New York Turns a Corner on Disease That Has Slain 10,000 in State

Pedestrians stroll Sunday on the Coney Island boardwalk in New York. Amid some signs of hope that the coronavirus infection rate is plateauing, New York is still wrapping up its worst week in deaths so far since the outbreak began. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

MANHATTAN (CN) — “I believe the worst is over if we continue to be smart,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Monday on a morning that saw the state’s Covid-19 death toll mount past 10,000.

There are more confirmed cases of the virus in New York than in any other country outside of the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. State data shows more than 195,000 confirmed cases as of Monday, but the numbers do appear to be plateauing — for now.  

Cuomo followed up his optimistic statement at the Albany press conference with warnings that New Yorkers must continue to abide by social-distancing rules and the guidance of public health experts. 

“Do not reverse the progress that we have made in our zeal to reopen and get back to normal,” Cuomo said. “That’s going to be the challenge going forward.”

Pandemics do not have an on-off switch until there is a proven vaccine, the governor emphasized. But there will be smaller points of resolution in the next 12 to 18 months, the anticipated time frame for such a vaccine, Cuomo said. 

Speaking in a conference call later with an all-Democratic panel of northeast governors, Cuomo announced a working group made up of public health and economic development officials for each state, as well as each governor’s chief of staff, aimed at reopening strategies. The states involved so far are New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Cuomo announced a few hours after the call that Massachusetts had joined, the first Republican-led state in the coalition.

The group “will start working immediately on designing a reopening plan,” Cuomo said. There is no timeline for productions from the group, though Cuomo said he wanted smart plans as soon as possible. 

“Yes, we’ve never been here before,” Cuomo said on the call. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t ensure public confidence that you’re doing everything you can to do it in a smart way, an informed way — guided by experts and data and science — and not in a political way. And I think working together, we can do that.”

Neither the Republican governor of Massachusetts nor nearby Vermont were on the call, but Cuomo said any regional governor who wanted to join the coalition would be welcome. 

“The reality is the virus doesn’t care about state borders, and our response shouldn’t either,” Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo said on the call, adding that her state was already working on screening people before they enter businesses and increased touchless technology. She is the only woman leader in the coalition.

Reopening is a “delicate balance,” Cuomo had said earlier in his press conference, comparing it to opening a valve. It will involve a recalibration of the essential-worker economy with more testing and more precautions, he said.

“And while you’re opening that valve, watch the meter,” Cuomo warned — the meter being the infection rate. He promised to follow expert advice for reopening rather than politics. 

“I’m not interested in political opinions,” he said. “I’m interested in what experts say about this.”

A regional and coordinated plan makes the most sense, Cuomo said, comparing societal functions like schools and transportations to gears that must all turn at once.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was optimistic at his own Monday press conference, pointing to what he called the most crucial trio of numbers that spell improvement in the Big Apple’s Covid-19 crisis: the number of hospital admissions for suspected Covid-19 patients, the number of current ICU patients with suspected Covid-19, and the percentage of people tested for the virus who are positive. All three of those numbers need to be going down at the same time, the mayor said, cautioning there is a 48-hour lag in the data available. 

“This is a very good day,” de Blasio said Monday, calling it “day one” of that downward trend: hospital admissions were at 383, down from 463 three days ago; there are 835 ICU patients citywide, down from 857; and 58.1% of people tested citywide were positive for Covid-19. 

Net hospitalizations are down statewide, Cuomo said Monday, and deaths are slightly down, from 783 Friday and 758 Saturday to 671 on Easter Sunday — still a staggering number, he added. 

The mayor repeated statements that he expects the city to remain in a widespread-transmission phase through May, but that he’s hopeful a lower-transmission phase will begin in June, calling on the federal government as the most crucial puzzle piece in that desired improvement.

“We need to know that a lot of testing is coming and that it will be sustained,” de Blasio said. “Until we get a more ample supply of testing, we can’t sustain what we need to do get to the next phase.” 

De Blasio also repeated his statement that New Yorkers are living through a “staggering, unbelievable” economic crisis, paralleled only by the Great Depression. 

To save the economy and local businesses, he added, “we actually have to get the health care part of this right.” 

Over the weekend, the mayor and governor clashed over the decision to close the city’s 1,800 public schools, which de Blasio announced Saturday. While the decision to leave them closed until September is unsurprising — opening them in the next two months could be a public health disaster — the two Democratic leaders squabbled over who had the right to make the decision. 

Fifty employees of the New York City Department of Education, including 21 teachers, have died from the virus, according to NY1, which checked reports to the DOE from family members of the deceased. 

The spat over schools, now in its third day, is just the latest event in a yearslong feud between the mayor and the governor, and not the first of the pandemic. When Covid-19 walloped the city and state last month, they disagreed about when New York should order residents to stay at home.

“These things have to be coordinated, and they have to be coordinated on a statewide basis,” Cuomo said when asked about the schools issue at his press conference Monday.

“In a situation like this, you can’t allow 700 school districts to make their own decisions,” the governor added. “We have to have one plan at the end of the day.” 

Cuomo on Sunday announced an executive order directing employers to provide essential workers with free cloth or surgical masks. At least 41 New York City transit workers had already died of virus complications as of last week.

Constitutional scholars balked at a tweet Monday in which President Donald Trump claimed that he alone has power to reopen states.

“It is crystal clear that the president cannot simply order governors to change their policies,” Robert M. Chesney, the Charles I. Francis professor in law at the University of Texas School of Law, said in an email Monday. “That’s Federalism 101.”

Cuomo addressed Trump’s statement in Monday’s conference call, essentially challenging the president to come up with a plan — if Trump wants to change the reopening model, he can, but he must come up with a plan and share the specifics. 

“Are you going to say when each state can open, or should open?” Cuomo asked Monday. “Are you going to set a formula?”

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