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Post: CityWatch: NYC’s COVID battle: A new mayor and a—slightly—new approach

As the restrictions and mandates surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are being phased out around the U.S., subtly different methods of combating the virus in New York City are emerging between current Mayor Eric Adams and his predecessor, Bill de Blasio. 

In a Siena poll released prior to his departure from office, de Blasio’s favorability rating among New Yorkers sank, with 56% of city residents having a negative impression of the now-former mayor. The same poll taken after Adams’ first couple of weeks in office showed much better numbers for the new mayor, with 63% of city residents having a positive impression of the former police captain, compared to a fifth who had a negative opinion.

The latest COVID-19 numbers for New York City, updated Feb. 24, showed a daily average of 737 cases, dropping by more than half over the daily average from the previous 28 days, with daily COVID averages for hospitalizations and confirmed deaths significantly down as well.

The two leaders’ different managerial and communication styles have been reflected by their approach to handling the pandemic—de Blasio held daily press briefings, while Adams chose not to follow suit. One of the most striking contrasts between the two mayors has been Adams’ oft-repeated willingness to meet with anyone, most notably those with the kinds of differing, opposing voices—both from the public and private sectors, including anti-vaccine protesters—that de Blasio would not engage with.

The timing of the pandemic has weighed into their responses, with de Blasio emerging as a face of caution in light of the city’s pandemic-related restrictions and mandates, while just this week Adams shared his enthusiasm to see the end of the city’s vaccine mandates, following the lead of other big cities that have recently ended their own, including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. 

“We are moving in the right direction. We are going to do it in a safe way, because all of these experts will tell you one thing—we can’t close down again,” said Adams during a Feb. 23 press briefing at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “I’m not going to do something out of my anticipation to get back that’s going to jeopardize closing down the city again.”

Also see: New studies again target Wuhan market, not lab, for COVID-19 origin

Since taking office on Jan. 1, the mayor kept his predecessor’s “Key to NYC” program—which de Blasio introduced in late summer 2021—in place, mirroring de Blasio’s promise that city inspectors would ideally avoid enforcing penalties. (“The goal is to be cooperative and not punitive,” said Adams soon after taking office.)

In recent days, Adams has called for New Yorkers to revive the city’s economy by getting “back to work” and returning to the office, while noting that he was tired of hearing excuses about the pandemic. And on Sunday, Adams announced on social media that “so long as our indicators show a low level of risk and we see no surprises this week, on Monday, March 7, we will also remove the vaccination requirements for Key to NYC—meaning indoor dining, fitness, and entertainment venues.”

The mayor’s office didn’t respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment; De Blasio couldn’t be reached for comment.

As for the city’s schools, Adams announced on Sunday that vaccine passports will no longer be required starting March 7, and that he plans on following Gov. Kathy Hochul’s lead in nixing masks in schools, but would make the final determination this Friday.

Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, who has been heading up the Columbia University’s response to COVID, is among the health officials and public policy experts MarketWatch interviewed who claim not enough time has passed under Adams to accurately draw any comparisons.

“It is too early to get a clear sense of the overarching strategy that the new administration will take in facing COVID-19,” El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Director of ICAP, told MarketWatch earlier in February. “As the pandemic evolves, old challenges may recede and new ones will likely arise.” 

New York City employees who would only speak to MarketWatch on the condition of anonymity voiced similar thoughts regarding how it’s too early in the Adams mayorship to form bold comparisons between the two administrations, while also noting how Adams’ handling of the pandemic has fallen under less scrutiny, by comparison, given residents’ concerns over the recent spate of violence that has rocked the city.

Most experts reached for this story said they’ve observed far more similarities than differences between the two mayors’ handling of the pandemic, an argument reinforced by those who have been equally disappointed in both administrations.

“I think both leaders never really articulated a clear plan and vision,” said Dr. Denis Nash, distinguished professor of epidemiology, CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.

At a minimum, Nash believes both administrations have failed by not having a plan regarding how to ration and triage testing resources so that those engaging in the most essential activities (e.g. healthcare workers, first responders) have access. 

“These folks should not be waiting hours in line for tests and then days for results. We don’t have enough testing resources for everyone to test as much as they want to. I wish we did, but we don’t. So the administration needs a plan for this. It was a disaster,” Nash said. “We had a surge in hospitalizations and deaths that would have been much less if vaccination and booster coverage had been higher. Much less loss of life and much less burden on the already overwhelmed and burned out health case system. The virus hobbled nearly every aspect of daily life, including schools and workplaces. The Adams administration needs a plan to help mitigate the impact of a future surge across all of these areas.”

Others are kinder in their observations of the current and former mayors’ actions.

“New York City under both administrations has been proactive in their public health mitigation efforts,” said Rachael Piltch-Loeb, Ph.D., associate research scientist at NYU School of Global Public Health and a preparedness fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

Also read: Florida’s new coronavirus guidance: ‘Buck the CDC’

According to Piltch-Loeb, who was interviewed before the last round of eased restrictions, top examples have included the ‘key to the city’ efforts, which early on required proof of vaccination to attend indoor events and indoor dining, and the implementation of capacity and masking strategies when case counts and hospital burdens were high. 

“As the pandemic evolves, the Adams administration will be faced with how to appropriately scale back pandemic mitigation measures such as removing mask mandates and updating vaccine requirements,” Piltch-Loeb explained. “The hope is that the administration works closely with DOHMH [Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] and other public health advisers and outlines a clear set of indicators and data to support their strategy and approach. Expectation setting and explanations for decision making are helpful to an extremely exhausted public.” 

From her view as the policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless—the nation’s oldest advocacy and direct service organization helping the homeless—Jacquelyn Simone also sees more similarities than differences between the two administrations.

“So far, Mayor Adams has not taken a dramatically different approach to the pandemic as it relates to homeless New Yorkers. Many homeless single adults continue to reside in congregate, dorm-style shelters where they are at high risk of contracting the airborne virus that causes COVID-19,” Simone said. “Mayor Adams has made some comments about wanting to shift away from the congregate shelter model and to create more permanent housing, which would be welcome reforms.”

As the former chief communications officer for Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutics accelerator, Michael Pratt has been particularly keen to observe the administrations’ differing approach to offering public briefings.

“Done well, daily briefings serve multiple purposes, but they particularly focus on what the government is doing and what the public needs to do to respond—including sharing calls to action with the public for non-pharmaceutical interventions recommended or required, such as washing hands, social distancing, and masking. That was the need that former Mayor de Blasio’s daily briefings tried to fill,” explained Pratt, who leads much of the policy work at Real Chemistry, a global health innovation company with offices in New York City. 

Pratt notes that Adams faces a very different scenario: with vaccines widely available and new therapeutics also becoming increasingly available, the city’s relationship with non-pharmaceutical interventions is evolving. 

“This is a phenomenon that we’re seeing across the country even as cases, hospitalizations, and deaths remain high, albeit decreasing,” Pratt said. “Mayor Adams is also facing a situation where an increasing number of citizens view the COVID situation as less of an emergency and are tired of the pandemic, reducing the efficacy of a daily briefing. Focusing resources for nongovernment spokespeople to encourage vaccine uptake, for example, is likely a more effective use of resources.”

Dr. Nash of CUNY is among those concerned about the current administration’s planning for a future pandemic.

“My hope is that New York can achieve and maintain high enough vaccination levels so that we can weather another surge like the one we just had with Omicron,” said Nash, who notes that New York is undervaccinated as a city when taking into account booster rates and younger age groups. “If we have another surge, and there is a good chance that we will, we need to make sure we are better prepared, and hopefully it won’t translate to a surge in hospitalizations and deaths. I don’t sense that the Adams’ administration is taking steps to be prepared for a future surge. So we might be caught flat footed again. It really hurt everyone, since the virus called all the shots.”

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