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NewsHealthCoronavirus

Cuomo: NYC subway shutting down in early morning hours to clean trains; COVID-19 tracing 'army' to be assembled

Government officials on Thursday said contact tracing is the key to safely reopening the economy, while also detailing a plan to keep the rails safe for essential workers. Here’s the latest in Newsday's daily coronavirus wrap-up video. Credit: Newsday staff; YouTube / NYGovCuomo; Facebook / Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

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, Matthew Chayes, Scott Eidler, Candice Ferrette, John Hildebrand, Bart Jones and David Reich-Hale. It was written by Jones.

New York will shut down the city's subway system from 1 to 5 a.m. to disinfect the entire fleet of trains every 24 hours, and avoid exposing essential workers to coronavirus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday.

Long Island Rail Road and Metro North trains — which along with the subway are part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — also will be disinfected every 24 hours, he said, though no shutdowns of those systems will be required. Buses in New York City will be cleaned daily, too.

“This is going to be one of the most aggressive, creative, challenging undertakings that the MTA has done,” said Cuomo, who effectively controls the agency. “The MTA is undertaking something that people would have said was virtually impossible.”

He added: “Just think about it: The entire public transit system in downstate New York will be disinfected every 24 hours.”

The service suspension will begin Wednesday, he said.

The regularly scheduled closure of the subway system, one of the largest in the world and one of the few that runs around the clock, is considered extraordinary.

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Except for shutdowns lasting days or hours due to blizzards, blackouts, floods, strikes or the 9/11 terrorist attack, the city's subway system has operated continuously for 24 hours a day for more than 115 years, since the first subway ran in 1904.

“This is an unprecedented time, and that calls for unprecedented action to protect the safety, security and health of our system for customers and employees,” MTA chairman Patrick Foye said.

Cuomo's move was triggered by reports that the subways have become "filthy" and "disgusting," as he had said Wednesday, and become inundated by homeless people who are not wearing masks.

He described the deterioration as a public health risk and an insult to essential workers trying to get to jobs in which they were helping to save the lives of people amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The subway trains deteriorated partly because many MTA and police employees were out sick with coronavirus, meaning fewer people to monitor and maintain them, he said. Ridership is down 92%, but many essential workers rely on the subways to get to work.

Cuomo noted that everything from turnstiles to seats to handrails will need disinfecting.

The subways, buses and LIRR trains were being disinfected every 72 hours before the new edict.

The MTA will launch an “Essential Connector Program” in which buses, “dollar vans” and, if necessary, for-hire vehicles such as Uber and Lyft will be available to transport essential workers when the subway system is closed, Cuomo said.

The rides will be free for essential workers.

Cuomo was joined by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in a rare, joint appearance via videoconferencing as they explained the importance of making sure people who have to ride the trains to work are safe from exposure to the coronavirus.

"We’ve all been thrown the biggest curveball of our lives with this pandemic," de Blasio said, "but look at the consistent heroism” of health care workers, first responders and grocery store workers.

“It’s probably the proudest moment” as public servants to preside over the city and state governments in this pandemic and see those workers' dedication, de Blasio said. 

The essential workers “go into battle, they go toward the danger, they go where the infection is," he said. "We also owe it to them to be safe” on the way to their workplaces and “to go back home to their families.”

De Blasio said the unprecedented step, which will require outreach and assistance to homeless people who sleep in train cars, will lead to a subway system that "will be cleaner than ever." 

"We come together and we rise to the occasion," Cuomo said. "We have the beast on the retreat," he said of the virus. "We are making ground every day … We just have to keep it up."

Cuomo said the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North lines can do the cleaning work "without any disruption" due to lower demand. LIRR service has been curtailed 30% since late March.

One commuter advocate was wary of the planned subway shutdown.

"Even during a crisis, New York is and will be a 24/7 city," Riders Alliance executive director Betsy Plum said. "Governor Cuomo's suspension of subway service must be strictly temporary while a longer-term solution is developed and implemented. And, in the meantime, the governor must ensure that riders have access to safe, reliable and frequent replacement bus service."

Not so fast on reopening

Meanwhile, in Nassau, County Executive Laura Curran on Thursday backed off on her statements that the county was close to reopening.

Curran, who said Monday that Nassau was in “striking distance” of beginning to reopen, acknowledged Thursday that she often has to “temper” her enthusiasm.

“Sometimes, I feel like I have to throw a little bit of cold water on myself, because we have to make sure that we’re doing things safely,” she said. “We have to remember that in Nassau County, we still have incredibly high infection rates as compared to the rest of the state.”

Curran went on: “The upstate region is different from the downstate region. They don’t have the same kind of infection that we’ve seen. The timelines for reopening will be different, the strategies for reopening will be different. We just got our hospitals to the point where they’re getting back capacity, [and] we don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes that. So, as I say, sometimes I have to temper my own enthusiasm, we have to remember that we still have that high infection rate and that our timeline and our strategies will be different from other regions.”

'A tracing army'

New York State also will focus its efforts on tracing the contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19 in a massive operation that will cross state lines and need to reach thousands of people to help contain the virus' spread, Cuomo said during his daily coronavirus briefing in Albany.

He was joined by videoconference by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the wealthy philanthropist helping to fund and lead the charge. They vowed to mount an extraordinary effort that will require "a tracing army" expected to number between 6,400 and 17,000.

Bloomberg called it "a very big undertaking," but said "contact tracing is our best hope for isolating the virus when it appears, and keeping it isolated."

The project to test, trace contacts and isolate infected people will be key to reopening the New York economy in a safe manner, Cuomo said.

"We want the best system that we can have to get New York open, and to protect New Yorkers, but it will also be a laboratory … so we can share that with other governments,” Cuomo said.

As an example of the scope of the tracing effort, Cuomo said the state tallied 4,681 new positives on Wednesday alone, and the goal will be to find every person who came in contact with those individuals for the two weeks before their diagnoses.

“How do you now communicate with 4,681 people?" to trace back and contact the people they may have exposed, Cuomo asked. "That is an overwhelming scale to an operation that has never existed before.”

Daily death toll decreasing 

Statewide, the daily coronavirus death toll dropped to 306, Cuomo said Thursday, a sharp drop from the peak of nearly 800 three weeks ago.

Nassau added 22 new deaths, for a total of 1,700, while Suffolk also added 22 new deaths, for a total of 1,177.

Other indicators statewide also continued to decline, state figures showed. Total hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients dropped below 12,000 for the first time in a month, and was down from a peak of nearly 19,000 a few weeks ago.

The number of new coronavirus patients being admitted to a hospital was below 1,000 for the third straight day, at 933, and down from a peak of more than 3,100 about a month ago.

The governor said he plans to announce Friday his plans for schools, which he ordered shut statewide in mid-March. De Blasio already has stated city schools will not reopen this academic year, but Cuomo argued he alone as governor has the authority to decide.

A summer round of state Regents exams, originally scheduled for Aug. 13-14, is being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, education officials said Thursday. The latest announcement follows unprecedented action taken earlier this month by the state Education Department to cancel the biggest round of exams, which had been set for June 17-25.

About 150,000 Regents exams are typically administered statewide in August, and about 1.7 million in June.

Authorities have waived testing that is normally required for high school graduation, in the case of students who cannot take exams due to the health crisis. Testing scheduled for January remains on the calendar.

'A phased-in reopening'

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Thursday said he is focused on a phased-in reopening of eastern Long Island’s economy, including putting together guidelines on how to safely deal with summer season tourism and activity.

“This is a month in which we’ve experienced great pain and grief and tragedy. But it is also a month in which we’ve seen great hope, strength and recovery,” Bellone said. “We end this month in a far better place than we began.”

Key metrics to begin a phased reopening of the economy such as hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions continued to decline.

The number of patients being treated in the county’s hospitals was 970 — below 1,000 for the first time since March 31, Bellone said. Suffolk's hospital system is at about 70% bed capacity. 

Suffolk added 399 new coronavirus cases, for a total of 33,664, state figures released Thursday showed. Nassau added 349 new cases, for a total of 35,854 cases.

New York State added 4,681 new cases, for a total of 304,372. New York City added 2,637 new positives, for a total of 167,478, the state figures show.

On May 5, Suffolk will be past the 14 days of declining hospitalizations, Bellone said. He cautioned against reopening without practicing social distancing, wearing masks and observing other guidelines to protect public health.

Starting Monday, the county, in partnership with the state and Northwell Health hospitals, will begin mass testing of its police for COVID-19 antibodies. He said the contact tracing program will need to be established in order to contain the virus.

“The worst thing that could happen is reopening the economy and then see a surge in cases,” Bellone said.

In other government efforts, de Blasio said free face coverings will be distributed in municipal parks by New York City's government — 100,000, starting this week.

The program will focus on the “hardest-hit communities and high-traffic parks,” according to a slide at his virtual news conference.

“Everyone needs to have a face covering on,” de Blasio said

Since mid-April, Cuomo has mandated face coverings to combat the spread of the coronavirus, an extension of his March order banning public gatherings.

On Tuesday, de Blasio traveled to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to personally oversee the NYPD’s dispersal of several thousand mourners illegally gathered for a rabbi’s funeral procession. On Wednesday, the mayor reiterated that such gatherings wouldn’t be tolerated because they spread the virus and “people will die because of it.”

Then, early Thursday night, the NYPD broke up another illegal gathering in an Orthodox neighborhood — hundreds outside at a funeral procession in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, according to a department spokesman, who said a 17-year-old boy was detained and issued a summons after pushing a cop.

Yet fewer COVID-19 patients

Northwell Health said Thursday the number of COVID-19 patients at its 19 hospitals dropped to 1,752, a nearly 48% decline from a peak of about 3,360.

Northwell, which operates 11 Long Island hospitals, said it has 1,667 hospitalized patients who do not have COVID-19.

"We are close to having more patients who do not have COVID," spokesman Terry Lynam said.

NYU Winthrop in Mineola, part of a different hospital network, said it was taking down a large tent that was erected to help manage patients suspected of having COVID-19. Winthrop was removing external and internal equipment in the tent, and the walls will be removed Monday, a hospital spokeswoman said.

NYU Winthrop has seen a 50% decline in COVID-19 patients since the peak earlier this month.

In Washington, President Donald Trump made several announcements Thursday on steps to combat COVID-19 in nursing homes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will send supplemental personal protective equipment to all certified nursing homes nationwide, Trump said. The federal government also will require nursing homes to report all coronavirus cases and notify sickened residents’ family members.

Cuomo previously ordered New York to do so.

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