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Cuomo: New York preparing for 'massive undertaking' ahead of COVID-19 vaccine

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday announced he is setting up a vaccine task force to handle how the vaccine will be distributed in New York State. Credit: NY Governor's Office

This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Catherine Carrera, Matthew Chayes and Joie Tyrrell. It was written by Brodsky.

New York State will launch "a massive undertaking" to review options for a COVID-19 vaccine and potentially procure up to 40 million doses ahead of the federal government's expected completion of the research process, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday.

During a Manhattan news conference, Cuomo announced the appointment of two task forces led by the State Health Department. The first task force, for which members have not yet been named, he said, would first study the efficacy of the vaccine — citing the Trump administration's "politicized" implementation of the process — and then a second 16-member vaccine task force will administer the drug's eventual distribution.

"I am not going to trust the federal government's opinion and I wouldn't recommend to New Yorkers based on the federal government's opinion," Cuomo said. "New York State will have its own review when the federal government is finished with their review and says it's safe."

If the state panel determines a vaccine is safe, Cuomo said a separate task force will then determine how to purchase, store and distribute the drug — potentially one that may require two doses — to 19.5 million state residents.

The committee, which includes Michael Dowling, president and chief executive of Long Island-based Northwell Health, also would focus on prioritizing who gets the shots first, establishing a wide-scale distribution network, tracking who has been vaccinated and launching a massive public education campaign.

"We should have the best vaccination program in the United States of America," Cuomo said. "I think the way that we have handled COVID has been a model for this country. I want New York State to be the same thing for vaccine. We should be the model vaccination program in the country."

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COVID-19 school report card

As students across the state return to the classroom, state officials Thursday unveiled a new feature in the state's COVID-19 Report Card that will allow the public — particularly concerned parents — to see state-licensed lab test results for students in their schools.

The report card adds a layer of data beyond what school districts already have been reporting to their local and state health departments.

The dashboard will provide data on how many teachers, staff and students have tested positive for the virus in each school and on what date. The report card, which will be updated daily, also will include information on how many students are enrolled for in-person classes and how many are full-time virtual learners.

"The goal here is to give parents and New Yorkers full transparency," said Gareth Rhodes, deputy superintendent and special counsel of the State Department of Financial Services. "If the school district isn't reporting all the cases they should, you'll at least have it from the labs."

While there could be discrepancies from day to day between the two data sources — based on the timing of when results are reported to the state — the additional information should allow parents to compare their district's results to others in the community, Cuomo said.

"It can give [parents] a sense of security, or it can give them a sense of concern," Cuomo said. "We want either or both, frankly. If there's concern in the school district, we want to know. And we can take action if the school district doesn't."

More Long Island schools closed

The advanced data comes as the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central, Northport-East Northport and Harborfields school districts announced temporary closures due to positive COVID-19 tests.

Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School was closed Thursday, and students were to participate in remote instruction due to a staff member testing positive for COVID-19, according to a letter Superintendent Mary O’Meara posted on the school's website.

The letter said those in close contact with the staffer will be notified by the district or the county health department. The individual will not be allowed to return to school for 10 days and must produce a negative COVID-19 test.

Northport High School also was closed Thursday after a positive test from a student who has not been inside the building since Sept. 17, according to a letter from Superintendent Robert L. Banzer. Northport High students participated in remote instruction Thursday.

The letter indicated that the youngster "may have had close contact with other students over the weekend."

The high school will remain closed Friday as the Suffolk Health Department carries on a contact tracing investigation, Banzer said Thursday in a notice to parents. Students would be expected to follow a remote learning schedule, he said.

He said he expects the school to reopen for in-person instruction by Tuesday.

"I am fully aware of the disruption and share the frustration this announcement causes," Banzer wrote. "It is my hope that we, as a community, can work together to prevent this from happening in the future."

Thomas J. Lahey Elementary School in Greenlawn, part of the Harborfields school system, temporarily shifted to full remote learning Wednesday after a student tested positive, Superintendent Francesco Ianni said in a letter posted on the district’s website.

The letter, dated Wednesday, said the Suffolk Health Department "was immediately contacted to initiate a contact tracing investigation. If you are considered a close contact, someone will be in touch with you."

The district closed Harborfields High School on Sept. 21 and 22 because of a positive case, according to a letter posted earlier on the district’s site. The high school resumed a hybrid schedule Wednesday, the district said.

'It's just dumb'

Statewide, the coronavirus infection rate ticked up Wednesday to 1.02%, with 955 of 92,953 test results coming back positive, officials said. Hospitalizations across the state increased by 10 to 55, while the number of patients in intensive care crept up by four to 145. There were two deaths, both in Brooklyn, bringing the state's total to 25,439.

"For the fall, let's learn from the summer," Cuomo said. "We've been through hell and back. Let's learn the lessons, and one of the basic lessons, if you don't wear a mask at this point, it's just dumb."

Long Island saw its positivity rate dip to 0.7% Wednesday, according to state data. In Nassau, 46 of 5,634 people tested positive, for an infection rate of 0.8%, while in Suffolk, 33 of 6,408 test results were positive, for an infection rate of 0.5%, the data shows.

"Since reopening, we have seen positive cases surrounding our schools, but I want to ensure residents that our Department of Health continues to work closely with all of our school districts to monitor cases and exposures to react quickly to contain the spread of this virus," Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said.

The State Liquor Authority and State Police Task Force visited 955 businesses in New York City and Long Island on Wednesday and found five, including four in Suffolk and one in Queens, not in compliance with state requirements.

Meanwhile, Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, both Democrats, called on Congress on Thursday to investigate the Trump administration's "politicization" of the pandemic response.

The governors cited reports that the White House blocked efforts by the Department of Health and Human Services to send five masks to every American household and allegations that Trump appointees published guidance, against objections from health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that people without COVID-19 symptoms do not need to be tested.

"It is an unarguable fact that the United States has had the worst response to the COVID-19 virus of any nation in the world," Cuomo and Whitmer said. "Nearly 7 million Americans have tested positive for the virus, and more than 200,000 Americans have been killed by it — both more than any other country. The unprecedented and unacceptable scale of this tragedy is the direct result of President Donald Trump and the federal government's deceit, political self-dealing, and incompetence."

Cluster concerns during Jewish holidays

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday said he wants to help New York City recover from the pandemic by making it a destination for public-health research with "high-quality jobs."

Details of the plan will be released in the coming weeks, de Blasio said in a news conference outside a new coronavirus testing lab near the East River in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Dr. Mitchell Katz, head of the city's public hospital system, said government public health officials were continuing to monitor several neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that represent 20% of COVID-19 cases in the city. Katz said he's concerned that the upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot, observed with prayer and meals in an enclosed space, could be a potential disease spreader.

"People typically meet together to celebrate, and so that's why we're going to redouble our efforts in all of the Brooklyn neighborhoods," Katz said, including messages in English and Yiddish urging people to practice social distance and wear masks.

Later Thursday, the health department threatened to reimpose restrictions starting Tuesday, including closing all non-essential businesses immediately in those and other neighborhoods, "if progress is not made."

"If the indicators continue to rise, there must be additional enforcement actions," the department said in a news release. "For the first time in the city's recovery period, there could be the immediate scaling back of activities in these ZIP codes if progress is not made by Monday evening," including prohibiting all gatherings of more than 10, issuing fines for failing to wear a mask even after being offered one, and closing private schools and child care facilities for failing to meet certain standards.

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