Mayor Sidelines Health Department for Contact-Trace Team

Brooklyn resident Louise Delija, 93, gets a delivery from Meals on Wheels during the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Fueling controversy over his leadership in New York City’s Covid-19 crisis, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday established a contact-tracing corps under the umbrella of an agency that has not handled past outbreaks.

“This raises a lot of alarm bells,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson tweeted Friday of de Blasio’s announcement that a Test and Trace Corps will be led by the city’s public hospital network rather than the Department of Health.

“Contract tracing is a core function of[the Health Department], and has been for years,” wrote Johnson. “This is a distraction when we need to be focused on battling this virus.”

The mayor has been at odds with New York City’s health department since the early days of Covid-19’s spread, spurred by disagreements over public health messaging and when the city’s schools should close.

New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which is led by Dr. Oxiris Barbot, has been at the helm of contact-tracing efforts for past outbreaks including tuberculosis, HIV and Ebola.

Barbot has been a regular feature of the city’s daily streamed press calls on the pandemic but was not present Friday as de Blasio defended his decision to put the Test and Trace Corps in the hands of NYC Health and Hospitals. 

“In building something as big as this,” said de Blasio, who turned 59 today, “the first question was just the sheer operational, logistical size and complexity, and where does that fit? It fits an operational agency. …  The ability to do things on a mass scale, the ability to manage huge numbers of operational frontline personnel … all the pieces — it fits the sheer operational scope and capacity of Health and Hospitals.”

The new group is tasked with testing New Yorkers for infection, tracing all cases and their contacts, and supporting and caring for those cases and contacts. 

Dr. Ted Long, the director of ambulatory care at Health and Hospitals, will serve as executive director of the Test and Trace Corps.

A primary care physician with a master’s in health services from Yale, Long is hoping to have 2,500 “public health foot soldiers” in the corps by June to track Covid-19 infections in the city.

The mayor said the Department of Health would be “deeply integrated” into the process “under the rubric” of Health and Hospitals.

Department of Health workers understand the tracing piece in particular, de Blasio said Friday. Some Health Department experts will do tracing work and report to Health and Hospitals.

With Speaker Johnson announcing that the City Council will hold a hearing to “get answers,” de Blasio’s announcement also spurred criticism from lawmakers who chair city and state legislative committees on health and hospitals.

“It is startling that months into the worst public health crisis our City has ever faced, the de Blasio administration is undertaking a bureaucratic reshuffling that creates new and unnecessary obstacles for the critical, complicated and sensitive work of contact tracing,” Carlina Rivera, Mark Levine, Richard Gottfried and Gustavo Rivera wrote in a joint letter tweeted by Rivera.

Noting that New York City has the best health department in the nation, and possibly the world, the chairs said Health and Hospitals should play a role in contact-tracing efforts but focus primarily on patient care.

A representative for the Department of Health declined to comment beyond pointing to a transcript of the mayor’s press conference. 

New York City data shows 176,086 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus as of Friday, plus 14,389 confirmed deaths and 5,313 probable deaths.

New York City police officers wrestle a man to the ground while making an arrest in Brooklyn on April 29. The video is among those posted on social media recently that show the NYPD using physical force while out enforcing social-distance rules. (Adegoke Atunbi via AP)

Experts say contact tracing is second only to testing in any safe reopening strategy. The concept begins with interviews of infected people to determine who else might have the virus. 

De Blasio also said the city will be able to conduct 20,000 Covid-19 diagnostic tests per day by May 25, and in the “next few months” about 50,000 tests per day, at 300 community testing sites. That’s still well short of the 100,000 tests per day de Blasio has previously said the city would need in order to reopen. 

“The bad news is, we don’t have the full partnership of the federal government we want and we need” to get to the level of testing hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers per day, de Blasio said. 

“This is something the president should focus on … just get us testing. Get us lab capacity. It will work wonders if we can actually provide the testing we’ve never had.” 

Also at Friday’s press conference, de Blasio faced questions over reports of racial inequity in the NYPD’s summonses for social-distancing violations.

The New York Times has reported that, of 40 people arrested for alleged social-distancing violations in Brooklyn, 35 were black, four were Hispanic and just one was white.

Meanwhile in Poughkeepsie, Governor Andrew Cuomo released data that show black and Latino New Yorkers are dying of Covid-19 at rates that exceed their portion of the population. While the disparities are not as drastic in New York as seen elsewhere in the country, Cuomo said, they are still cause for concern. 

In New York City, for example, Latinos make up 29% of the population but 34% of virus deaths. Black New Yorkers make up 22% of the city’s population but account for 28% of its deaths. White and Asian New Yorkers, in contrast, are dying at lower rates than their portions of the population. 

Of the 21 zip codes statewide with the most Covid-19 hospitalizations, Cuomo continued, 20 have higher than average black and Latino populations. He said the disparity would be addressed “immediately” and that there would be more information in coming days, but did not provide much further detail.

A runner wearing a protective mask pushes a stroller through Brooklyn’s Domino Park on Friday. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The governor also issued warnings about mysterious symptoms in children possibly caused by Covid-19, which New York City officials addressed earlier this week. Seventy-three such cases in children have been reported in New York state. A 5-year-old boy in New York City died from “these Covid-related complications” Thursday, Cuomo said. 

Parents are urged to seek care immediately if their child has symptoms including a fever for more than five days, severe abdominal pain or upset, a change in skin color, trouble breathing, a racing heart, or lethargy or confusion. 

Statewide as of Friday, there were 330,407 confirmed cases and 21,045 confirmed deaths, though that number almost certainly should be higher as a lack of testing prevents the diagnosis of all cases. 

Cuomo also announced an extension of the deadline for survivors of childhood sexual assault to file their claims under the state’s Child Victims Act. Though the window was supposed to close in August, victims will now have until Jan. 14, 2021.

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