Q&A WITH THE CITY’S TOP DOC

When Dave Chokshi replaced Oxiris Barbot as commissioner of the Department of Health in August of last year, it would still be five months before the first COVID-19 vaccine in the nation would be given to a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens.

The future was still uncertain when the Jackson Heights resident assumed the role of the city’s top doctor, even as lockdown-weary New Yorkers attempted to return to some sense of normalcy, cautiously eating out, meeting with friends, and traveling.

When the city began offering vaccines at the beginning of the year, it looked like a full return to normal was on the horizon, but now the highly contagious Delta variant, which research suggest even vaccinated individuals can spread, it looks like that long-awaited return could be facing a major roadblock.

Last month, Commissioner Chokshi took part in a Facebook Live chat with members of the Queens Chamber of Commerce to address the concerns of business owners as they start to welcome their employees back to the office even as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the city. This Is Queensborough caught up with Commissioner Chokshi following the chat to get his opinion on some of the larger issues facing New Yorkers the pandemic appears to be making a resurgence.

Queens was the “epicenter of the epicenter” during the first wave of the virus last year? As the Delta variant continues to spread, should we be concerned about Queens becoming ground zero for the pandemic once again?

Queens families have been deeply affected by the virus. Their dedication to ending this pandemic shows in the level of vaccinations. Right now, Queens is the second-most vaccinated borough in the city. To protect against the rise of Delta, I encourage those who haven’t been vaccinated to get vaccinated now. It’s the single most important thing in the fight against COVID to prevent the avoidable suffering that too many experienced during previous waves.

To what extent will vaccines diminish the effect of the Delta variant? Will booster shots be required and, if so, for whom?

Vaccines are essential to defeating the Delta variant. We know that all of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines are effective in protecting against it and other currently circulating variants, particularly against severe illness causing hospitalization and death.

Right now is the most dangerous time to be unvaccinated. As for boosters, we are still learning about the duration of immunity provided from vaccines to determine whether boosters are needed. Studies are ongoing regarding this and we’ll follow the science.

How do you think this newest wave of the virus will impact school re-openings in New York City? Do you think students should be returning to in-person classes? Should students be wearing masks this fall? Are young people at-risk of catching or spreading the virus?

Although fewer children have gotten COVID-19, children can still be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 and spread the virus to others. This is why we are urging that children who are eligible for the vaccine – right now from ages 12-17 – should receive it, and the city is working on making the vaccine as accessible as possible to children and their families.

At this time, masks are still required in school buildings as part of our layered approach to COVID-19 prevention. Additionally, the city is mandating that staff get vaccinated or tested weekly in time for school reopening. We also recognize, as a city, that schools promote the health of children.

With another month of summer still ahead of us, should New Yorkers be wary of participating in outdoor activities such as visits to the beach, baseball games, barbecues? Should people avoid large gatherings once again as was the case last summer?

We know that outdoor transmission of the virus is lower than that of indoor transmission. Masks are important in shared indoor settings, particularly where there are many unvaccinated individuals, or we do not know the vaccination status of the people around us.

That’s why we have mask mandates in places like public transit, schools, and health care and congregate settings. It is particularly important that unvaccinated people continue to use their mask, as well as follow all of the precautions we took before the introduction of vaccines, such as social distancing and regular testing. Although New York has a stellar vaccination rate, other parts of the country are falling behind due to vaccine hesitancy.

Will the rising rates of COVID-19 throughout the nation affect New Yorkers? Should New Yorkers avoid travel for business or pleasure to parts of the country with higher COVID rates?

New Yorkers should remain cautious about COVID-19 and take precautions while traveling. Our contact tracing data indicates that travel is contributing to a greater spread of the coronavirus, and New Yorkers should be mindful of COVID rates in the destinations they are visiting. As with other activities, traveling is safer if you’ve been vaccinated.

Borough President Donovan Richards secured millions in funding for new operating rooms and facilities at Elmhurst Hospital, do you think this new funding will have an immediate impact in the fight against COVID-19?

Elmhurst Hospital deserves support after its staff faced some of the worst days of the pandemic with grace, compassion and bravery. It’s where my family and I entrust our own care, and I’m grateful for the borough president’s support.

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