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Suffolk has first three LI deaths from coronavirus; Cuomo directs NY schools to close until April 1

On a Monday conference call, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone confirmed the first two deaths in Suffolk County due to the coronavirus.  Credit: Newsday

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 Rachelle Blidner, Robert Brodsky, Scott Eidler, Michael Gormley, John Hildebrand, Bart Jones, David Reich-Hale, Yancey Roy, Michael O'Keeffe, Joie Tyrrell and John Valenti. It was written by Jones.

The coronavirus crisis deepened on Long Island on Monday as Suffolk County reported Long Island's first three deaths from the virus, schools in the region started an unprecedented two-week mandatory shutdown, the Catholic Church canceled Masses through Easter, and the state limited restaurants and bars to takeout, while completely shuttering movie theaters, gyms and casinos.

Two men who were hospitalized and in isolation became the first Long Island patients reported to have died of the coronavirus, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said. 

One of the men was in his 80s and among the first positive cases reported and had been in isolation at St. Catherine's Hospital in Smithtown. The other patient was a man in his 90s who had been in isolation at Huntington Hospital. Late Monday night, Suffolk officials reported the third death in the county and Long Island from the virus.

A 90-year-old woman with underlying health conditions died Monday afternoon at Huntington Hospital, said Derek Poppe, a spokesman for Suffolk County.

Bellone said a member of his administration has the virus and, as a result, much of the county's response team is under quarantine. Bellone is now directing Suffolk's government from his home office. 

Meanwhile, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut announced they were limiting gatherings to 50 people or less, and shutting down all bars and restaurants except for takeout and delivery service to try to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Those measures and the ones on movie theaters, gyms and casinos were going into effect Monday at 8 p.m.

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also announced that three more drive-thru testing centers will be coming “soon” to Long Island, Staten Island and Rockland County.

“The New Rochelle drive-thru center has been a success,” Cuomo tweeted, referring to the first such center set up in the state after the outbreak was centered in the Westchester County community. “It’s the smartest way to test for Coronavirus, because it reduces potential exposure for everyone.”

Cuomo also called on the federal government to send in the Army Corps of Engineers to help turn military bases or college dorms into temporary medical centers because hospitals may become overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.

The three governors said they were acting because the federal government has failed to come up with a national plan to address the crisis.

They said they were following updated guidance that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Sunday, recommending the cancellation or postponement of in-person events consisting of 50 people or more.

"Our primary goal right now is to slow the spread of this virus so that the wave of new infections doesn't crash our health care system, and everyone agrees social distancing is the best way to do that," Cuomo said.

"This is not a war that can be won alone,” he added, “which is why New York is partnering with our neighboring states to implement a uniform standard that not only keeps our people safe but also prevents 'state shopping' where residents of one state travel to another and vice versa. I have called on the federal government to implement nationwide protocols, but in their absence we are taking this on ourselves."

All schools in the state were directed to close until April 1 in an executive order signed by Cuomo. The state will reassess whether to extend the closures. School districts in Nassau, Suffolk, New York City and Westchester were expected to submit plans for alternative instruction by midnight Monday. The majority of school districts in New York already had announced closings before the governor's order.

Cases still rising

Officials said Monday that coronavirus continues to spread, with 221 new cases in the state, bringing the total to 950. Of those, 16 people had recovered after hospitalization and were discharged. Others who have tested positive and didn't need hospitalization were expected to recover, but that number was not immediately specified.

Nassau has 11 new cases, for a total of 109, while Suffolk has 16 new cases, for a total of 63. New York City has 134 new cases, for a total of 463.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said 13 of the people are hospitalized in Nassau, two of them in critical condition. More than 400 people in the county are under mandatory quarantine, she said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that there have been five deaths in New York City from coronavirus. Cuomo announced Saturday the death of a 64-year-old man in Rockland County, while on Monday state correction officials announced the death of an investigator.

Hospital visitation suspended

With the virus spreading, Catholic Health Services of Long Island said it was suspending all visitation at its hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, effective at 3 p.m. Monday.

Exceptions could be made on a case-by-case basis by hospital leadership, in conjunction with infection prevention executives at the health system, CHS said.

The Rockville Centre-based health system, which operates six hospitals on Long Island, said exceptions may also include end-of-life and newborn cases.

CHS added that it was allowing one person to accompany a patient to an appointment at its outpatient locations and physician practices, but any visitor who is coughing or showing other signs of illness would be asked to leave.

Long Islanders' new reality

In Nassau, Curran said the county was working toward securing testing pods — outside and with tents — along with drive-thru testing sites, all of which will "help us achieve, if not exceed that testing margin" of 6,000 residents tested per day — a goal she said Cuomo had set.

“We're quickly increasing our capability to test," she said, adding that Northwell Health already has transitioned to semi-automated testing.

County officials met Monday morning with hospital executives from NUMC, Catholic Health Services, NYU Winthrop, Mount Sinai South Nassau and Northwell Health.

Curran said officials are working with health care officials to get them the materials they need, chiefly tents and materials for outdoor triage stations.

Social distancing

She emphasized a "mitigation and containment strategy," and stressed taking seriously "social distancing" and stopping "community spread."

"Flattening the curve" is the key, she said. "We expect the numbers to increase, we want them to increase at a lesser amount, so that the curve doesn't go all the way up, so it's flatter."

She said there were "reports of people still going to bars … this is not containing it, we need to have all of our residents pitch in now and be part of the solution so that we can flatten the curve, the flatter the curve the quicker we get through this and back to normal life, which I know everyone wants."

Bellone said the county is working with state officials to set up a mobile coronavirus testing site.

He also told WPIX11 that officials have begun discussions on turning existing buildings in the county into health care facilities to deal with a possible influx of patients.

“That’s where we may be headed,” he said. “We don’t know how long this will go on for, but we are preparing for what could be a long battle.”

Cuomo on Saturday said Jones Beach was under consideration as a testing site, with its massive parking lots and easy access along Ocean Parkway.

On Monday, the governor blasted the federal government for its handling of the crisis.

"We've been behind this all along. The federal government has to step up,” he told CNN. “Nationwide rules, school closings, bars, whatever and then understand that we have an impending catastrophe when this wave of growth crashes on the hospital system and we don't have the capacity.

“Start now, bring in that Army Corps of Engineers. This is what they do," he added. "They build. I'll give them dormitories. Build temporary medical facilities, but they have to do it. I'm not shy, but a state doesn't have the capacity to build that quickly to that level."

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Cuomo said, “I only have 3,000 intensive care unit beds in the State of New York. About 80 percent are already occupied, so I only have about 600 beds available. I already have 60 people in those beds. This is a disaster waiting to happen. We know it. The only alternative is to build, develop more beds, retrofit."

He said the state was working to make available thousands of beds for patients throughout the region.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that the city will add about 8,200 new beds over the next two weeks to what he fears will soon become a stressed health care system, using empty or underutilized hospital space and adapting private or unused facilities for medical purposes in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Roosevelt Island.

The mayor said the city has arranged to erect 11 medical tents and open five drive-thru testing centers.

Parents scrambling after school closures

The move to close schools on Long Island and in New York City and Westchester left thousands of parents scrambling to figure out how to care for their children if they had to work. School districts were racing to try to come up with plans for online learning to salvage the academic year, especially as high school students came into a critical period of SAT, AP and final exams.

SAT tests scheduled for last Saturday were canceled throughout Long Island. The College Board also announced on Monday that it is canceling the March 28 makeup tests and the May 2 SATs.

The ACT, another standardized test that many high school students take for college admissions that was scheduled nationally for April 4, has been postponed until June 13, test officials said Monday.

The legislatures in Nassau and Suffolk said they would continue to meet — but with no public allowed. Residents can email questions. The Suffolk County Legislature announced it would reschedule public hearings for the end of April.

On Sunday, Cuomo instructed all nonessential state government personnel from Rockland County and areas south — the region with the highest density of coronavirus cases — to stay home. He also urged all private businesses to “aggressively” consider closings and reductions in their workforces to help fight the spread of the virus.

All Catholic Masses canceled

The crisis extended to the religious sphere, as the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Monday canceled all Masses through April 14, meaning the faithful will not be able to worship in churches during the holiest week of the year.

The diocese, home to 1.4 million Catholics, suspended all Confirmations, First Communions, First Confessions, religious education classes, and meetings and nonessential activities in its parishes, spokesman Sean Dolan said.

The diocese cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that all events with 50 people or more be suspended or postponed.

Funerals and weddings may be permitted if necessary, Dolan said, but should be limited to immediate family and remain under 50 people. Baptisms should be postponed, unless absolutely necessary, and should observe the same limits, he said.

Local churches can remain open for private prayer if the pastor decides to do so, but the 50-person limit must be observed.

The Catholic Faith Network (CFN) will provide televised and online daily Masses, including Holy Week and Easter Liturgies, as well as other devotional and spiritual programs, Dolan said.

The diocese is also shutting down its headquarters in Rockville Centre until April 14, with employees instructed to work remotely.

This past weekend, the diocese celebrated Masses, but said the obligation to attend had been temporarily suspended by Bishop John Barres.

Jails affected

Fears of the virus spread to the Nassau County Correctional Facility in East Meadow, after a report Sunday night that an inmate tested positive for coronavirus and was sent to a local hospital, where he is in isolation, Curran said.

The county's Department of Health has identified staff, inmates and other people who may have been exposed, and efforts are underway to isolate them.

The inmate arrived at the jail March 6, and became symptomatic March 12, said Dr. Anthony Boutin, chief medical officer and interim president of Nassau University Medical Center. NUMC tested him and got the test back Sunday. The inmate is being treated in an isolation room in negative pressure.

In Suffolk, all visits to inmates at county correctional facilities in Yaphank and Riverhead will be temporarily suspended beginning Tuesday, officials said.

The order applies to contact and noncontact visits at the facilities, which house a combined 670 inmates, although attorneys can still make arrangements to visit clients.

There are no known cases of the coronavirus at Suffolk jails, County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said.

Throughout New York, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision suspended visitation at its 52 correctional facilities Saturday and continuing through April 11.

 An investigator for the state Department of Correction who was infected with coronavirus died Sunday night at a hospital, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said.

The investigator, whom officials did not identify, had limited contact with people in custody, Brann said. “Anyone who was in close contact with this individual has been notified and appropriate precautions taken,” she said.

With Zachary R. Dowdy

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