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Virus a 'silent killer': More than 7,000 lives lost in New York to coronavirus, as infections peak

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday spoke about the grim reality of the number of coronavirus deaths surpassing those lost on 9/11. Newsday's Cecilia Dowd has the story on how this is affecting local communities. Credit: Newsday staff

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, Alfonso A. Castillo, Matthew Chayes, Lisa L. Colangelo, Anthony M. DeStefano, Scott Eidler, Bart Jones, Michael O'Keeffe, David Reich-Hale and Jeff Williams. It was written by Jones.

New York State for the third straight day broke its record of total deaths from coronavirus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday, even as he reported signs that the number of cases from what he called the "silent killer" may be hitting a plateau.

Some 799 people died from the virus since Wednesday, up from 779 and 731 in the previous two days. New York now has lost more than 7,000 people to COVID-19, more than double what it lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Long Island accounted for 995 of the deaths and 37,553 confirmed cases of coronavirus.

But rates of hospitalization, intubations and ICU admissions stayed steady or dropped, Cuomo said, an indication the virus may be hitting a peak — and hopefully the state soon will start to come down “the other side of the mountain,” as the governor puts it.

"We are flattening the curve by what we are doing, and we are flattening the curve so far,” he said at his daily news briefing in Albany.

Cuomo said the crisis has devastated New York’s economy far worse than the 9/11 attacks, with a crushing 800,000 people filing for unemployment in the past three weeks alone.

He also warned that New Yorkers must continue to observe social distancing directives; otherwise, the number of cases will “shoot through the roof” again.

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The crisis already has become so severe that New York is bringing in extra funeral directors to handle the increase of bodies, the governor said.

The COVID-19 virus has claimed the lives of 7,067 New Yorkers in barely a month, new state figures showed.

It was a nearly unfathomable fact, Cuomo said, in a state that survived 9/11, when New York lost 2,753 people.

“I don’t even have the words for it," he said. "9/11 was so devastating, so tragic and then in many ways we lose so many New Yorkers to this silent killer. There was no explosion, but it was a silent explosion that just ripples through society, with the same randomness, the same evil that we saw on 9/11.”

Speaking at his daily press briefing, President Donald Trump thanked the American people who are making great sacrifices by changing their lives during this time. “We’ll soon open up the country” and get back to normal, he said.

He also commended the Army Corps of Engineers, which has added 17,000 beds throughout the nation for COVID-19 patients.

Long Island a virus battlefront

Nassau County reported another high number of new cases: 1,592, for a total of 20,140. Nassau has more confirmed coronavirus cases than many countries, including South Korea, Russia and Brazil, as well as the entire state of California.

Nassau reported 67 new deaths, for a total of 633 — a number County Executive Laura Curran called "unbearable."

Suffolk reported another day of high numbers, too: 1,569 new cases and 39 new deaths, for a total of 362 fatalities. Suffolk now has a total of 17,413 cases.

Suffolk did see its lowest increase in hospitalizations so far, 10 new patients, County Executive Steve Bellone noted.

But “the number rising most dramatically, most sadly, is the number of deaths,” Bellone said. “We know this is not the end. There is more to come … We are not at the apex.”

New York State as a whole added 10,621 new confirmed cases for a total of 159,937. That is higher than any country in the world — even hard-hit Spain and Italy — other than the entire United States, which has about 450,000 cases, one-third of them from New York.

New York City added 5,225 new cases, for a total of 87,028, and 585 new deaths, for a total of 5,280, according to state figures.

The rising New York State death toll comes even as the curve measuring the outbreak appears to be trending below projections, Cuomo said. 

Statewide, about 200 people were hospitalized with the virus Wednesday, a decline from the more than 500 admitted Tuesday. Admissions to intensive care units fell, and intubations of patients decreased as well from Tuesday to Wednesday.

“So far, our efforts are working," Cuomo said. "They’re working better than anyone projected they would work. That’s because people are complying with them … We are saving lives by what people are doing today.”

On Thursday, the state added one more place to the list of nonessential businesses that must close: golf courses.

Public and private clubs had remained open, but the new state order says that, unlike parks, they are not considered essential. Boat launches and marinas were also shut down under the new order.

Curran said that in Nassau, 232 COVID-19 patients were sent home, the fourth day in a row that discharges exceeded new admissions.

"We appear to be in a plateau at this moment, but that plateau is at a very high crisis point, it's not like it's just coasting now," she said. "This is serious crisis mode for a consistent number of days, so we continue to need your help."

Bellone said that “the battle over the past week has really shifted to Suffolk County and Long Island” from New York City. “We are still very much in the thick of this."

Bellone noted that Long Island has about half the number of confirmed cases as China, where the coronavirus pandemic began months ago. Long Island had nearly 40,000 cases reported as of Thursday, while China had about 82,000.

Long Island also has more cases than 48 states, excluding New York and New Jersey, he said. Long Island’s infection rate is higher than that in New York City and the state, he said.

Underscoring the threat here, Suffolk officials on Thursday reported the first case of a jail inmate with coronavirus — at the Riverhead correctional facility. Twelve correctional officers and one deputy sheriff in Suffolk also have tested positive for COVID-19.

Bellone urged public officials in areas that have yet to be hit hard by the virus to be ready, adding that testing has been critical in showing how widespread the virus is in Suffolk.

"When this hits you, it is intense. It is fast,” Bellone said. “You really need to be prepared.”

In his briefing, Cuomo dismissed suggestions that the virus is spreading rapidly in places such as Suffolk County because city residents are retreating there to second homes. Rather, he suggested it is because many residents in bedroom communities such as Nassau and Suffolk commute into the city for work.

COVID-19 at seniors' complex

The pandemic has struck fiercely at an assisted living complex for seniors in Suffolk, officials said Thursday.

Some 42 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and 16 have died at Atria South Setauket, including two deaths in the last 24 hours.

The staff has been outfitted with personal protective equipment, and all nonessential outside visitors have been banned from the facility over the past month to try to contain the virus, said Mike Gentry, Atria’s senior vice president of care.

Residents also have been restricted to their apartments, while sanitizing and cleaning services have been boosted, he said.

New York's response

Cuomo, who has received high ratings in public polls for his handling of the pandemic, asserted that his administration's response to it has been solid.

“Today, we can say that we have lost many brothers and sisters, but we haven’t lost anyone because they didn’t get the right and best health care that they could," he said. "The way I sleep at night is I believe that we didn’t lose anyone that we could have saved."

Some nurses and doctors on Long Island and in New York City have complained they did not have sufficient protective gear, including gloves, masks and gowns, while hospitals have scrambled to obtain enough ventilators. Several nurses have posted photographs of themselves on social media wearing garbage bags as protection.

Cuomo has said he has scoured the planet trying to get the equipment in a process he called "just crazy" on Thursday, with states competing against each other, the U.S. government and other countries in a bidding war because, he said, the federal government has not taken the lead in organizing the effort.

Cuomo showed earlier projections that predicted a range of hospitalizations for the virus statewide, from a low of 73,000 to a high of 136,000, even though the hospital system across New York only had about 53,000 beds initially. The state now has about 18,000 people hospitalized after six days of falling admissions connected to the virus.

He said the state's hospital system probably will be able to handle the pandemic if current trends hold, but if people slack off on social distancing, and the rates move toward the more drastic projections, the system will be overwhelmed.

He warned that, like the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, in which New York saw three waves of infections that killed 30,000 people, the state could experience more waves even after this initial one is brought under control.

“Everybody is assuming, well, once we get through this, we’re done,” Cuomo said. “I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that. This virus has been ahead of us from Day One.”

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent agency — announced the deployment of a “Temperature Brigade” of medical personnel who are visiting MTA employees at 22 locations to check their temperatures.

The MTA said it is taking the temperature of about 2,000 employees a day. Anyone 100.4 degrees or higher is sent home and instructed to seek medical guidance. About one out of every 1,000 employees checked has shown signs of a fever, the agency said.

About 1,500 MTA employees have tested positive for COVID-19, including 41 who have died. 

NYC could tighten restrictions

Earlier Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said restrictions imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus could be loosened by May or June, depending on indicators like infection rates.

But at any point, measures to mandate social distancing could be tightened even more and “restrictions might have to go up,” de Blasio said.

Dr. Oxiris Barbot, New York City's health commissioner, said work-from-home recommendations would likely continue "for a long time."

If certain indicators improve, some businesses could reopen and the city might allow "some very small number of gatherings," both with continued recommendations for face coverings for people who are at high risk, she said.

The news from the virus' toll on the city were still grim, though.

The city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said Thursday it would keep unclaimed bodies for 14 days, at its New York City facilities. After this time, these COVID-19 victims would be buried temporarily at Hart Island, the city’s potters field, though none had yet been interred there, the OCME said.

“For social distancing and safety reasons,” the Department of Correction is no longer using city prisoners to do burials at Hart Island, Jason Kersten, DOC press secretary, said in a statement Thursday. “Contracted laborers are performing this important work under DOC supervision.”

Hart Island workers always have been provided with personal protective equipment as they dig trenches for burials, Kersten said.

Region's hospitals stressed

Northwell Health said Thursday that the 3,300 COVID-19 patients it has in its 19 hospitals — 11 of them on Long Island — has remained stable the last three days.

"It's fluctuating slightly, because last night we did go up to 3,400," spokesman Terry Lynam said. "So, we are at the plateau, and we didn't expect the drop to be right away."

The New Hyde Park-based health system is discharging between 450 and 500 patients daily, he said.

Still, most of Northwell's hospitals are stressed, he said,

Long Island Jewish Medical Center is at full ICU capacity, LIJ Valley Stream is at 96% ICU capacity, and Southside Hospital in Bay Shore is at 96% capacity and 93% ICU capacity. Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson is also at capacity, Lynam said.

Lynam said after converting bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machines and anesthesia machines, it has about 1,100 ventilators, and about 75% are in use.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is making it difficult for people to fill certain prescriptions, pharmacists said.

Maintenance drugs routinely used to combat high blood pressure, as well as certain asthma inhalers, are often on back order at pharmacies, said Nidhin Mohan, owner of New Island Pharmacy in Deer Park.

"Wholesalers who usually deliver twice per day have cut down to once per day," he said. "So it's been a mess."

Mohan said it's difficult to certain obtain drugs, including Losartan, a blood pressure drug, and Albuterol, an asthma inhaler. 

"It comes and goes," he said. "It's the same with masks, vitamin C, Tylenol and other items."

Suffolk testing in hot spots

In Suffolk, officials plan to open coronavirus testing sites this week in Riverhead and Brentwood, communities with large numbers of cases, Bellone said. One test site opened at Huntington High School on Wednesday.

The targeted communities have large populations of immigrants and people of color, he said. The program will bring residents in for testing by appointment only and provide guidance about social distancing, staying home to recover and only going to the hospital if absolutely necessary, he said.

The tests will be operated by HRHcare, the agency that runs county clinics, officials said. 

Bellone announced that a logistics company, REEF Technology, will be donating tents and logistics support at those new testing sites. “We can prevent hospitals and emergency rooms from becoming overwhelmed,” Bellone said.

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