Subways Will See First Off-Hours in a Century as NY Tackles Contact Tracing

A commuter wears a face mask while riding the a nearly empty subway car into Brooklyn on March 12. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily Covid-19 press conference featured mayors old and current Thursday, as New York City tackles the vital practices of subway sanitation and contact tracing to control the toll of Covid-19.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the new transit schedule in a rare virtual appearance at the governor’s briefing, announcing that, for the first time in the modern era, New York will become the city that sleeps a little.

The subway trains have run 24-7 for nearly a century, but beginning next month they will shut down the for disinfection every night between 1 and 5 a.m., to make riding safer for the city’s essential workers during the virus pandemic.

“Conditions on the New York City subway system for a variety of reasons have rapidly deteriorated,” Cuomo said, before opining on the immensity of the undertaking. “How do you even disinfect a train?” he asked.

De Blasio chimed in to say the city would provide resources for New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and taking shelter on trains. 

“Yeah, we’re going to do something unprecedented … but we’re also going to do something that’s going to protect people,” the mayor said. There’s no end date yet for the nightly shutdowns. 

Former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg also made a remote appearance at the governor’s press conference to discuss his new contact-tracing program in conjunction with two entities he funds: Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and public health nonprofit Vital Strategies. Bloomberg and de Blasio also both unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.

Bloomberg announced that Hopkins had developed a remote training class for potential contact tracers to take. These individuals would have to pass a test before permitted to practice. He mentioned that a “playbook” of tracing protocols would be shared publicly, and that Vital Strategies is working on three smartphone apps to help tracers, and the public, record and track the spread of the virus. 

“As tough as these times are, we are New Yorkers. And we’ve been through a lot together, and we’re going to get through this together again,” Bloomberg said.  

Contact tracing is second only to testing in any safe reopening strategy, experts say.

The concept begins with interviews of infected people to determine who else might have the virus. It’s challenging work for many reasons, Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health, said in an interview last week, in part because people often don’t remember everyone they had contact with in a two-week period. 

“So the interviewer has to be skilled in figuring out, how do I ask the right questions to elicit — to draw out the person’s memory?” said Lee, who was formerly a faculty member at Johns Hopkins.

Lee suggested that contact tracers attempt to walk a person through their day: You woke up, and then didn’t leave your apartment? The person might remember they took out their trash, and the contact tracer would have them trace their steps to do so — did they take an elevator, walk across a lobby, touch the door, touch the garbage cans? 

“People can forget huge swaths of time … so you really have to be very probing, to figure out — it’s detective work, it’s sleuthing work,” Lee said. 

Tracers must also strike a balance between sounding probing and accusatory, Lee said, and build rapport and trust while not making people feel like they’ve done something wrong by having the virus. People can also be mistrustful of programs run by the government, he added. Contact tracers during the Covid-19 pandemic will probably conduct their work remotely, due to the risk of transmission, which raises other problems like internet and phone access. 

Lee said another challenge with a virus as contagious as Covid-19 is determining what consists of an “effective contact” — every person an infected person could have possibly infected — and then the tracer has to track them down. Figuring out when the infected person became infectious is one challenge. Learning who was on a given subway car, or rode the same bikeshare, or shopped in a grocery store at the same time is another challenge. Yet one more is finding their phone number and getting them to pick up.

“You can see how quickly it grows, in terms of the number of people needed to do this,” Lee said. Bloomberg has said his team is training 30,000 tracers for a region-wide effort. New York City has said it will hire 1,000. 

At a separate press conference Thursday morning, de Blasio said he’s hoping to be able to test 43,000 people for the virus per week by May 18. Last night, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that all of L.A. County’s 10 million residents would immediately be able to sign up for free Covid-19 testing.

Garcetti plans to test 18,000 Angelinos per day. While New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the virus, had to focus its resources on weathering the peak in March and April, it needs to significantly ramp up its testing capacity in order to safely reopen. 

As of Thursday, New York City had nearly 160,000 confirmed cases, in comparison to LA’s 20,000. The Big Apple had 12,287 confirmed deaths and 5,302 “probable” Covid-19 deaths. 

De Blasio has repeatedly blamed the federal government for not helping the city get early access to testing in January and February, as the virus spread quietly throughout the Big Apple. The city has 11 testing sites — eight at city health and hospital clinics, and three at public housing sites. 

Repeating another frequent plea Thursday, de Blasio said the city needs more lab capacity with which to process the tests and called on the federal government to assist. 

Representatives at the mayor’s office did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about whether New York City, which with a population of 8.6 million has fewer residents than Los Angeles County, was also aiming for such a universal testing program or whether it would be possible. 

Garcetti made the announcement Wednesday evening during a press conference where he made clear that all residents of Los Angeles County, regardless of whether or not they are currently displaying coronavirus symptoms, would have the opportunity to immediately sign up for Covid-19 testing, though those with symptoms would get priority.

De Blasio also refused Thursday to answer questions about the city’s ability to store bodies as funeral homes and morgues remain overwhelmed. 

“I do not think this is what we should be focusing our public discourse on,” he said, even though news reports Wednesday showed one Brooklyn funeral home had stashed dozens of bodies in rented, unrefrigerated U-Haul trucks. 

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