaning New Yorkers should prepare themselves to transition to a new alert level.
And here we are.
New York City has managed to evade the brunt of the omicron subvariant-fueled COVID spread blamed for high infection rates in other parts of the state, like the Central New York and Western regions, in recent weeks. But the needle is moving.
Last week, the CDC classified 40 of America's more than 3,200 counties as high risk for COVID, based on its community-level assessment system. That was up from the previous week, and more than half of the high-risk counties were in New York.
None, though, were in New York City at the time. None of New York City's five counties were even considered medium risk just a few days ago.
As of Monday, both Manhattan and Staten Island are in the CDC's medium risk level. And the orange (high) and yellow (medium) shades afflicting mainly western, central and northern counties in the state just a week or two ago trickled down.
The numbers are calculated using data through April 28, which means COVID-19 transmission is likely currently higher than the latest CDC map reflects.
From a raw data perspective, all COVID metrics in New York City remain well below their staggering heights at omicron's peak in January.
The rolling case average is up about 12% over the rolling average for the prior four weeks, but hospitalizations and deaths are both still declining, by 13% and 50% respectively.
The latter, though, is the difference between just two fatalities on a rolling basis and the raw numbers are exceptionally low (four vs. two).
Overall, COVID hospitalizations in New York have remained manageable amid this latest viral uptick -- and about half of the people admitted for COVID in the state didn't go to the hospital because of the virus in the first place. It was found during routine testing, which suggests those cases were minor from a COVID perspective.
Ultimately, experts say they don't expect a major COVID resurgence like the one America experienced earlier this year as a consequence of the omicron subvariants.
While evidence shows they appear to be even more transmissible than the already more transmissible original strain, there is none at this point to suggest they cause more severe illness or are more vaccine-resistant.