New York needs a more robust pandemic response


After I developed a bad head cold several weeks ago, I decided to use one of the COVID-19 home rapid test kits mailed to me by the Biden administration.

I inserted the swab as far up my nasal cavity as I could without gagging, twirling it five times per nostril. Some 20 minutes later, two angry red lines appeared on the tester.

Fear for my recovery kicked in. Over several days I would grade the whole experience — from public-health response to that of my general practitioner’s office — a C-minus.

Unlike last December when the line of hopeful holiday revelers snaked around the block, I was one of three patients at the local urgent care. I requested a PCR test, and a day later, I got an email that I had tested positive.

I contacted relatives with whom I had recently socialized. I then called the gym where I had been just hours before my symptoms started. The Gen Z staffer who answered the phone asked, blithely, “You want to come in?”

I could imagine her scrolling through her Instagram feed. 

“No. I just want the manager to know so that you can take precautions.”

“Um. OK. Thanks,” she said, flatly, before hanging up.

I asked a building janitor if his supervisor had told him of my status. The janitor was not informed, nor did he sanitize the room I had visited. None of the businesses I contacted had a plan for notifying their customers that someone COVID-positive had been in their venue. None of them deep cleaned the spaces that I had been in.

My disclosure had been more than a courtesy. Apparently public health-managed contact tracing no longer exists unless you are the President of the United States. A robust team contacted each of the people with whom he may have interacted shortly before testing positive for the virus recently, according to his press secretary.

But I am an average citizen. No health worker contacted me, and no coordinated effort was made to reach anyone I may have encountered when I was contagious.

The lapse in contact tracing was topped by the lapse in treatment access. My primary care doctor was out of office for the week, so I spoke to her nurse practitioner.

“Awww,” she said, with performative empathy. “Have lots of liquids: ginger tea and chicken soup.” When I asked her about the new medications available for COVID treatment, she dismissed me.

I entered my symptoms into the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quarantine calculator, and as per the results, stayed home for seven days. I tested again both at home and at urgent care after my sentence was up, but I was still positive.

The values in the calculator did not address this scenario. I was on my own and making it up as I went along. I hunkered down for five more days, and popped over-the-counter cold-and-flu tablets.

I researched treatment protocols online. I was probably eligible for at least one of the two available treatments, oral antiviral pills (the other, monoclonal antibodies, is typically used for patients at higher risk for poor health outcomes than me). 

Why my doctor’s office did not know about the medications and did not respond proactively is a mystery.

Next, I called the COVID-19 phone number for individuals who do not have a health care provider, my de facto situation. After being on hold for about 50 minutes, I spoke to an intake worker, and shortly thereafter, a physician’s assistant. Here, the empathy seemed real, but it was too late. I should have been prescribed the medication within five days of showing symptoms.

As cases here rise, people living in New York are defiantly going about their lives without masks, even in places where they are expressly mandated, such as public transportation and even doctors’ offices.

In May, the CDC called for mask mandates in 54 counties, including here in the Bronx, where I live. The response has been the opposite of compliance.

Earlier this month, New York City dismantled its COVID-19 alert system against spiking transmissions attributed to the highly contagious latest omicron variant.

We as a city and a nation are tired of COVID-19, but COVID-19 is not tired of us. We need to activate all the resources available to fight this pandemic, starting with common sense and respect for the safety of others. 

Masks are a must and not a “should.” Those who contract COVID-19 need contact tracing managed by the public-health sector. This will help stem community spread.

Leaving it up to individuals — who may not have the will, and certainly do not have the authority to hold institutions accountable — is dangerous and irresponsible.

Physicians and their staff must be knowledgeable about treatment protocols and able to access them readily for their patients. Do no harm.

COVID denial by laypeople, coupled with the lack of a pointed response from public health and medical personnel and policymakers, comprise our latest health crisis. The well-being of those who are currently COVID-positive and their communities depend on a coordinated response to the pandemic.

One that is yet to be activated.

Cheryl McCourtie, pandemic, New York city, COVID-19