For months, as the global epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, New York City wasn’t just a place to avoid. It was a symbol of pandemic preparedness gone horribly wrong.
But now, with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations massively trending downward in New York while a slew of states face cascading surges, conversations with public health experts and New York-based physicians suggest the lessons learned here can be repurposed elsewhere.
To put it simply: If you’re worried about a second lockdown—as governors and other officials have started to openly discuss in new COVID-19 hotspots—you should be hoping things work out in America’s largest city.
On March 3, New York City reported one confirmed case of the novel coronavirus. Just one month later, the city peaked on April 4 at 12,274 cases in one day. Three days later, on April 7, the city’s overnight COVID-19 deaths peaked at 1,036. On April 25, there were 10,683 new cases overnight.
Two months later, on Wednesday, there were 575 new cases overnight and 31 deaths.
That rapid peak and massive decline stand in stark contrast to trendlines in dozens of other states—like Texas, Florida, and Arizona—where residents appeared to escape the worst of the pandemic. At least until several weeks ago, when trendlines began to be described by local experts as “check marks” or “hockey sticks.” The U.S. set a new record on Wednesday with 36,880 new COVID-19 cases, according to The New York Times.
Amid those rising infection counts in California, Arkansas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and elsewhere, public experts told The Daily Beasts that New York’s progress is a sign of hope that a more socially distant—and mask-clad—society can function.
“Texas could follow New York’s trajectory,” said Dr. William Haseltine, a public health expert and former Harvard Medical School professor known for his work on HIV, and the president of the global health think tank ACCESS Health International. “We were far worse off than Texas. Our peak was 11,000. They’re not there yet, and we did it.”
He compared the city’s plight—and the example it has set for other hot spots—to the classic Frank Sinatra line from “New York, New York”: “If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere.”
New York’s reversal, said Haseltine, has proven that there are several key features a community must have to fight the virus effectively: “good leadership that’s clear, compassionate, credible, and consistent,” “centralized public health” marked by a good faith effort to rapidly increase contact tracing and testing, and civilians with “a sense of social solidarity and personal responsibility.”
“Europe proved that it works, and we’ve proved that it works,” said Haseltine. “We’re not used to following rules like the French or the Japanese, but we’re doing OK.” And ultimately, he added: “New York has always come through in times of crisis.”
Most importantly, he added, instead of pretending the virus no longer exists, “We’re learning to live with this disease.”
As of June 22, the city is in Phase 2, which reopened outdoor dining at restaurants, hair salons and barber shops, offices, in-store retail, real estate firms, and a slew of other businesses and activities.
“New Yorkers have done a great job through Phase 1, into Phase 2, doing the right thing, and making sure that we keep everybody safe and healthy,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday at a press conference. “So, considering the success, which we have just pure data that tells us how we’re doing, we continue to fight back this disease.”
Beaches will reopen on July 1, while the city’s three library branches will start reopening 22 facilities exclusively for grab-and-go service on July 13. Though Gov. Andrew Cuomo opened state beaches around Memorial Day, those in the city have allowed only sunbathing and limited “wading.”
The mayor said that Phase 3—which involves indoor dining at restaurants with up to 50 percent capacity and tables spaced at least six feet away from each other, nail salons, massage parlors, dog runs, basketball courts, tennis courts, soccer fields, and more—may start as early as July 6.
But that progress could be very quickly derailed by crowded bars, big parties, indoor sports events, or significant unimpeded travel from harder-hit areas.
Examples of how that diligence might slip into complacency were already popping up in Europe, as new cases increased last week for the first time in months, the World Health Organization announced on Thursday. Dr. Hans Kluge, the organization’s regional director for Europe, said 11 unnamed countries have experienced “accelerated transmission,” which has “led to very significant resurgence.” The continent as a whole reports about 20,000 new cases and 700 deaths a day. While that’s lower than the current daily case counts in the United States, it’s certainly not optimal.
Dr. Jake Deutsch, co-founder and clinical director of Cure Urgent Care centers in New York City—who said he became sick with the virus himself earlier in the pandemic—told The Daily Beast that he’d seen more people coming in for testing, and fewer positives.
“It’s really encouraging,” said Deutsch, who affirmed that New York City will inevitably see more cases as exposure increases, but that as long as people wear masks and social distance, “we know that works.”
“We saw stay-at-home work, we saw social distancing work,” said Deutsch. “Clearly lightening up those restrictions in other areas has resulted in a failure to contain the spread of the virus.”
While it’s important to note what’s working, it’s also imperative to look at where New York City—and the state at large—got it wrong. The city’s contact-tracing efforts were riddled with problems, and studies have shown that earlier lockdowns could have saved thousands of lives.
“We eventually got down to these low levels, but we didn’t take those steps soon enough, and we totally overwhelmed our healthcare system,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and an expert on U.S. readiness for pandemics. “We lost a lot more people than we should have.”
And there’s a difference, he said, between “taking appropriate steps to fight the spread of the virus versus ending or defeating the pandemic,” which Redlener said he “hoped” would happen during his lifetime.
“Will it stay better? I hope,” said Redlener, adding that new lockdowns in some places are “inevitable,” as he claimed new surges are, even in a city that is working diligently to follow guidance, provide testing, and contact-trace. And for the country as a whole, he continued, “It’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to reverse the messaging” from politicians and other leaders who brought people together in large indoor gatherings or discouraged mask-usage—as President Trump has.
“These measures are not going to end the pandemic, but they are capable of dramatically reducing the spread of the virus and the impact it has on society,” said Redlener.
Still, he added, “That does not mean that New York City will not be subject to a second wave.”