New York's Scariest COVID Rates Have Plunged — So Why Are Infections Still So High?

Coronavirus infections across the city continue to be at more than triple the number they were as recently as early November; health officials offered a possible explanation for that -- and stressed an urgent message

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What to Know

  • Three new mass vaccination sites open on Long Island at the end of the week; appointments for those sites open up for booking Wednesday, the same day the next essential worker class is eligible
  • New Jersey and Connecticut have expanded eligibility significantly in recent weeks; CT Gov. Ned Lamont says he plans to open access to people age 45-64 as early as Friday and 16-44 as early as April 5
  • It's unclear when New York could do the same but NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he hopes to have universal eligibility in June; more than 12 million NY adults of about 15 million are currently eligible

How low can it go? Even as New York City and state take major reopening steps, encouraged by plunging COVID hospitalization and death rates in the wake of the holiday surge, some are scratching their heads about one number in particular.

Why is the city's positivity rate still so high? The question came up Tuesday in New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's regular coronavirus briefing after the mayor shared updates on the three core metrics he looks to daily for progress. New daily hospital admissions have dropped below his 200-patient threshold. But new daily case -- and the seven-day rolling positivity rate -- remain well above the ideal.

In early November, the city reported new daily case averages around 1,000 or below. That number right now is holding at more than triple what it was then. As of Tuesday, the rolling positivity rate was 6.40 percent, by the city's data. It was only four months ago that the rate topped 3 percent citywide for the first time in months, prompting de Blasio to move schools fully remote and suggest -- with increasing fervency over the next few weeks -- the city needed another shutdown.

Due to an aggressive increase in covid cases, Governor Cuomo is debating another shutdown, despite the vaccine rollout, Andrew Siff reports.

If that 3 percent threshold caused so much chaos a few months back, what is the level of concern with it lingering at a spot more than double that first benchmark? It's not too high, city officials said, but it's why they continue to urge cautionary behavior like masks and social distancing even as vaccinations ramp up.

Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city's health commissioner, said it is possible that more contagious variants are keeping the plateau at a higher than desired level.

He and other officials last week revealed a preliminary in-depth report on the presence of variants in the five boroughs. It found that two variants -- the U.K. one and another that first originated in Manhattan's Washington Heights -- accounted for 51 percent of all current cases citywide. The prevalence of those variants and more transmissible strains from Brazil and South Africa has grown exponentially on a national scale over the course of the last month and is likely underreported.

With new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus circulating, health experts are adjusting their recommendations for face masks. NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres joined LX News to explain why you should make sure your face mask is well-fitted and double up.

Notably, Chokshi and Dr. Jay Varma, senior public health adviser to the mayor's office, said the two prime variants in New York City only appeared to have heightened levels of infectiousness, not greater risk of severe illness or death.

As of Tuesday, city officials had identified at least 257 U.K. variant cases across the five boroughs, an increase of more than double since its update a week ago. According to the CDC, that variant, known as B.1.1.7, has now been detected in all U.S. jurisdictions except for Oklahoma and Vermont. Health experts would likely say, though, that the variants are likely already present in those states anyway.

The other reason hospitalizations and deaths have declined even as daily case averages stay fairly high is likely related to vaccination, Dr. Mitchell Katz, president and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals. The people who would be at highest risk for COVID complications were first eligible for vaccination; many have completed their series. They're no longer getting sick at the same rate or to the same degree.

Not sure how the process works? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here

New York City and New Jersey Vaccine Providers

Click on each provider to find more information on scheduling appointments for the COVID-19 Vaccine.

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

That said, younger people, who have been notoriously blamed across the U.S. for flaunting COVID protocol at times or at least taking greater risks, are not yet eligible for vaccination. Infections continue to spread through that group, Katz said. The plus side is simply that they are no longer infecting high-risk patients to the same extent as they were months ago. And they'll be eligible soon(ish), too.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said meeting President Joe Biden's plan to have all U.S. adults eligible for vaccination by late May will require a vastly greater distribution network (the state already has about 5,000 providers involved) and significant logistical management of supply and appointment scheduling. He said Monday that a new trio of mass vaccination sites, which have proven particularly effective at bolstering shot administration, will open on Long Island to support the effort.

Appointments for those sites opening up for booking Wednesday. That's the same day the next class of essential workers earns vaccine eligibility.

More than 12 million New Yorkers are already eligible for vaccination, including the latest group (anyone 60 and older) made eligible last week. Starting Wednesday, more people -- social service and child service caseworkers, sanitation and DMV workers, county clerks, building service and election workers and public works employees and government inspectors join the widening pool.

The pace of vaccinations has increased dramatically in recent weeks but herd immunity -- the low end of which Cuomo says is about 75 percent -- remains a seemingly far-off goal. As of Tuesday, New York state had administered at least one dose to nearly 4.6 million people, about a third of the people currently eligible and 22.9 percent of the state's population. More than 2.3 million -- 11.8 percent of the populace -- have completed their shot series, state data shows.

In New York City, 1.7 million people (20.5 percent of the population) have gotten at least one dose, while nearly 833,000 (9.9 percent of the population) have both. The city did almost 375,000 total doses last week alone, de Blasio said Tuesday. Three top health officials were among those to receive vaccines over the weekend. Each one of them got a different brand -- part of a coordinated effort to show New Yorkers vaccine effectiveness transcends manufacturer.

Chokshi, who personally battled COVID last month, got the Johnson & Johnson single-dose shot. Varma received the Moderna vaccine while Katz had Pfizer.

The day after President Biden announced that all adult Americans will be eligible for the vaccine by May 1, the White House coronavirus response team outlined their policy changes to achieve this milestone, including streamlined resources to help Americans find vaccination sites and schedule appointments.

"The best vaccine is the one you can get now," Chokshi reiterated. "All of the authorized vaccines are safe, effective and life-saving. All of them offer strong protection from severe illness. The best vaccine is the one you can get now."

De Blasio has said he will get the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine when his turn is up. The governor, who is now eligible at 63 years old, said he will also take the Johnson & Johnson shot -- at a pop-up community center -- within days.

Across the river, New Jersey has doubled-dosed more than a million people, about 11.5 percent of its population. It took the state roughly 55 days to hit the first million doses, but just three weeks to move from that benchmark to the 2 million- milestone. It took much less time to hit the next million, which it did on Monday.

Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region

Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here


Over in Connecticut, more than 10 percent of the population is also fully vaccinated. The Constitution State ranks in the top five U.S. states in terms of population percentage vaccinated and Lamont said Monday he would accelerate Connecticut's age-based vaccination rollout given the latest federal dose boost.

It's unclear when New Jersey and New York could do the same but de Blasio has said that he hopes for everyone to become eligible by June.

Vaccines are expected to work on the coronavirus variants that have emerged and those that will over time. The more people who are vaccinated, the less the virus can spread and the less opportunity it has to mutate into a potentially more transmissible or otherwise dangerous form, health experts say.

Gov. Ned Lamont is accelerating the time frame for people to sign up for coronavirus vaccines in Connecticut and said he tentatively plans for the vaccine to expand to anyone 16 years old and up by April 5. NBC New York's Ida Siegal reports.

That severe illnesses and hospitalizations linked to COVID remain substantially down in the U.S. and continue to fall even as new case declines stagnate is a sign, health officials say, that vaccines are doing their most critical job.

Still, experts say some states -- like Texas and Mississippi -- have reopened too aggressively given the status of the vaccine rollout and the threat of contagious variants. The CDC's chief says U.S. COVID rates leveled off at an alarming height. She says the next two months will be particularly precarious as the nation looks to get more of its population fully vaccinated. Moderna is only now just beginning to study its vaccine on children, though kids tend to be less likely viral spreaders.

As of Tuesday, 15.1 percent of U.S. adults had completed their series according to the CDC, though federal data often lags reporting at the individual state level.

Moderna is beginning to test its vaccine on children under 12.

Tri-State Reopening Kicks Into Higher Gear

All tri-state governors -- Cuomo, Phil Murphy and Ned Lamont -- have vowed to keep those factors in mind as they move forward with what they describe to be data-driven reopening decisions that protect public health and help the economy.

This week features a bevy of those actions. New York City subways, which saw a four-hour overnight shutdown throughout the crisis that recently was halved, saw its ridership hit a single-day pandemic high Friday at nearly 2 million paid rides.

That number used to top 5 million daily before schools, restaurants and other businesses closed down a year ago. It dropped as low as 300,000 last April.

Mass transit use could see heightened increases in the next few months -- the next few weeks, even -- as New York and the rest of the tri-state area look to expedite their economic revivals and their vaccine rollouts simultaneously.

One group showed de Blasio their eagerness to return to business as normal (or something close to it) on Tuesday: Leaders of nearly two dozen fitness studios protested outside of City Hall, demanding they be allowed to reopen like their counterparts in every other part of the state.

"You cannot say it's OK to go do yoga in Rochester but not on Rochester Avenue in Brooklyn," said Borough President Eric Adams, who joined the demonstration.

De Blasio said that the city health advisers continue to say indoor fitness classes are not safe, with Chokshi saying "those are the settings where we have seen COVID-19 spread."

A COVID-19 vaccine clinic specifically for teachers and Board of Education members opened in Jersey City -- all with the goal of opening up district schools for in-person learning. Meanwhile, in New York, wedding receptions resume. Tracie Strahan with the latest.

New York state approved the return of limited wedding receptions and catering events as of Monday, while more major reopening steps are on tap for each of the three tri-states later this week. New York City and New Jersey indoor dining capacity will jump to 50 percent Friday for the first time since the shutdown and New York restaurants outside the five boroughs jump to 75 percent capacity.

New Jersey will also raise indoor business capacity for recreation facilities, gyms and personal care services like salons to 50 percent on that same day, while the state's indoor and outdoor gathering limits will double, the governors has said.

It's been one year since restaurants were shut down across New York as COVID-19 spread rampantly. But those that have made it through are now getting more help with their recovery. News 4's Tracie Strahan reports.

In Connecticut, capacity restrictions lift entirely for most businesses, including restaurants, on the same day. Bars will still be closed and movie theaters and performing arts venues will return their current 50 percent capacity limit.

All three tri-state governors have pledged to constantly monitor the data and reassess their respective reopening tracks if the numbers warrant a change. In the meantime, they urge their residents to continue using the same core precautions that stemmed the spread of earlier strains: Wear a mask (two are better), socially distance, wash your hands and stay home when you're sick.

"Now is not the time for us to let up on our efforts," Chokshi stressed Tuesday. "We have to ensure that we drive everything down together in concert."

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