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'An extraordinary time': State prepares for hospital surge; Nassau County reports first coronavirus death

On Tuesday, Long Island’s first drive-thru coronavirus testing site at Jones Beach opened, with another set to open at Stony Brook University in Suffolk County, according to Governor Cuomo’s office. Here's everything you need to know about how the coronavirus is affecting Long Island on March 17. Credit: Newsday staff; NYS Governor’s Office; Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Newsday is opening this story to all readers so Long Islanders have access to important information about the coronavirus outbreak. All readers can learn the latest news at newsday.com/LiveUpdates.

This story was reported by Alfonso A. Castillo, Rachelle Blidner, Matthew Chayes, Scott Eidler, Laura Figueroa Hernandez, Craig Schneider, Yancey Roy and David Olson. It was written by Olson.

Nassau County reported the death of its first resident due to coronavirus Tuesday, a day after Suffolk's first three outbreak-related deaths came to light.

As part of New York's response to the crisis, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday that the state will temporarily halt its collection of medical and student debt, from March 16 through April 15, to aid New Yorkers who've had to forgo income and business.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said a 96-year-old man with the COVID-19 virus died Tuesday morning at Mercy Medical Center. A Queens man, hospitalized for the disease in Nassau County, died Monday.

The county, Curran added, has 139 positive cases, up from 107 Monday. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone reported 97 cases Tuesday afternoon, up from 63 on Monday. There were 923 cases of coronavirus in New York City as of Tuesday night, Mayor Bill de Blasio said in an interview on MSNBC. Ten people have died in the city, he said.

Earlier Tuesday, de Blasio said a decision would be made in the next 48 hours whether to lock down the city. 

"I think New Yorkers should be prepared right now for the possibility of a shelter-in-place order,” he said. “It has not happened yet, but it is definitely a possibility at this point."

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A similar order in California’s Bay Area bans leaving home except for essential food, work or other services.

But Cuomo, responding to what he called "rumors" of a quarantine, said, “It cannot happen legally. No city in the state can quarantine itself without state approval and I have no interest whatsoever and no plan whatsoever to quarantine any city.”

Cuomo said the number of cases statewide rose to 1,374, and the number of people tested to date had risen to more than 10,000 statewide, with 4,000 of those samples coming from New York City, 615 from Nassau County and 454 from Suffolk County.

New York State opened a drive-thru coronavirus testing facility in Nassau County. Similar testing sites are to open in Suffolk County, Rockland County and Staten Island, in New York City, Cuomo said.

Curran said officials will make sure “to prioritize testing for our first responders, for our health care providers and for people with underlying medical conditions.”

Bellone said the county is hoping that the Suffolk test site will be operational later this week. Residents can call 888-364-3065 to determine if they are eligible for testing, he said.

A day after Cuomo announced the closure of bars, restaurants other than for takeout and delivery, and gyms, he said “it’s possible we will be doing more dramatic closings” but, first, he plans to discuss proposals with his counterparts in New Jersey and Connecticut, continuing a regional approach.

The crisis calls for significant actions to contain the outbreak, he said.

"This is an extraordinary time in this nation's history," Cuomo said. "It will go down in the history books as one of those moments of true crisis and confusion and chaos … Everybody is afraid. Everybody's nervous. How you respond, how you act, this is a character test for all of us individually. It's a character test for us collectively as a society."

Epidemic's peak expected

Pointing to projections showing that the peak of the epidemic is expected in about 45 days if current trends continue, and that the state's health care system as it is structured now would not be able to handle the surge in patients, Cuomo said, "How do you reduce the spread? You close down more interaction among people … You would continue to close down things, such as businesses.”

The state could need as many as 55,000 to 110,000 hospital beds at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, with as many as 18,600 to 37,200 patients needing intensive care, he added. That compares to an availability of 53,000 hospital beds, with 3,000 of those in intensive care units.

"That curve is going to turn into a wave and the wave is going to crash on the hospital system," Cuomo said of the rising number of people needing treatment.

Tuesday night, Cuomo announced the Trump administration was granting the governor’s week-long request to activate the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop new hospital space for the state.

“I have the Army Corps of Engineers coming in here tomorrow,” Cuomo said on MSNBC. "I had a very good conversation with the president where I said, 'look, forget Democrat and Republican. We're Americans and we're talking life and death. We're going to have a tragedy in this state … we are going to have a real tragedy where people die because they couldn't get the right health care.' "

Earlier, Cuomo directed Michael Dowling, the president and CEO of New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, and Ken Raske, the president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, to discuss with hospital officials across the state ways to increase capacity.

Options include the State Department of Health waiving rules on the number of beds allowed in a certain space at a hospital as well as the construction of temporary medical facilities, Cuomo said. In addition, he said, the state is reaching out to retired doctors and nurses, and even medical school students, to help care for COVID-19 patients.

Asked at the daily White House briefing on the virus about Cuomo's assessment that New York will see a peak of COVID-19 in 45 days, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Cuomo "has been doing a really good job of trying to stay ahead of this … 45 days is not unreasonable,” but he warned against giving specific timelines at this juncture.

New York cannot massively increase hospitals' capacity without federal help, Cuomo said. In an open letter to  President Donald Trump on Sunday, the governor called on the president to mobilize the Corps to help develop makeshift hospitals and treatment centers.

Cuomo and Trump have had a hostile relationship, exchanging barbs on Twitter as recently as Monday, though Cuomo extended an olive branch Tuesday.

"I believe him when he said he is going to be as cooperative as possible," Cuomo said.

He added that Trump's team "thus far has been doing everything that they can do, and I want to say thank you and I want to say that I appreciate it, and they will have nothing but cooperation and partnership from the state of New York. We are not Democrats. We are not Republicans. We are Americans at the end of the day."

At the White House briefing, Trump said the call with Cuomo was "productive."

"We're working very closely together, we're also getting FEMA very much involved," Trump said. 

Trump added that "we're dealing with the Army Corps of Engineers should that be necessary."

Trump did not immediately specify what role the Corps will play, saying "we have them working in cases on standby."

Later, when asked if he was prepared to mobilize the Corps, Trump said: "Yes, we're starting the process, and it's a process. We hope it's not going to be necessary, but it could be necessary."

Trump added: "The state is working on it very hard themselves, but we'll probably supplement what they're doing."

It's personal

The governor discussed in deeply personal terms why it is critical to increase hospital capacity. The governor said it is seniors like his 88-year-old mother, and those with underlying health conditions, who may need those additional beds.

"The reason it's so important is it's my mother," he said. "It's your mother. It's your sister, it's your cousin, it's your father. These are the people who raised us. These are the people who built this society … So we're going to break our rear-end to make sure our health care system is there for them, whatever we have to do."

He also revealed he hasn't seen his daughter, who is in self-quarantine after coming in contact with someone who potentially contracted the virus, for two weeks.

"It breaks my heart, and then this concept of maybe I can't get next to her because of this virus, there's a distance between me and my daughter because of this virus," he said. "It saddens me to the core and it frightens me to the core."

Cuomo announced an agreement with the Legislature that requires, among other measures, all businesses and governments to protect the jobs of those quarantined because of COVID-19; requires five or seven paid sick days for all businesses, depending on size — except those with 10 or fewer employees and a net income under $1 million — and provides access to paid family leave and short-term disability benefits for some employees.

Economic impact

State budget director Robert Mujica said the economic turmoil upends previous projects on the state budget and said, "The federal government will have to step in here to deal with this because we will have our own liquidity issues if we don't get some relief."

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli on Tuesday issued a revised revenue projection for the 2020-21 state budget, estimating state tax revenues will drop by about $4 billion to $7 billion as a result of the epidemic. 

In Nassau, Curran said the county will form an economic advisory council to assess the impact of COVID-19 on local businesses, to track, calculate and work to eventually “recoup” losses for the county’s businesses with federal recovery funds.

“We don’t know the full economic impact yet, but I predict it will be brutal and it will have a long-term impact," she said.

Nassau Comptroller Jack Schnirman said his office will launch a financial impact analysis focused on the county’s government, to ensure that vendors and county employees are being paid and to "take the necessary steps to protect taxpayers and ensure that essential government services are able to continue unimpeded."

Meanwhile, in Suffolk, Bellone said he is in discussions with village and town officials on whether to postpone property tax payments as the virus has created concerns about a possible recession. Village taxes are due April 1 and town taxes due May 31. 

Bellone said he spoke with business leaders concerned about the economic impact of the epidemic. He said the labor department is measuring the economic fallout on local businesses, and, starting Thursday, is expected to launch a support unit – accessed by calling 311 — that businesses could call. The economic development department is studying what state and federal resources are available to help local businesses, he said.

A citywide lockdown

In New York City, de Blasio said that restaurants and bars — ordered Monday by de Blasio to limit service indefinitely to only takeout and delivery — could be closed for months. 

FDNY, NYPD, the sheriff’s office and buildings department inspectors went this morning to restaurants and bars to ensure they are complying, de Blasio said. About 10% were violating the rules and were given a warning, he said. 

De Blasio said "we're in a race against time right now" and predicted that "we're certainly going to have thousands of cases next week … It's not that long until we hit 10,000 cases."

As of Tuesday afternoon, Manhattan has the most cases, 277, followed by Queens with 248, Brooklyn, 157, the Bronx, 96, and Staten Island, 36.

De Blasio announced the city has an agreement with the New Jersey-based BioReference Laboratories to test up to 5,000 people per day for the virus. The program begins Thursday and will ramp up, and the turnaround time for results will be one to two days, he said. Even with the increase in testing capacity, the priority will still remain those who are hospitalized and medically in danger and those who are otherwise most vulnerable, he said.

De Blasio's news conference was relocated upstairs from the typical Blue Room into the cavernous City Council chamber, where he and other speakers were spaced at least six feet apart. 

De Blasio on Tuesday signed an executive order banning ride shares and pooling of customers. Rides are now limited to one individual per vehicle, with an exception for couples.

The city is looking at whether to release inmates who are at high risk for COVID-19 or have a low risk of reoffending, he said. The city’s independent jail oversight board is recommending release of all inmates over age 50 who have underlying health conditions, are serving sentences of a year or less, or are detained for administrative reasons such as failure to appear or parole violations.

New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) tweeted Tuesday afternoon that he tested positive for coronavirus, following a senior staff member having tested positive "after experiencing symptoms for several days,” he wrote.

The governor said he has received criticism of the mass closures he ordered Monday.

But, he said, “I made them because I believe they are in the best interest of the state ... my judgment is do whatever is necessary to contain this virus, and then we will manage the consequences afterwards.”

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