The Subway Vector

If you look at the New York Times map and chart of coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States, one fact screams out for attention:  the New York City metropolitan area has been far, far more affected by the epidemic than any other part of the country.  The disparity is profound.

As of today, the Times reports 34,726 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. — and fully half of those are in New York and New Jersey alone.  The incidence and mortality rates in those states are orders of magnitude higher than in other areas.  And it’s not the entire state of New York that is producing those staggering numbers, either.  Instead, the hot zone is for the most part limited to New York City and neighboring communities.

In fact, if you cut the New York City metropolitan area numbers out of the equation, you find that the per capita numbers for the rest of America are far less alarming than the overall numbers, and much more in line with the data reported from other countries.  The vast disparity in the virulence and transmission of the coronavirus in the New York City area, compared to the rest of the country, is compelling support for making decisions on reopening the country and the economy on a state-by-state, locality-by-locality basis.

6068390_040120-wabc-crowded-subway-imgThis drastic difference in the impact of COVID-19, though, begs the question:  why is the New York City area being hit so much harder than other areas?  Of course, it’s more densely populated than the rest of the country, which clearly must have an impact.  But there is an ongoing, increasingly heated controversy about whether New York City’s mass transit system — and, specifically, its subways — are a vector for transmission of the disease.  An MIT professor has looked at some data and argues that the subways are having a noticeable impact.  Others, including transit authority officials, contend that the MIT study is not scientifically valid and shows, at most, correlation — which is not causation.

It seems entirely plausible that subways could be a contributor to New York City’s bad coronavirus statistics.  If you’ve ever ridden the subway, you know that the platforms and cars are crowded, with people packed together, sharing metal poles as they steady themselves against the jostling of the cars, and also sharing limited breathing space.  The social distancing being practiced in other parts of the country just isn’t possible.  And, in my experience, the subway cars aren’t kept spotlessly clean, either.  If you compare that method of transportation to the “car culture” that prevails in other parts of the country, where most people travel in their own vehicles with windows closed, it could provide an explanation for at least part of the disparity in the coronavirus data.  At the very least, it is a possible cause and hypothesis that should be fully evaluated.

This is a hot-button issue, because New York City’s subway system is a primary source of transportation for hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, and if the subways are — after careful study and analysis, of course — determined to be a vector for transmission of COVID-19, that will dramatically complicate the process of reopening the Big Apple.  And mass transit is a political issue, as well, and there is a risk that political considerations will affect taking a hard look at the public health issues related to  subway use and operations in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen that our political officials can’t resist playing politics even in a time of global pandemic.  But at some point, public health considerations should trump petty political posturing.  We need to figure out why NYC is such a huge outlier, and then take steps to make sure that the causes for the disparity are properly addressed so that people in New York — and in the rest of the country — are protected the next time a virus sweeps across the world.

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