Virus Caution Undercuts de Blasio’s Efforts at Optimism

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office provided this visual aid Thursday, April 9, showing the risk of Covid-19 resurgence in the city if social-distancing rules are relaxed too quickly. In the top-right corner, a the mayor’s briefing is translated in sign language.

MANHATTAN (CN) — In a long and somewhat baffling press conference Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio laid out a plan for slowly advancing his coronavirus-battered city toward a new normal, even as the death toll there climbed to 4,426 and hospitals and morgues remain overwhelmed.

New York City had 84,373 Covid-19 cases as of Wednesday, according to data from its Department of Health. Without offering specifics on what might happen over the next few months — for example whether some restaurants or other businesses could reopen — de Blasio said he hoped the city could enter a new, low-level transmission phase in late May or June. 

“That, again, is months away, but it’s something we can at least envision,” the mayor said, cautioning that the city is still in a widespread transmission phase.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo meanwhile did not share in the mayor’s optimism. 

“I’m not going to guess when the data will say we should change our practices,” Cuomo said in his own press conference Thursday.

Josh Epstein, an agent-based modeling expert and professor of epidemiology at NYU’s School of Global Public Health, said he thinks the mayor and governor are on the right track.

“The peak is actually the midpoint of the epidemic,” Epstein said in a phone interview Thursday. “Roughly speaking, half the infections happen after the peak. So you can’t mess around with reopening the economy, or you’ll get a second wave. And I think the governor and the mayor are very aware of that, and I think really, very very responsible and not promising to do anything rash.”

Epstein emphasized the importance of an antibody test, which would show who has had the virus and are therefore expected to have some immunity to it. He and two colleagues recently penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post describing a safe return to work for possibly millions of Americans who resolve the virus.

Seven hundred and ninety-nine New York state residents died of virus-related complications Wednesday, another wrenching and record-breaking total. Deaths in the state will continue to rise, Cuomo has cautioned, even as hospitalization rates and intensive care unit admissions begin to drop. 

There are caveats even in the mayor’s optimistic plan. De Blasio pleaded again for help from the federal government in getting universal virus testing up and running, saying it’s the only way the city can move to the low-level transmission phase — characterized by the ability to trace new cases back to their source, more testing capacity, and less social distancing, the mayor said. Without knowing who has the virus, a municipality cannot easily keep it from spreading. 

Volunteers raise a tent while building a field hospital at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on Wednesday. Volunteers assembled and placed 56 beds in five chapels and raised one of several tents in the nave. Work will continue Thursday. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

But news reports show the federal government intends to cut off funding for coronavirus testing sites on Friday, which could hamper the nation’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

“We need the federal government to step up, and we need them to do it quickly,” de Blasio said Thursday. 

He promised not to try to do too much too soon. 

“The one thing I guarantee you is we will not jump the gun,” the mayor said. “We cannot allow a resurgence. … We have to be tough and disciplined.” 

De Blasio has received criticism for encouraging New Yorkers to go about their normal lives earlier this year, even as he tweeted that the virus showing up in the city was “not a matter of if, but when.” 

Governor Cuomo, who likewise has been criticized for not shutting things down sooner in the state, warned Thursday that he fears subsequent waves of the virus in New York, which could be precipitated by loosening restrictions too quickly. 

“We’re still in the middle of the game,” he said.

There are positive signs that New York is flattening the curve: The state saw just 200 hospitalizations Wednesday, down from 586 on April 7, 656 April 6, and 358 on April 5. Intensive care unit admissions have been up and down — from 395 to 35 to 302 to 64 on various days in the past week — but appear to be starting to trend downward. 

Cuomo said social-distancing rules in the state have been a success, and that’s all the more reason to keep restrictions in place. 

“They’re working better than anyone projected they would work, and that’s because people are complying with them,” he said. 

He echoed de Blasio on the importance of testing. 

“Rapid testing and testing is going to be the bridge to the new economy,” Cuomo said, adding the state is currently working to bring antibody testing to scale. 

“The moment you stop following the policies, you will go right back and see that number shoot through the roof.”

The Department of Labor was turning visitors away at the door on March 18, 2020, due to closures over coronavirus in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

NYU’s Epstein agreed.

“At the moment, social distancing is what we have until we have a vaccine,” he said. “And if you’re going to do it, if you’re going to try to even contemplate relaxing that, you have to know who’s sick, and you have to know who’s immune, or we’re just going to end up in another wave. That’s what happened in 1918. It happens all the time, and it’s got to be avoided.”

Missing from de Blasio’s press conference was much discussion of the ethnicity data the city released Wednesday that shows black and Latino New Yorkers are disproportionately dying from Covid-19. 

Cuomo touched on it, however, saying the state would work with SUNY-Albany, the Department of Health and Northwell Health, the state’s largest health care provider, to collect new data and open new testing sites in Latino and black communities in the state. 

“[We’ll] collect the test results but also collect information that we need to come up with policies to fix this — where do people live, where do people work, what is their socioeconomic status, where do they socialize, what are their previous health conditions?” Cuomo said. 

To newly unemployed New Yorkers who have been unable to get through to the state’s unemployment office, Cuomo offered assurance Thursday that their benefits would be retroactive. 

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