COVID-19 Day 36: Don’t Be Dense, NYC is not LA


New York City remains the epicenter of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the US, which also has the most COVID-19 cases and deaths in the world. As of the time of this writing, New York City (NYC) has had 11,477 dead of the virus. In contrast, Los Angeles (LA), the nation’s 2nd largest city has only 402 dead.

Why are there so many deaths in NYC? It’s been widely assumed that California’s early shutdowns made the difference between California COVID-19 statistics and the horrific numbers in New York. But as Matt Christianson pointed out in his podcast, there were only 3 days separated California’s and New York’s shutdowns.

LA shut down when California’s Governor Newsom ordered a statewide shutdown on March 19 (San Francisco’s Mayor closer her city down 2 days earlier). New York’s Governor Cuomo issued his statewide shutdown order on March 22. Did 3 days really cause 11,000 more deaths? I sought to find out.

Let me first admit my mediocre math skills. Not to mention my fuzzy understanding of statistics and epidemiology. I share this article as a thought experiment. I invite you to join me while I dive down this particular rabbit hole.

Why does NYC have more than 27 times as many deaths as LA? My first thought is that NYC has more people but only 2 times as many not 27.5 times as many. NYC has a population of about 8.4 million and LA has a population of about 4 million.

So let’s try to compare apples to apples. If we look at the number of deaths per 1M population yields the following numbers. Equalizing for population size, NYC still has 13.6 times more deaths than LA.

1366 dead per 1M population

100 dead per 1M population

The next obvious difference is population density. NYC is one of the most dense cities in the world with 26,400 people for every sq. mile. LA covers a much larger geographical area yielding a population density of 7,500 people for sq. mile, which still makes it one of the most dense cities in the US. By these stats, NYC is only 3.5 times more crowded than LA.

I believe a more compelling reason NYC has 13.6 times as many dead, lies in the differences in how these two populations live and work. Social distancing is the most effective means of slowing down the rate of infection in a population. In NYC this is much harder to achieve.

I couldn’t find the stats but having lived in both cities, each for over a decade, I know that a greater percentage of NYC population live in apartments rather than single-family homes. Largely due to earthquake country, high rise apartments are rare in LA. Instead, shorter, apartment buildings dispersed among single-family residential districts are the norm.

The second major difference is where people work. Over 1 million New Yorkers commute to Manhattan for work from the other 4 boroughs. In addition, more tourists visit Manhattan than all the boroughs combined. 

In contrast, LA’s business, industrial, manufacturing and commerce centers are widely distributed geographically. LA has a “downtown” city center but it only contains its garment and financial district. The cities famous TV and movie industry is scattered in various “towns” such as Hollywood, West LA, Burbank and Studio City, each dozens of miles away from each other. 

These dispersed industry clusters lead to the  “LA Sprawl” that characterizes the city. This fact explains much of why mass transit has largely failed in LA. This brings us to one of the biggest differences between these two cities: how people get to work and school and live about their lives.

The NYC subways are the most heavily used in the world. Over 5 million people use the NYC subway every day for work. In stark contrast, LA’s combined train and bus network moves only 55,000 passengers a day. More than 100 times as many people commute on the subway in NYC! In LA, despite its legendary traffic jams, the car is king.

This one fact makes a world of difference in terms of how a coronavirus can spread. It’s widely thought that COVID-19 primarily spreads by air. When an infected person coughs, talks or just breaths, microscopic water droplets containing coronavirus particles float out and get inhaled by other people or land on surfaces that get touched by other people.

In scientific tests, micro-droplets have been found to linger in the air for up to 3 hours. Coronavirus particles can remain on surfaces for up to 3 days. An asymptomatic (no-symptoms) coronavirus patient inside a bus was documented to have infected other commuters seated 15ft away!  You can only imagine how easy COVID-19 could spread on an MTA bus or a subway train.

In contrast 75% of LA commuters commute to work alone in their car. Granted there are carpools and rideshares that can expose passengers, but riding alone only exposes the driver and his family to contagion, and they would already run the risk of contamination at home.

Other factors also play a role such as age, race, blood-type and underlying health conditions. COVID-19 hits those over 50 much more seriously than younger people and that it’s most fatal to those 80 years oldBut an NYU researcher found the single most significant factor for predicting if somebody hospitalized with COVID-19 and subsequently die, is not age but obesity. 

In a ranking of Most Obese cities in the US, NYC ranked #74 while LA ranked further down at #92. On a side note, San Francisco ranked as the “fittest” city which along with it’s earlier shutdown on March 16, may have helped keep its COVID-19 stats low.

I reached into the NYC and LA health department archives for data on those two fateful days, March 19 the day LA and California shut down and 3 days later, March 22 when NYC and New York State shut down and found some very telling numbers.  

NYC 3954 Cases 26 Deaths
LA 231 Cases 2 Deaths

NYC 10764 Cases 99 deaths
LA 409 Cases 5 Deaths

On March 19, NYC already had over 10 times as many cases and deaths as LA. Just 3 days later NYC’s COVID-19 cases more than doubled and its total dead rose by a factor of 4. So we see here the power of compounding numbers. If we just look at March 19 at both cities, NYC didn’t start 3 days too late, it started a week too late.

Its ironic that the features that make NYC  such a great city to live in: the convenient subway system and the concentration of work, restaurants, nightlife and entertainment in Manhattan, also make it the most vulnerable to an airborne disease such as COVID-19. After this pandemic is over, the City That Never Sleeps, can never sleep at the wheel. It must remain vigilant and react faster to any future contagion.




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