NY Pulls Back From Virus Micro-Data as It Fights to Reopen Safely

Justin Gauthier, a surgical resident at Mount Sinai Hospital South Nassau, smiles as he leaves a hospital overflow tent after getting his hair trimmed Thursday as part of a “Haircuts for Heroes” promotion during the current coronavirus outbreak, in Oceanside, New York. Signature Bank provided three days of free haircuts for hospital workers. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Urging caution and discipline as the city crawls toward a phased reopening expected in June, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday offered a new set of indicators by which to measure the spread of the disease shown to have now killed 1 in every 400 city residents.

“The day-to-day changes, the small ups and downs, matter less,” de Blasio said of the new measurements. Previously, he said all three indicators of Covid-19 had to decline for 10 to 14 days straight, and the city seemed a long way off from meeting its goals as one indicator could tick up by a statistically insignificant margin and throw off the count. 

“What matters more now is staying at a low level and keeping it that way,” de Blasio said.

Now the data must instead remain under umbrella limits: fewer than 200 new hospital admissions, fewer than 375 people in the intensive care units of public hospitals, and fewer than 15% of all Covid-19 diagnostic tests coming back positive. For the past 10 days, the mayor added, fewer than 15% of people tested were positive. 

De Blasio said 11% of all tests came back positive for Covid-19 as of Friday’s data. There were 76 hospital admissions, but 451 people in the ICU. 

The new measuring methods more closely line up with the way the state measures Covid-19 spread. 

“We think we will be there soon and then we have to hold it,” de Blasio said Friday, later adding: “If we do it right if people stick to the plan, stick to the guidance, we will move to Phase 1 in either the first or second week of June.”

Phase 1 of reopening, determined by the state, includes construction, agriculture, retail with curbside pickup, manufacturing and wholesale trade. Seven of New York state’s 10 regions are in Phase 1, with the mid-Hudson, New York City, and Long Island still shut down. Governor Andrew Cuomo, also speaking in Manhattan Friday, said the mid-Hudson and Long Island could enter Phase 1 as soon as next week. 

Sheng Li is an infectious disease epidemiologist, modeler and former physician who worked as an epidemic control team leader in Shanghai’s Center for Disease Control during the SARS outbreak and now works at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health. But if he were a state governor, Li said Thursday, he too would reopen the economy, but with tight standards, “considering the political and cultural realities.”

There must be a consistent decrease in infections before a lifting of restrictions, Li said, also stressing the importance of personal protective equipment.

“If you do not have enough masks, hand sanitizer, and other PPE if needed particularly for EVERYONE in your indoor environment, you cannot open,” he said in an email [emphasis in original]. “If you do not have masks, you cannot be in public places. No perfect plan exists, but these basic rules should apply.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo counts the days of the Covid-19 crisis in his daily press briefing Friday. A sign language interpreter is pictured on the right.

To prevent a second wave of the virus, Li said, leaders should increase sampling from hospitals and implement interventions carefully and specifically — for example, New York City residents, in cramped quarters and multigenerational households, have a harder time isolating at home than Midwesterners would. Li also called contact tracing invaluable. 

“After cases re-emerge, tracing contacts and isolating cases quickly and absolutely” is crucial, he wrote.

“This is the basic ABC in outbreak control, we are not able to do so after the disease spread widely after a slow response,” Li added.

Cuomo said Friday the state now operates more than 750 diagnostic testing sites. The Big Apple, which has also expanded testing capacity, is now urging all those with symptoms, exposure to a known case, or jobs in adult care facilities or shelters to get tested. Previously both the city and state, operating with a scarcity of tests, had limited their availability, but now are encouraging wider swaths of residents to confirm their Covid-19 status.

After conflicting guidance on mask-wearing caused widespread confusion across the country early in the outbreak, Cuomo has settled squarely in the pro-mask camp, requiring them in public when people cannot socially distance. Recent studies have shown that widespread mask-wearing can dramatically reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus, which is spread through respiratory droplets — possibly by as much as 75%.

New Yorkers can vote until May 25 on a pro-mask public service announcement. 

“You don’t have a right to infect another person,” Cuomo said Friday. “You don’t. Look at the Constitution, tell me where it says, ‘You have the right to infect another person.’ You don’t.”  

Though state beaches are open this weekend with restrictions such as mask-wearing and 50% capacity, the city’s beaches are open for walking and socially distanced sitting this Memorial Day weekend but not for swimming, the mayor said Friday. Surfing is permitted, though there will be no lifeguards. The issue of swimming may be mostly moot at least this weekend, as temperatures aren’t expected to climb above 68.

Nearby Long Island, wanting to prevent an influx of city-dwellers on its own open beaches, says it will restrict access to residents only. 

De Blasio also announced an additional 13 miles of streets citywide would be closed to cars by Saturday to create more room for pedestrians, runners and cyclists trying to get outside during the crisis. After initially resisting the idea, de Blasio — infamous pre-Covid-19 for being driven 11 miles each way from the mayors’ home at Gracie Mansion, on the Upper East Side, to his preferred YMCA in Brooklyn to exercise — agreed to open least 40 miles of streets to pedestrians. He says the city is aiming to open as many as 100. 

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