In New York City, the number of people taking official COVID-19 tests — those traditional PCR tests given at hospitals and clinics – is the lowest it’s been since May 2020. Back then, the U.S. was still recovering from early setbacks with developing PCR tests, which left the country uncertain about where and how the coronavirus was spreading.
The PCR testing drop affects official recordkeeping. NYC — like most jurisdictions — doesn’t collect results from at-home kits. Public metrics used to capture and communicate the spread of COVID, such as the positivity rate, are set by the number of PCR tests that come back with “Hey, you have COVID-19.’
“It makes it hard to interpret the case numbers — and to get a sense of how much COVID might really be out there,” said Denis Nash, an epidemiology professor at CUNY. “Anytime there’s less testing, the positivity rate means less.”
NYC’s current testing lull extends back to Christmas, when the average number of PCR tests taken each day dipped below 20,000 in New York City — where it remained as of Tuesday. This seven-day average hit its lowest point — 16,785 tests — on Dec. 29.
A year earlier in December 2021, this average was more than six times higher at 110,514 tests per day, as the first omicron variant ran amok, drove case rates to new records and filled hospitals.
The drop in PCR testing comes as headlines mount around a highly transmissible spinoff of the omicron variant, XBB.1.5 — also unofficially dubbed “Kraken” by a small group of scientists. But infectious disease specialists and NYC’s health commissioner said the city is not in the same situation as a year ago or during past major surges of the disease.
“We do, sadly, still have more deaths related to COVID than I think is acceptable,” Dr. Jessica Justman, an infectious disease physician at Columbia University and senior technical director of the ICAP global health program. “[But] I’ll say we’re in a significantly better place than we had been one 12 months in the past and two years in the past.”
The testing pattern arrives amid a winter wave of respiratory illness — one which’s seen RSV and influenza rise and recede. COVID-19 has held regular, considerably missed as these different outbreaks thrived. A typical flu season lasts about seven months and, in a nasty 12 months, kills an estimated 52,000 Individuals – or roughly 245 individuals per day. Over the past seven months, COVID-19 has killed about 88,400 Individuals — or about 400 individuals per day. Most had been over the age of fifty.
COVID-19 surges and lulls are actually largely taking place no matter what number of people take PCR checks. Most individuals have acquired immunity to the coronavirus by the combination of an infection, vaccination and boosters — mercifully dampening how a lot extreme illness is going on.
Proof of that is already seen this winter regardless of the latest arrival of XBB.1.5. The World Well being Group described it on Jan. 4 as essentially the most transmissible model of omicron to this point, however up to now, the worldwide well being company doesn’t suppose it’s extra extreme than previous variants.
Labs right here started detecting low ranges of this omicron subvariant in the neighborhood round early November. Kraken now makes up about 80% of the state’s analyzed instances, which means it rose to dominance in roughly the identical timeframe as the unique omicron.
However even as instances elevated this fall and winter, hospitalizations and deaths didn’t observe swimsuit to the identical epic diploma.
In NYC, 1,455 persons are presently hospitalized with COVID-19. The identical day a 12 months in the past — throughout the heights of the primary omicron wave — practically 6,200 had been hospitalized.
“We have also been deploying our mobile test-to-treat [clinics] and mobile vaccine structure out to communities based on where there are higher risks and higher need and demand,” Vasan stated.
Justman, Nash and Vasan all stated the drop in PCR testing additionally speaks to the recognition of at-home checks. These kits provide the comfort of checking whether or not an individual is constructive without having to move to a clinic.
“We’ve been saying for now more than a year, once the rapid at-home tests became available, that testing data was going to become less and less useful,” Justman stated.
However in these eventualities, the case charges and positivity charges on dashboards will principally mirror episodes of average or extreme illness — ones that folks really feel strongly sufficient about to get an official PCR check.
As such, Nash stated COVID-19 knowledge now principally tells individuals the extent to which persons are not being reached by the instruments, such as booster vaccines and antiviral medication like Paxlovid, that may forestall severe outcomes.
The largest issues revolve round hardening safety for weak teams and growing the dialogue about lengthy COVID, so individuals can higher know when to hunt remedy, Nash stated. The CDC estimates that folks with lengthy COVID make up greater than 1 in each 20 U.S. adults, or presently about 6%, which mirrors analysis performed by Nash’s lab.
Vasan said the city health department made an extra push through “hundreds of community engagement events” this autumn and winter to reach people over 65, anyone with underlying disease and other vulnerable groups.
“We’ve been doing events and popups at senior centers,” Vasan said. “We’ve formed partnerships with all of the nursing homes in our city to get elderly New Yorkers… We have programs with our DHS [Department of Homeless Services] shelters.”
All three consultants additionally cited the diploma to which misinformation on social media probably retains individuals from these interventions. Solely 13% of individuals citywide have taken the up to date bivalent boosters, that are designed to struggle omicron. The speed is low even amongst senior New Yorkers — with simply 25% boosted with the bivalent.
“We have to incorporate a battle against misinformation into our public health strategies,” Vasan stated. “For a whole host of issues going forward, lest we allow the impact of COVID to really be a contagion on other public health priorities.”