Drop in Vaccinations Raises Alarms in Virus-Consumed NYC

A nurse prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Vaccination rates in New York City have dropped precipitously in the pandemic era, a trend that does not bode well for children getting sick with the novel coronavirus, Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot warned Wednesday.

Herself a pediatrician, Barbot joined Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daily press conference to tout vaccines as a safe and effective way to prevent illness such as whooping cough, measles and mumps.

Being unvaccinated for other diseases could actually increase a child’s chances of being sick with Covid-19, Barbot warned, emphasizing that contracting preventable respiratory illness on top of Covid-19 could cause more serious illness.  

The number of administered vaccine doses in the city is down 63% overall, the mayor said. It’s dropped 42% among children 2 and under, and a shocking 91% for children over 2 years of age.

“The reasons are obvious: Doctors’ offices have been closed in many cases. Families are staying home. We’ve had to focus on the most urgent needs on health care,” de Blasio said. 

Against this backdrop, hospitals are seeing increasing cases of children falling ill with an inflammatory syndrome that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention connected with the novel coronavirus. The disease in children is characterized by prolonged fever, abdominal upset, and bright red lips or tongue, among other symptoms, and has been termed MIS-C, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. 

“So the pieces unfortunately start to fit together in a way,” said de Blasio. “Contracting a disease on top of that [MIS-C] — that combination is dangerous … we don’t want to see any of that happen to any child, so bottom line to all parents, all family members out there, get your child vaccinated,” he said. 

City officials emphasized that parents and guardians need not enter a hospital to get their child vaccinated. Vaccines are offered for free at over 1,000 New York City facilities. Families can make an appointment by calling 844-NYC-4NYC.

New York is also falling behind in census responses, de Blasio noted. The overall response rate for the 2020 census is 59% nationwide, but the New York City response rate is just 49%. Residents can fill out their census online at my2020census.gov, or by mail or phone.

New York City has now seen 192,374 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 20,934 probable and confirmed fatalities. But in a good sign, the percentage of New Yorkers tested who test positive for the virus has dropped to just 8%, the mayor said Wednesday.

Statewide numbers continue to drop as well, though slowly, said Governor Andrew Cuomo in his own Wednesday press conference in Albany. The state lost 112 people to the virus yesterday and counts 22,976 deaths overall, though that number is likely low as it counts only those who tested positive for Covid-19.

State data shows 354,370 New Yorkers have tested positive for the virus.

Cuomo also announced the results of an antibody study conducted by the state in low-income communities, assisted by faith organizations. It has been clear for weeks that the virus has taken a larger toll on communities of color and low-income groups, and the new numbers, too, are stark. 

Guadalupe Lucero, a member of the janitorial staff, wipes down high-touch surfaces at a building in Co-op City in the Bronx. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In one neighborhood in the Bronx, Morrisania, 43% of people tested positive for antibodies. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, 41% had antibodies. In New York City overall, about 19.9% carry antibodies, the state found with an earlier study.

Low-income neighborhoods also have higher hospitalization rates for the virus, the new study found. In Morrisania, 3.26 of every 100,000 residents were hospitalized, while New York City overall saw just 1.8 per 100,000.

Cuomo thanked New York Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries for the idea to conduct an antibody study in low-income communities. 

“We want to now take the next step, which is outreach programs, getting the PPP into the community,” Cuomo said, using the abbreviation for personal protective equipment, “getting the hand sanitizer in the community, explaining social distancing, and why that’s so important, and explain how this virus spreads. It’s a public health education effort.”

Cuomo also announced that the state is doubling its diagnostic testing program to 44 total churches in heavily impacted communities. It will offer testing in 40 public housing developments, an increase from just eight. He also directed all local governments to test in low-income communities and develop outreach programs. 

Cuomo is also facing increased criticism for his handling of the pandemic in the state’s nursing homes. Of the 22,976 deaths the state has counted overall, 5,403 of those deaths were in nursing homes — significantly more than the death toll of the entire state of California, as New York Times Albany Bureau Chief Jesse McKinley pointed out Wednesday on Twitter. The two states essentially have the same size nursing home population.

Earlier this week, Cuomo mandated all nursing home staff in the state be tested twice a week for Covid-19. 

“And so it’s very aggressive. We are the leading the nation on this and yes we believe we’re going to meet the goal,” Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa said Wednesday.

Cuomo has continued to insist he does not regret a state health department directive that ordered nursing homes to take back Covid-19-positive patients after their hospital stays. 

A patient is wheeled out of Cobble Hill Health Center by emergency medical workers on April 17 in Brooklyn. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Republican New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik has called for a federal probe into New York’s handling of Covid-19 in nursing homes, particularly to the directive that required homes to reabsorb Covid-positive patients.

Cuomo shrugged off a reporter’s question about a potential probe Wednesday. 

“Anyone who wants to ask, why did the state do that with Covid patients in nursing homes — it’s because the state followed President Trump’s CDC guidance, so they should ask President Trump,” he said, while insisting he wasn’t playing politics.

“The CDC guidance said a nursing home cannot discriminate against the Covid patient, because at that time the issue was hospital capacity,” Cuomo said. 

He insisted the policy didn’t force nursing homes to take back sick patients because the state always had alternative beds available. 

“Any nursing home could just say, ‘I can’t handle a Covid person in my facility.’ … Do you believe in nursing home, a nursing home operator would accept a patient who they knew they couldn’t care for?”

The answer to Cuomo’s question, however, seems to be yes: Most nursing homes are for-profit entities and receive federal reimbursement in exchange for patient care. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that Covid-19 patients could be “cash cows” for nursing homes, thanks to a new Medicare reimbursement system. 

Helen Ferraro-Zaffram, a supervising attorney at the Center for Elder Law & Justice said in an email Tuesday many questions remain about the testing requirements. 

“While testing is an important piece of the Covid fight, we have seen with the White House staffers — negative one day — positive the next,” she wrote. “If I were working at any of these residences, I would care for each patient taking the necessary precautions, treating them as though I am positive and they are positive.”

She also questioned whether labs and manufacturers will be able to keep up with that level of testing for nursing home staff. 

“That presumes there are not slowdowns where testing kits are manufactured, or lack of materials to make the kits, or breakdowns with equipment, enough staff to actually perform the tests at the various facilities, efficacy and quick turnaround of testing results,” Ferraro-Zaffram said. “There seem to me to be a number of places where this can break down. While I hope for the best, I think we need to have contingency plans in place.”

She also suggested that facilities consider calling in the National Guard to assist with patient care during staff shortages.

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