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Explained: New York City declares poliovirus a public emergency disaster


New York Governor Kathy Hochul declared polio a state disaster emergency on Friday. The first polio case in nearly a decade was identified back in July. The virus can cause paralysis. Nsikan Akpan runs the health and science desk at WNYC/Gothamist. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

NSIKAN AKPAN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So what prompted this executive order? Like, what is the latest on the poliovirus in New York?

AKPAN: Right. The disaster declaration - it arrived Friday morning, sort of around the same time as new data from the New York State Department of Health. So its officials have been monitoring wastewater for clues as to where polio might be spreading. The virus infects the gut, so if people have it, it's pretty easy to detect in sewage. And so wastewater testing now suggests that the virus is circulating in Nassau County, or Long Island, which is one of the more populated counties in the state and is obviously right next to New York City. And so, you know, there's some big concern that the virus might be around here.

RASCOE: Can you put this in context for us? How bad a sign is this?

AKPAN: Yeah, it's pretty bad. Health officials say the poliovirus that's in Long Island sewage right now - it's genetically linked to the paralytic case that was recorded in Rockland County earlier this summer, which was the first such case in nearly a decade in the United States. You know, similar ties have been made to wastewater samples in two other counties near Rockland, and polio has also been detected in New York City's wastewater. But so far, health officials - you know, they're not tying that to Rockland. But overall, it just suggests that the virus is out in the community. And we know that about 70% of cases don't lead to any symptoms at all, and those people can be sort of silent carriers. The danger is if it reaches somebody who's unvaccinated, say, like a young child or an adult who just didn't get all their vaccines, it could cause serious problems for them.

RASCOE: So what does declaring a state disaster emergency allow the governor to do? Like, what are the steps that the state is going to be taking?

AKPAN: Yeah. In the immediate term, Hochul used the disaster declaration to expand who could give out polio vaccines. So now EMS workers, midwives and pharmacists can give out the shots. Doctors and nurses can also now put in orders to stock up on the vaccine. And the executive order is also mandating that all polio immunization records be sent to the New York State Health Department. The emergency declaration also gives Hochul pretty broad powers to address the crisis how she sees fit.

RASCOE: Polio is known to cause paralysis in children, people who haven't been vaccinated. School has started back up again. Are there more steps that the state could take to try to protect children from getting the virus?

AKPAN: It's basically just vaccination, vaccination and more vaccination. You know, the vaccine we use in the U.S. - the inactivated polio vaccine - it protects 99% of people from symptoms and paralysis, death, you know, all those bad things. And so really just scaling up vaccination is the way to go. I mean, the state could run some vaccination drives, and that's what we've seen in Rockland County at the county level. But we're not really at the point yet where we need those mass vaccination drives. I think if we see more symptomatic cases, if we see a bunch of people ending up with paralysis, then you might get to that point. So right now, the state is really just trying to motivate people to go get the vaccines before we reach that point where people are getting really, really sick.

RASCOE: Nsikan Akpan runs the health and science desk at WNYC/Gothamist. Thank you so very much for joining us.

AKPAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Nsikan Akpan