NYC Withholding Covid Data Unless ‘Connected to a Public Health Purpose’

NEW YORK -
covid vaccine prior infection
New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi at a press briefing at City Hall. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City is choosing to disclose data about Covid-19 infections only when “connected to a public health purpose,” Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said Tuesday, refusing to commit to reveal any scientific finding that might contradict the city’s longstanding messaging that everyone, even those previously infected, get vaccinated.

Despite repeated requests by the press, the city has not provided data that would show whether stronger immunity is achieved by prior infection of the virus or inoculation by vaccine.

“I’m proud to say that we are one of the most transparent jurisdictions in the entire world, with respect to the data that we continue to release,” Chokshi said Tuesday, on a conference call with Jewish media outlets. “We always have to make sure of two things. The first is that the data that we release is scientifically valid … the second is that the data is also connected to a public health purpose, which is why we are ensuring that the key message is around the fact that if you have had prior infection,” you should still get vaccinated.

Health officials, including in New York City, have publicized studies showing that the Covid vaccines provide a high level of protection, particularly against death or serious illness. But there has been less comparable-information released related to the immunity offered by antibodies from prior infection.

A study released by Israeli medical professionals last month concluded that prior coronavirus infection provided far greater immunity in that country against the delta variant than did the Pfizer vaccine.

But New York City officials have refused to release detailed information on the immunity provided by prior infection. And they have demurred when asked why those previously infected shouldn’t be granted the same rights, such as attending concerts and eating in restaurants, as those who have been vaccinated.

Pressed on Tuesday’s call whether he would commit to releasing data regardless of what it shows, and regardless of how it may conflict with the city’s public-policy preferences, the commissioner said, “We are committed to releasing data, based on those scientific principles that I described, and ensuring that it is for the purpose of advancing the health of New Yorkers. That’s what I can commit to with respect to our scientific principles and transparency. And I’ll tell you that our public policy follows from the scientific findings rather than vice versa.”

covid vaccine prior infection
Mayor Bill de Blasio (L) and Dr. Mitchell Katz, President and Chief Executive Officer of NYC Health + Hospitals, at a press briefing at City Hall. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

For the past six months, reporters from Hamodia and other news outlets have repeatedly asked the de Blasio administration for specific data on reinfections. Officials’ responses have typically been to suggest that numbers are unavailable, but encourage and mandate vaccination for all, regardless of prior infection.

For example, on March 19, when a Hamodia reporter asked at de Blasio’s daily press conference for the number of reinfection cases the city had counted, Chokshi replied, “I don’t have specific numbers for you at the moment, but it is something that our team continues to investigate.” After the reporter cited how people who had been previously infected were therefore uninterested in getting vaccinated, Chokshi said, “We do believe that the vaccine confers additional immunity, particularly with respect to the duration of immunity beyond what you get from infection. These are all things where the science is still evolving. But the clear recommendation is that people who have had COVID-19 in the past, once you have recovered, we do recommend that you get vaccinated.”

On July 14, Chokshi announced that between January and June of this year, more than 98% of Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the city were in those people not fully vaccinated. When the Hamodia reporter asked whether the city had comparable data for those who had had prior Covid infection, Chokshi replied, “We don’t have those specific numbers at hand. We would have to do that particular analysis. What I can tell you is … based on what we understand with respect to reinfection rates from the published literature around the world, natural infection is slightly less protective than vaccine-induced immunity, and so we would expect the numbers to be slightly lower.” Pressed further on the subject, Chokshi said, “We do know that infection confers some degree of immunity. So that’s clear. But we also know that vaccination strengthens that immunity and may extend the duration of it as well. This is why we’re recommending that even people who may have been infected with Covid-19 in the past, once they have recovered, it is important for you to get vaccinated as well.”

At the same news conference, Dr. Mitchell Katz, chief executive of the city’s public hospital system, echoed Chokshi’s sentiment.

“Prior infection does confer immunity,” said Katz, “but the evidence suggests that vaccination is a better way to go and strengthens that immunity that people may have from natural infection. So, everyone should get vaccinated.”

In early August, a de Blasio spokeswoman provided some limited information on reinfections to Newsday reporter Matthew Chayes, after he complained to the mayor and others at a news conference that the data wasn’t being shared as promised. The figures showed that in 2021 through mid-July, there were 5,217 cases of reinfection (defined as a person testing positive for Covid more than 90 days after having previously tested positive), representing 1.1% of the total number of positive tests in the city. In a one-month subset toward the end that period, there were 459 such cases, or 4.8% of all positive tests, and the spokeswoman said the delta variant is potentially to blame. The spokeswoman did not respond to the reporter’s follow-up request asking for the comparable figures of “breakthrough cases” — those who have contracted Covid despite being vaccinated — Newsday reported. And the city did not provide information that would show the efficacy of immunity conferred by prior infection.

covid vaccine prior infection
A coronavirus testing and vaccination location in Brooklyn. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The study by Israeli medical professionals showing that prior infection actually provided far greater immunity than did inoculation with the Pfizer vaccine (the primary vaccine used in Israel) was released August 25.

Patients in the Israeli study were nearly six times more likely to catch Covid if they had been only vaccinated, as compared to those who had prior infection only. Vaccinated individuals were also at greater risk of being hospitalized than those previously infected only.

The study, which has not been peer-reviewed and was conducted in late spring and summer as the delta variant began to become dominant, concludes that “natural immunity confers longer lasting and stronger protection against infection, symptomatic disease and hospitalization caused by the Delta variant of [Covid-19] compared to the [Pfizer] two-dose vaccine-induced immunity,” though “individuals who were both previously infected with [Covid-19] and given a single dose of the vaccine gained additional protection against the Delta variant.”

On the same day the Israel study was released, the New York City Health Department publicized data showing the effectiveness of Covid vaccines: Between January 17 and August 7, 2021, more than 96% of Covid cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in New York City were in people who were not fully vaccinated (two shots of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one shot of Johnson & Johnson). Just 0.33% of fully vaccinated New Yorkers caught Covid, 0.02% have been hospitalized with Covid, and 0.003% have died due to Covid.

But the Health Department did not release any comparable data for those who had prior infection, despite repeated requests both at press conferences, and via email with the Health Department’s press office.

Asked about the Israel study by the Newsday reporter at a press conference August 31, Chokshi emphasized that the study has not been peer-reviewed, and both he and Katz reiterated their views that while prior infection provides some immunity, people should still get vaccinated because that provides increased immunity. Chokshi reiterated that tracking prior infection is complicated “given some of the subtleties with respect to testing.” Neither doctor, nor Mayor Bill de Blasio, would directly answer a question by a Hamodia reporter as to why the same rights granted to vaccinated individuals, such as eating in restaurants and participating in concerts, aren’t being granted to those with prior infection.

On Tuesday’s conference call — which Chokshi held with Jewish media outlets just prior to the Yom Kippur/Sukkos holiday period — the Hamodia reporter asked Chokshi again about the city’s seeming withholding of data. The reporter questioned whether Chokshi was hesitant to release data showing prior infection provided greater immunity than vaccination, and to give the same rights to the prior-infected as to the unvaccinated, out of fear that this would result in anti-vaxxers intentionally catching the virus rather than getting vaccinated.

Chokshi said that a fear of anti-vaxxers holding so-called Covid parties “is not something that has been a part of our thinking.”

rborchardt@hamodia.com