Experts are struggling to explain why new cases of COVID-19 are declining much more slowly in New York City than across the rest of the country.
As of Wednesday, the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases was down just 3 percent in New York over the past two weeks, compared to a decline of 37 percent in the same period nationwide.
The city was still averaging well over 3,000 new cases of coronavirus per day, down from the peak of 6,000 in early January but roughly flat with the beginning of February.
Meanwhile, nationally new cases have plummeted to less than 70,000 per day, from the January peak of more than 250,000, spurring questions about what is going wrong in New York.
‘It’s always tricky to attribute a rise or fall in cases to one specific event,’ Suzanne Judd, a PhD epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health, told DailyMail.com.
Judd offered several theories, including that different variants of the virus are more prevalent in New York City, that the current surge in the city started later than in the rest of the country, and that vaccine rollout could be proceeding at a different pace in New York.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases was down just 3 percent in New York over the past two weeks
Pressed on the issue, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his advisers blamed everything from ‘historical injustice like racism and poverty’ to the city’s density, and claimed that the city’s testing capabilities were detecting cases that would go unnoticed elsewhere.
Historic winter storms may have reduced transmission in many parts of the country
Over the past several weeks, much of the country was battered by several rounds of winter storms, leaving more than three-quarters of the country covered in snow, with temperatures falling well below zero degrees Fahrenheit all across the Great Lakes and Plains regions.
While New York City also got its share of the snow, life in the city was barely affected compared to vast swathes of the Midwest and South.
Life in Texas was most notably thrown into chaos, but throughout the Plains, Ohio River Valley, and much of the South, roads were impassible and many people spent more than a week riding out the storms at home.
Trapped at home by the snow, those who were unwittingly contagious with asymptomatic cases could have been unintentionally forced into quarantine, slowing the spread of the virus.
Snow accumulation is seen across the US on February 17. Rounds of winter storms could have reduced transmission by forcing people to stay in their homes
A map from COVID Act Now shows current per capita trends of new cases for each state
At one point in mid-February, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida were the only contiguous states that had no significant snow accumulation. Notably, all three states have seen their cases drop more slowly than the national average in the past 14 days.
Meanwhile, in New York City, the trains kept running and fleets of plows quickly cleared the streets.
However, Judd expressed doubt that the storms were the sole explanation for the differences between the New York and the rest of the country.
‘It is unlikely that the weather event alone explains the differences,’ she told DailyMail.com.
‘A forced quarantine in some places (Texas) would explain a decrease in those areas but here in Alabama we did not experience the same extreme weather. We only had about six hours of snow so that wouldn’t explain why we, too, are seeing a decrease in cases,’ said Judd.
Alabama has seen new cases drop 45 percent in the past two weeks, an even quicker pace than the national average.
Variant strains could be to blame for slower drop NYC
On Tuesday, the New York City Health Department released a report suggesting that the B117 UK variant of coronavirus accounted for 6.2 percent of cases in the city, up from 2.7 percent in January.
The UK variant has been estimated to be as much as 70 percent more contagious than prior strands of the virus, and a high prevalence of the B117 strand could be driving higher case numbers in New York.
The city’s surveillance testing suggests that there may be thousands of previously unknown variant cases in the city.
Based on confirmed detection of the variant, Florida had previously been thought the be the nation’s hotspot.
But Florida has seen daily new cases fall by 22 percent in the past two weeks — slower than the national average but far quicker than New York City.
NYC officials argue their higher rate of testing reveals more cases than elsewhere
At a press conference on Tuesday, de Blasio was asked why New York City was seeing cases drop so much more slowly than the rest of the country.
‘We’re a really tough place in terms of just how many people here, the density of this city, the fact that no matter how hard we’re fighting, there’s still a legacy of lots of poverty and lots of folks who didn’t get health care for generations,’ the mayor responded.
‘So, there’s challenges for sure, but I feel very good about our ability to turn it around with intensive vaccination if we can get supply,’ he added.
Dr. Jay Varma, a top pandemic advisor to de Blaiso, chimed in: ‘Of course we know that New York City is a more vulnerable place, density of population, historical injustice like racism and poverty.’
He also argued that New York City is simply better at detecting mild and asymptomatic cases than the rest of the country.
‘New York City continues to perform more testing per capita than any other place really in the country of similar size and, and larger than more places do on the world. So, by definition, you’re going to end up counting more cases,’ said Varma.
‘That’s why we also look at, you know, percent positivity. And we see also that our percent positivity has continued to decline, although maybe not as precipitous as it has in some other places,’ he added.
New York City is testing around 64,000 to 65,000 people a day over the last seven days, according to city data, or about 2.5 percent of the 1.2 million to 1.3 million tests being done nationally over the same time frame, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project.