Michael O’Keeffe, David Reich-Hale and Newsday Staff
This story was reported by Rachelle Blidner, Alfonso A. Castillo, Lisa L. Colangelo, Scott Eidler, Bart Jones, Michael O’Keeffe, David Reich-Hale and Olivia Winslow. It was written by Jones.
The state is ramping up testing of employees at nursing homes to combat the coronavirus in an area where the disease has had some of its most devastating impact, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday, while officials worried that New York City residents would come in large numbers to Long Island beaches for the Memorial Day weekend.
The governor also announced that Western New York around Buffalo will partially reopen Tuesday, becoming the sixth region in the state to enter Phase One of loosening restrictions from the pandemic. Long Island is among four, mainly downstate, regions deemed not ready to reopen.
Nassau and Suffolk counties together have met five of seven requirements, while New York City has fallen back to meeting only three of the seven benchmarks on health indicators and readiness measures, according to state data released Monday.
Cuomo defended the state’s push for periodic testing of staff at New York’s 600 nursing homes, and called on more New Yorkers to take advantage of available testing sites in their communities.
“We worked day and night to get up this testing capacity,” Cuomo said Monday at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in upstate Buffalo.
On a personal note, Cuomo said he was “pleased to report” that he tested negative for the coronavirus, after standing before the media on Sunday to undergo specimen collection, as a medical worker put a swab up his nose so he could show the public how easy it is.
“When you find out you are negative, it’s actually a nice sense of relief … You don’t need to have symptoms and you can have the COVID virus,” he said. “There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be getting testing … We actually have now more testing capacity than we are using at many of our sites.”
Cuomo said the state will continue pushing for testing staff at nursing homes twice a week to try to detect and contain any further spread in a vulnerable spot, despite complaints from nursing home operators about the mandate.
“If you watch what happens with the staff, it’s a canary in the coal mine for what’s happening in the nursing home. And … it clearly keeps the residents of the nursing home safe,” Cuomo said.
To help accomplish the stepped-up testing, the state will be sending 320,000 test kits to nursing homes this week, Cuomo said. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates train and bus transit systems in the downstate region, said it helped distribute 47,484 COVID-19 testing kits to 106 nursing homes across New York City on Monday.
The state’s goal is to conduct some 35,000 tests a day, Cuomo stated.
“I know the nursing home operators are not happy about this. I get it. It’s very hard to administer,” he said. “The staff all have to be tested twice a week.”
Cuomo acknowledged that other states do not have such a requirement in place, calling it “the most aggressive standard in the nation” but said it is necessary to protect nursing home residents.
“We’re going to do what we have to do to protect the lives of New Yorkers. Who is in a nursing home? This is your mother. This is your father, your sister, your brother. This is our family who are in nursing homes … They’re our senior family members, who we owe nothing but gratitude and respect.”
Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association, which represents almost 400 skilled nursing homes, thanked Cuomo for the expanded testing, but said costs are still a concern.
“With approximately 205,000 employees for skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities in New York State, twice a week testing would require 410,000 tests weekly, which would cost approximately $60 million per week,” he said in a statement. “We will need continued support from the state and the federal government.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, delivering his daily briefing on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, said the state is prepared for the Tuesday reopening of Western New York as the sixth region to gradually bring back its economy. Credit: Office of the Governor
The state reported improvements across the board in the containment of the COVID-19 virus, with overall hospitalizations, intubations and deaths linked to the disease declining on a daily basis. However, 106 New Yorkers died of coronavirus-related ailments in hospitals and nursing homes Sunday, a number Cuomo said is “still painfully high, but it is down.”
It was the eighth straight day the toll was below 200, and was well below the nearly 800 daily deaths at the height of the pandemic in early April. The number of new hospitalizations, 373, was far below the peak of about 3,200. Total hospitalizations were 5,840, compared to the peak of nearly 19,000.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the county had the lowest number of deaths in a one-day period since March — six in 24 hours.
“If there’s any solace we take from that number, it’s the lowest number we’ve seen. We have not been at that level in a long, long time,” Bellone said, noting there are still six newly grieving families today.
The number of new coronavirus cases continued to show a clear and steady decline in the state and on Long Island, one of the main hot spots.
Statewide, there were 1,250 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, for a total of 351,371, according to state figures released Monday. Nassau had 89 new cases, for a total of 39,225. Suffolk had 107 new cases, for a total of 38,224. New York City added 637 new cases, for a total of 193,230. The state figures report the previous day’s totals.
Memorial Day beach concerns
While the numbers continued to drop, the impending holiday weekend was stoking fears that New York City residents would crowd Long Island beaches since New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had decided to keep the ones in the city closed.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said Monday she spoke with de Blasio about her concerns.
“I understand that this can be quite challenging in more densely populated places, so I respect his decision,” she said. “I also understand that as hard hit as we have been on Long Island, that New York City really has been the epicenter of this crisis.
“We will be ready, and we will be ready on Friday.”
Curran said “we always attract a lot of people to our beaches, because they’re so great.” There will be a limit on the number of cars at parking lots, staff and signs will enforce regulations to ensure they are at 50%.
On Monday night, Republicans in the Nassau legislature said they will hold a news conference Tuesday to announce a bill for consideration at an emergency Wednesday meeting that would restrict use of county beaches to Nassau residents.
Queens resident Cindy Viscendaz enjoys Rockaway Beach with her dog Psycho on a Sunday afternoon. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said the city’s beaches will not open for Memorial Day as others in the state. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin
In Suffolk, Bellone announced that Smith Point and Cupsogue beaches will be open to county residents only, partly in response to same concerns about New York City residents flocking there.
“It is my priority to make sure Suffolk County residents will be able to enjoy access to their beaches during this crisis period while we do have reduced capacity,” Bellone said.
Residents can show their green key card or driver’s license to access the park, he said.
Curran also said Monday she has written to Cuomo to request that elective surgeries be reinstated in Nassau “as soon as possible.”
“The last thing we want to see is someone dying of cancer down the road because they weren’t able to get a routine screening,” Curran said.
Suffolk hospitals have been allowed to proceed with elective surgeries.
Meanwhile, Cuomo said he has been talking to professional sports teams to urge them to gear up and play again, if the economics of games without live spectators work.
“I also have been encouraging major sports teams to plan reopenings without fans,” he said. “But the games could be televised. New York State will help those major sports franchises to do just that. Hockey, basketball, baseball, football, whoever can reopen, we’re a ready, willing and able partner.”
He said the decision would have to be made on a sport-by-sport basis, since some franchises rely more on TV revenue than others that depend on ticket sales.
“If they can economically have games with no fans, and the numbers work for them, the economics work, because the TV revenue is enough without the fan revenue … I say great. Come back. The state will work with you.”
Cuomo also said he is bringing in international experts to help advise the state as it begins to slowly reopen.
They are Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Samir Bhatt, senior lecturer at Imperial College London.
Hospitals tracking numbers
Northwell Health on Monday said it had 909 COVID-19 patients at its hospitals, a drop of 16% from a week ago.
Northwell, however, said the patient count rose by four patients from Sunday, ending a streak of more than 20 days of decreases.
“From April 20 until now, it’s been down every day, so this is probably just a blip, although it’s worth noting,” said Terry Lynam, a spokesman at Northwell. “On April 20th, it was a similar, small increase, and then it just kept going down. It’s all relative, because these numbers are much lower now.”
For example, Lynam said Northwell had 296 discharges and 58 deaths April 21. On Sunday, it had 41 discharges and 11 deaths.
“The discharge and death numbers are much lower, so I take it as a positive sign,” Lynam said.
Northwell’s COVID-19 patient count has fallen 73% from its high point in the first half of April.
Northwell Health’s COVID-19 patient count rose by four patients from Sunday, ending a streak of more than 20 days of decreases, but a spokesman said it “is probably just a blip” in an otherwise downward trend. Credit: Northwell Health
COVID-19’s disparate impact
The disproportionate impact the coronavirus has had on minorities in New York State was the topic of a virtual legislative hearing Monday.
Data from the state Department of Health shows that in New York City and the state, blacks and Latinos face a higher death rate from COVID-19 than their share of the population.
The “social and economic impacts that we already know preexisted in communities of color on Long Island, and now is being amplified during this pandemic,” said Theresa Sanders, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Long Island,
The five communities on the Island with highest rate of COVID-19 infection rates have minority populations of “70 percent or more,” she said.
In the beginning of the pandemic, the Urban League heard complaints from some of its constituents that they had been turned away from hospitals, “told to go home and isolate,” and that it didn’t matter if they had insurance coverage or not, she said. People who were “not even being able to breathe at the emergency room, these black and brown people, were turned away and told to go home. We need to do better.”
Lance Gumbs, vice chair of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, located in Southampton, described how multigenerational households on the Shinnecock Reservation, including many seniors, had to be safeguarded from visitors descending on the Hamptons, overburdening grocery stores and negatively impacting their food security.
Gumbs said the Reservation has been “distributing food and [personal protective equipment] to keep our people safe. But our territories are vulnerable, in that we are surrounded, especially in the Hamptons, especially with all of the people that came out from New York City.”
While the death rate from COVID-19 for Asian Americans has not been higher than their share of the population, they “continue to be undercounted and scapegoated every single day. The results are clear, we’re leaving the most vulnerable on their own,” Democratic Assemb. Ron Kim said.
“Every human being is truly priceless, and the first step is to get accurate data and facts,” Kim said.
Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration said Monday it has awarded $26.6 million in COVID-19 relief funding to Suffolk to offset the financial impact on the county’s public bus system.
Like other public transportation operators in the region, Suffolk County Transit has seen steep declines in ridership because of the coronavirus. To protect bus drivers, Suffolk County Transit is having riders board from the rear, which also has affected fare collection.
“We know many of our nation’s public transportation systems are facing extraordinary challenges, and these funds will go a long way to assisting our transit industry partners in battling COVID-19,” FTA Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams said in a statement.
By Newsday Staff, David Reich-Hale and Newsday Staff
Michael O’Keeffe, David Reich-Hale and Newsday Staff