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NY projecting plateau in coronavirus outbreak, but deaths surge past 5,400

On Tuesday, elected officials said thst social distancing appears to be slowing down the coronavirus, but warned the public not to take that good news as a green light to get back to normal. Credit: Newsday staff; YouTube / NYGovCuomo, Facebook / Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran

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, Matthew Chayes, Zachary R. Dowdy, Scott Eidler, Michael Gormley, Bart Jones, David Reich-Hale, Antonio Planas, Yancey Roy and Olivia Winslow. It was written by Jones.

New York State on Tuesday reported its highest number of deaths in a single day from coronavirus, even as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said there are signs the outbreak is plateauing and spoke tentatively about looking at steps to restart the economy, and life in general.

The additional 731 deaths — a jump from the previous day's increase of 599 — came after the daily toll had stabilized for several days, adding up to a statewide toll of 5,489 lives lost to COVID-19.

But Cuomo also said the numbers of hospitalizations, ICU admissions and intubations have been dropping or stabilizing, hopeful signs for a state desperate for some good news.

“We are changing the curve … You see that plateauing. That’s because of what we are doing,” he said at his daily news briefing in Albany. “Social distancing is working. That's why you see those numbers coming down.”

But, he added, "We have to keep doing it … This is not an act of God that we’re looking at. It’s an act of what society actually does."

New hospitalizations are a key figure because they may indicate where a population is headed on the "curve" in a pandemic. Deaths from COVID-19 typically occur days or weeks after a patient is hospitalized, meaning the death toll is considered a lagging indicator.

In another promising sign, Northwell Health, the largest health system in the state, said Tuesday it has seen a drop in the number of its COVID-19 patients for the first time since the pandemic hit New York.

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Still, the top officials in Nassau and Suffolk called the latest daily death tolls in those counties "staggering."

Statewide, the total of newly hospitalized COVID-19 patients rose, from 358 reported for Sunday's total to 656 reported for Monday's total. But the three-day average is trending down, Cuomo said.

There was a drop in admissions to intensive care units, from 128 to 89, in the same period, and intubations went down from 132 to 69. The number of people discharged from hospitals after treatment was 1,224, up slightly from 1,179 on Sunday.

“Right now we are projecting that we are reaching a plateau from the total number of hospitalizations," Cuomo said, as he showed graphs on a large screen. "And you can see the growth and you see it is starting to flatten.”

New York remained the national epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with 138,863 confirmed cases and the growing number of deaths, state figures showed.

Of the deaths, Cuomo said: “We talk about numbers, but that’s 731 people who we lost. Behind every one of those numbers is an individual, is a family, is a mother, is a father, is a sister, is a brother, so a lot of pain.”

State figures showed that New York City's death toll rose past 4,000 on Tuesday, by far eclipsing the number killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

On Long Island, which both Cuomo and President Donald Trump have called a hot spot, the numbers pointed to a persistent and lethal virus. For nearly a week in Suffolk, and longer in Nassau, each county has logged close to or more than 1,000 new cases every day.

They did so again Tuesday, pushing Long Island's total of confirmed coronavirus cases to more than 31,000.

Nassau had 994 new positives on Tuesday, for 16,610 total cases, state figures show. Of 620 people who have died in Nassau as of Monday, 500 were county residents.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran on Tuesday called that a "pretty staggering number of deaths" in the county, up from 381 the day before.

Suffolk had 1,030 new positives, for a total of 14,517 cases, according to state figures. Of 266 people who died in Suffolk as of Monday, 263 were county residents.

The 64 new fatalities reported in Suffolk was "a staggering number," Bellone said. "It is a stark reminder to us about what is happening in those hospitals and what those health care workers are facing.”

Underscoring the severity of the crisis, Bellone said the medical examiner’s office still has space in its morgue, but officials have brought in two mobile refrigerated trailers — including one from the state and one purchased by the county — to expand capacity if needed.

Earlier Tuesday, he said the crisis has caused him to discuss things he never thought he would, such as morgue space and “do we have enough body bags.”

Suffolk officials will use a refrigerated building in Yaphank to store the bodies of coronavirus victims if the county morgue reaches capacity, said Jason Elan, a spokesman for Bellone. Currently, Elan said, the morgue and two trailers the county has borrowed from the state are about half full.

“We’re utilizing this facility in the event that we come up to issues of capacity,” he said, adding that the Yaphank building has not been used for about five years. “Our team last week identified this site as a potential location.”

During his afternoon briefing, Trump said Tuesday he will “put a hold” on U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, the international body with 194 member states that monitors health threats across borders. Trump said “they missed the call” on the coronavirus pandemic and that they “called it wrong” and seem to be “very China-centric.”

Hospitals seeing change

Meanwhile, Northwell Health, based in New Hyde Park, said Tuesday it has 3,355 COVID-19 patients at its hospitals, down from 3,387 on Monday. 

"We started tracking this statistic in mid-March," spokesman Terry Lynam said. "The other encouraging sign is the number of discharges of COVID patients jumped to more than 400 yesterday. That's the highest one-day of discharges we've had since all this started."

Northwell had an ICU occupancy rate of 84% on Tuesday, compared to 88% on Monday at the 19 hospitals it operates in the region. Eleven of those hospitals are on Long Island.

Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, LIJ-Valley Stream and Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson are at capacity, he said.

Curran said the number of healthy discharges of COVID-19 patients in the last day, 151 people, was nearly double the number of new admissions at 85 new patients.

"If that trend continues, that means this really is a plateau and that does give us a ray of hope," she said.

Despite those promising trends, Bellone urged caution.

“You start to hear we’re turning a corner here, you start thinking I can do more of what I normally do. My response is, do not do that,” Bellone said, noting officials need more data.

"Even if we’re hitting that high mark or plateau, that intensity level in our hospitals is putting a strain on them unlike anything we’ve ever seen," he said.

Cuomo said despite all the numbers, the deaths are heart-wrenching for him and others.

"The last thing I do is get numb," Cuomo said. "I can tell you for the hospital staff that go through this, they are not getting numb. For the families … they are not getting numb … When you have to put bodies in trucks, in parking lots, I mean, how could you get numb to any of this?"

Restarting the economy

Cuomo said he and Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut are discussing plans to restart the economy after the crisis peaks, "because this really operates as a tristate area."

The states have to plan ahead, because "we have to restart that economy, we have to restart a lot of systems that we shut down abruptly … We’re not there yet. But this is not a light switch that we can just flick one day and everything goes back to normal.”

The states, he said, may bring workers back to the economy as they are tested and cleared of the virus, or found to have had the virus and possibly developed immunity to it.

New York State has been looking into antibody testing and is awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he said. The governor put out a call to private companies, as the state hopes to scale current testing efforts to the large population across New York.

Health experts estimate that anywhere from 25% to 50% of people who have or had COVID-19 feel or exhibit no symptoms.

Cuomo stressed that life will have to restart well before COVID-19 is completely wiped out.

“You’re not going to end the infection and end the virus before you start restarting life,” he said. “I don’t think you have that luxury.”

New York will need federal help

Cuomo said that, for any plan to restart life in New York to work, the federal government will have to step in to assist.

“The state budget, not just this state, but every state budget has been decimated by this situation,” he said. “Our budget just collapsed” as businesses were forced to shut down and revenue to the state plummeted.

“You want to restart the economy, you have to help restart the local governments and that’s going to be a federal act,” he said.

While Congress already has passed a $2 trillion stimulus package, “It was woefully inadequate from New York’s point of view,” he said, adding that he since has had time to study the legislation.

“It actually gets worse when you read it, and it’s not even what was represented to us initially,” he said. “The passed legislation did good for the nation, I have no doubt … But it was not fair to New York, and that has to be remedied in any legislation that goes forward.”

On Tuesday, Cuomo sent a letter to New York’s congressional delegation pleading for help to remedy the stimulus package.

“We are facing a loss of $10 billion to $15 billion in revenue solely as a result of the pandemic, and there has been absolutely no help to offset it,” Cuomo wrote.

“In the absence of significant federal assistance, the state has no option but to make reductions to critically needed state spending. You absolutely must find a path forward for the 1.7 million New Yorkers you voted to exclude from the legislation.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that New York City's government, buffeted by lower tax revenues and higher costs from the outbreak, would cut its budget by $1.3 billion during the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years. 

The cuts include savings such as $106 million from a hiring freeze and vacancy reductions; $100 million for school funding; $124 million for summer youth jobs, cuts in overtime and other programs at the city's jails also totaling $100 million, said his spokeswoman, Freddi Goldstein.

Other cuts include the postponement of the April NYPD officer class to July, for $9.6 million in savings; $3 million less for protected bike lane projects, and eliminating trash pickup, saving $1.5 million, in "Rat Zones."

One sign of the economic devastation inflicted by the shutdown is that the city distributed 2.6 million free meals in the last three weeks, de Blasio said.

Late Tuesday night in an interview on NBC about the pandemic, de Blasio warned of  “another onslaught” of the coronavirus like in Asia, where the first wave was under control before new cases emerged.  

“We know that we have to be ready for the possibility of resurgence,” de Blasio said. 

Some relief for hospitals

On the medical front, Cuomo said some help has arrived with Trump authorizing the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship dispatched to New York City last week, to treat COVID-19 patients.

However, the ship will handle 500 patients rather than 1,000.

Cuomo explained that COVID-19 patients “require greater treatment area, more space” than noncoronavirus patients. Initially the ship was to treat 1,000 non-COVID-19 patients, but Cuomo asked Trump to switch its mission since that is a greater need.

“The president, to his credit, moved expeditiously,” Cuomo said. Between the ship and the Jacob Javits Center, the city will have 3,000 extra beds for COVID-19 patients, “which is a welcome overload relief to the hospital system, which is already extraordinarily stressed.”

Cuomo backed away from a plan to use the National Guard if necessary to move ventilators from upstate hospitals to downstate ones and instead will rely on the state Health Department to facilitate transfers where needed.

His original idea, floated in a news conference last week, drew opposition from upstate congressional and legislative Republicans, as well as some hospital networks. The governor signed an executive order putting the policy in place, while leaving out any mention of the Guard or a mandate for hospitals.

Last week, the Cuomo administration had estimated it would ask upstate hospitals to temporarily loan about 500 ventilators to their downstate colleagues. Since then, the state has received ventilators from Oregon, California, Washington state and China.

Also on Tuesday, 5,000 N95 masks were delivered to two Long Island hospitals, Rep. Tom Suozzi  (D-Glen Cove) said in a statement. Glen Cove Hospital and Huntington Hospital each received 2,500 N-95 masks, which were secured by a group of nonprofits and Chinese American organizations, Suozzi said.

“In addition to flattening the curve and stopping the spread, we need to ensure that our health care workers and first responders have ample access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and that includes N95 masks,” Suozzi said. 

In a show of support and thanks Wednesday to medical staff at Stony Brook University Hospital, residents of Miller Place and Sound Beach will gather outside the hospital at 9:30 a.m. for a "Caravan for Heroes." Members of the group, with signs and banners, will then drive along the roundabout outside the facility, officials said.

In Suffolk, one problem has been the large numbers of cases in communities including Brentwood, Central Islip and Huntington Station. Bellone said officials are planning to launch a “hot spot testing program” for communities that have had a spike in cases and that typically have large immigrant and Spanish-speaking populations and are “difficult to communicate with” a language barrier.

Bellone said it will likely be administered by the county’s health center operator, HRHCare, at its clinics.

The state Health Department released data Tuesday showing that among those with underlying conditions who died from coronavirus up until April 5, the largest group were those with diabetes, 1,755. Others were: 872 with high blood pressure; 590 with coronary problems, 528 with renal issues; 421 with dementia; 421 with COPD; 401 with cancer and 337 with congestive heart failure.

With AP

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