36% of New Yorkers know someone who has passed away from COVID-19

There are signs of hope in New York City. The five boroughs have started reporting declines in both overall coronavirus hospital admissions and ICU patients. Nonetheless, New York has paid a heavy price during this pandemic. The loss of life is almost incomprehensible, and a new survey of New Yorkers illustrates just how far-reaching COVID-19’s impact has been in the tri-state area. 

According to the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy’s latest survey, 36% of New Yorkers know someone who has passed away from COVID-19. Broken down by race or ethnicity, 44% of surveyed Hispanics know someone who has died, as well as 36% of Caucasians, 35% of African Americans, and 21% of Asian Americans.

This is the latest in a series of surveys documenting the experiences and reactions of New Yorkers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In all, 1,000 NYC residents were surveyed, as well as 1,000 New York State residents (NYC, Long Island, Upstate). This round of research took place between April 24th-26th.

Coronavirus testing has steadily become more readily available for New Yorkers, but only 8% of surveyed NYC residents said they had been tested at the time of this survey. Of that 8%, 74% said their test took place over just the past two weeks and 40% reported they were tested “within the last few days.”

Many of the questions posed by this survey asked participants to answer for their entire household. Those answers were calculated to be representative of 2,772 men, women, and children. Among that household grouping, 5.7% said they were able to attain testing for themselves and their family, and close to half reported testing positive for COVID-19. Interestingly, 60% of respondents who said they tested positive believe they were infected at home. In total, 17% of surveyed households said someone has been sick at home with coronavirus symptoms.

One of the most striking findings from this survey was the revelation that most New Yorkers still can’t find access to a coronavirus test. More than one in eight (12%) respondents weren’t able to be tested by a healthcare professional. Why? Over half of that group (61%) were told they didn’t exhibit enough symptoms to warrant a test and 17% couldn’t afford a test.

“The recent increase in COVID-19 testing is encouraging, but the focus remains on people who are symptomatic,” comments Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes, Dean of CUNY SPH. “As we plan to return to less restricted daily activities and restore more business operations successfully, testing must become widely available, routine, and not selective.”

Respondents were also asked about their attitudes regarding a COVID-19 vaccine, whenever one may become widely available. It’s well established at this point that a vaccine appears to be humanity’s best shot at completely beating COVID-19, but many New Yorkers appear to still be skeptical. While more than half said they would opt to receive a vaccine (59%) or give it to their children (53%), that still leaves 41% who would refuse vaccination for themselves and 47% who wouldn’t allow their children to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, only 31% said they would be open to participating in a coronavirus vaccine clinical trial. 

Now, several elements play into one’s feelings on a vaccine, and the survey found that the perceived risk of infection is a major deciding factor. Respondents who considered themselves at a high-risk of coronavirus infection were much more (68%) willing to be vaccinated than those who don’t feel particularly at risk (52%). Education appears to play a big role as well; 73% of surveyed New Yorkers with a postgraduate degree would get vaccinated right away, while 71% of those with a college degree, 57% with some college education, and 48% with a high school education or less said the same.

Moreover, only 45% of surveyed New Yorkers had been vaccinated for the flu this past season and 20% said they’ve never received a flu vaccination in their life.

“Given the substantial pockets of resistance to vaccination that had arisen in New York and elsewhere prior to the coronavirus pandemic, we have every reason to be concerned about numbers like these,” says Dr. Scott Ratzan, Distinguished Lecturer at CUNY SPH and director of the coronavirus tracking survey project. “As researchers move forward with studies in more than 150 potential coronavirus vaccines, we would do well to develop a parallel range of communication efforts to promote them amongst populations with varying levels of education.”

Another major part of all this is access to healthcare. Unfortunately, 13% of New Yorkers have lost their health insurance since the pandemic started. However, the survey does show that many NYC residents (57%) have received some form of COVID-19 relief. Of that group, 89% were lower or middle-income households.

What were some of these benefits? Close to half (42%) have received a stimulus check, 20% have qualified for unemployment benefits, 14% have gotten some financial help from family or friends, and 13% have had their rent or mortgage payments delayed. Other forms of support include food donations or food stamps. 

“Fortunately, many New Yorkers are using newly expanded public programs to reduce hunger and food insecurity, mitigating one of the most serious immediate consequences of the epidemic’s economic and social disruptions,” notes Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor of Public Health at CUNY SPH and Director of its Urban Food Policy Institute.

These findings, especially the vast number of New Yorkers who know someone who has passed away, show just how universal this harrowing experience has become. The isolation this virus has caused makes it easy to feel alone, but New Yorkers, just like the rest of the country and the world, are in this together. 

The full survey can be found here. It is also published in the Journal of Health Communication.