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Quiet island amid coronavirus response: hospitals to add capacity as cases top 20,000; 3,900 on Long Island

On Monday, Long Islanders adjusted to a new

On Monday, Long Islanders adjusted to a new way of life with non-essential businesses shuttered at the order of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, as he ordered hospitals to increase their capacity by a minimum of 50%. 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 Robert Brodsky, Alfonso A. Castillo, Vera Chinese, Jesse Coburn, Lisa L. Colangelo, Candice Ferrette, Nicole Fuller, Bart Jones, Michael O'Keeffe, John Valenti and David M. Schwartz. It was written by Jones.

Traffic was ominously sparse on the Long Island Expressway on Monday morning during what would normally be a bumper-to-bumper rush hour.

Dog walkers and families taking strolls vanished on the cold and dreary day. Golf courses and driving ranges in Nassau County were shut down, all tee times and reservations canceled until further notice.

This rainy Monday was the first full day of the state's closure of all nonessential businesses due to the coronavirus crisis. An eerie calm hung over Long Island and much of the state.

The only businesses that were allowed to be open — including convenience stores, supermarkets, pharmacies — had packed parking lots with people looking to stock up for what to some seemed almost like a local version of Armageddon.

As the region came to its greatest standstill yet amid the crisis, the number of cases in New York State soared past 20,000, making it the epicenter in the United States and outpacing countries such as France and South Korea in number of cases. Long Island, one of the hot spots, accounted for nearly 4,000 of those cases.

Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, urged New Yorkers to follow social distancing measures, noting the state’s high infection rate compared with other states.

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 "The New York metro area of New Jersey, New York City and parts of Long Island have an attack rate close to one in 1,000. This is five times what the other areas are seeing,” Birx said at a White House briefing. “So to all of my friends and colleagues in New York, this is the group that needs to absolutely social distance and self-isolate at this time."

Despite the booming numbers, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said they will go "dramatically" higher, and the crisis is just beginning.

From Albany, he issued an emergency order for hospitals to increase their bed capacity by 50%. Cuomo said he hoped hospitals could increase their capacity by even 100%, though he acknowledged that might not be feasible.

"I see a wave that will break at one point," Cuomo said of the number of rising cases, "and the question is, what is the point of the break … does it crash over the health care system?"

He repeated calls for retired medical personnel to volunteer to help address the crisis.

Cuomo also called for a crackdown on people who continue to congregate in crowds; urged the federal government to step in to buy critical protective gear for doctors and nurses; asserted the state is now delivering some of those supplies, and said New York is doing more testing per capita than China and South Korea — referring to their testing levels as "the gold standard."

He said Monday that construction was getting underway to turn the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan into a temporary 1,000-bed hospital, which could be ready in as little as week. Work was also to start to create extra beds or new hospital facilities at Stony Brook University Hospital and on the campus of SUNY Old Westbury.

Cuomo said the state logged 5,700 new cases of the COVID-19 virus overnight. The bulk are in New York City, which had about 3,260 new positives since Sunday. The city government released updated numbers Monday night, saying there were 13,119 confirmed cases, with 125 confirmed deaths. The city's tally of confirmed cases is higher than the state's city count of 12,305 confirmed cases. 

The numbers on Long Island continued to jump: Nassau County has 2,442 cases, with 542 new positives. Suffolk County has 1,458, with 424 new positives.

There have been 463 deaths nationwide, and as of Monday morning, 157 in New York State, according to state figures.

Two more people have died of the virus in Nassau, bringing the total there to nine deaths, County Executive Laura Curran said. One person died in Suffolk, bringing its total to 13, said County Executive Steve Bellone, who is self-quarantined himself after a top aide was stricken with coronavirus.

Peconic Landing, a Greenport retirement and life-care community where four people have died from coronavirus, reported a fifth resident died of coronavirus on Monday. The 88-year-old man was diagnosed March 22 and had no preexisting conditions, Peconic Landing said in a statement.

The facility also reported a new case, but in a previously unaffected wing of the facility. 

A total of 19 residents of the community have been diagnosed with the virus, including the five who died.

"We are still in the relative calm before the storm," Cuomo said. "You’re going to see the number of infections, the number of cases, increase dramatically. You are going to see an overcapacity of our health system. You will see more people coming into the health system than we can handle."

Cuomo said part of the jump in numbers is due to the increase in state testing. In 10 days, New York has gone from testing 1,000 people a day to 16,000 people a day, he said. That is "more than any other state in the United States.”

Some good news came as Mayor Bill de Blasio said New York City was receiving 400 ventilators Monday from a federal stockpile. The respirators are needed for hospitalized patients who have trouble breathing.

"I'm very grateful the federal government is making that first step," de Blasio said.

President Donald Trump, speaking at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing, said the federal government has shipped “73 pallets of personal protective equipment to New York City” and is “working to help” the state “obtain large quantities” of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine that is being tested as a treatment for COVID-19.

Trump said the federal government had distributed 10,000 units of hydroxychloroquine and the anti-bacterial drug know as Z-Pak to be used in combination on infected New Yorkers.

Seeking the public's cooperation

Cuomo lambasted people in New York City who continue to ignore government guidelines to stay at home, go out only for essentials like food shopping or some exercise, and stay six feet from others when outside the home.

“You could look at a park in Brooklyn, Manhattan, it almost looked like any Saturday, any sunny Saturday," he said. "It's reckless."

As the number of coronavirus cases grow, he said the state is sending supplies to Long Island, New York City and other areas to alleviate a shortage of supplies. Doctors, nurses and other health care workers have complained that they are facing a critical shortage of protective gear such as N95 masks, impermeable gowns and gloves.

He said, for instance, that nearly 34,000 surgical masks were on their way to Long Island, along with 86,000 pairs of gloves.

"There is no one in this state today who … can say legitimately, 'I can't get a mask,' " Cuomo said. “Today we can get masks to anyone who needs them, and gowns.”

Cuomo repeated his calls for Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act, which would order manufacturers to produce the protective gear and other essential items such as ventilators. Instead, Cuomo said, states are looking for these supplies on their own and competing and even bidding against each other amid price gouging.

“This is not the way to do it," he said. "This is ad hoc."

He said that a mask that the state used to pay 85 cents for now costs $7.

Cuomo also rejected suggestions by Trump that it may be time to loosen "social distancing" directives and other steps to slow the spread.

Cuomo said he had "no second thoughts" about shutting down much of New York's economy by halting nonessential businesses. But he also said the shutdown is unsustainable and he is thinking about how to restart the economy at some point.

"You can’t stop the economy forever," he said.

Asked about the president’s comments, Cuomo responded that “you have to walk and chew gum in life” and no executive “has the luxury of being one-dimensional.”

Despite the overall grim outlook, Cuomo urged calm among the populace, stressing that most people who get coronavirus survive and that his stay-at-home directive is giving people valuable family time together.

As if to illustrate the point, he had one of his daughters, Cara Kennedy Cuomo, at the dais with him during Monday's news conference in Albany, saying the human rights worker is volunteering in the state's coronavirus fight.

At the Javits Center, Cuomo said the Army Corps of Engineers will build four medical units with 250 beds each for a total of 1,000 new beds. These beds will provide a “backfill” for the hospitals. The hospital will be staffed by 350 federal health care workers.

The Corps may also construct another 1,000 beds at the center for a "lighter level" of medical care, he said. Construction is beginning immediately. Units could be ready in a week or 10 days. 

“This was never an anticipated use [for Javits]. But you do what you have to do. That is the New York way, that is the American way, and we are going to get this done.” 

Essential vs. nonessential

Meanwhile, the chairman of the MTA on Monday vowed that buses, subways and commuter railroads, including the LIRR, will continue to operate even if the region is directed to “shelter in place.”

The promise came as Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Patrick Foye also revealed that the number of MTA employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus has climbed to 30.

Foye assured that “the MTA will operate during the entire pandemic.”

“We are today, and in the days and weeks and months ahead if it goes that long, we'll be taking first responders to and from work,” Foye said.

Foye announced that, in order to better protect employees from the spread of the virus, the MTA is directing city bus riders to board from the rear doors. Although the MTA has not changed its fare policy on local buses, Foye said the “we don't expect to collect much revenue.”

Long Island’s two public bus providers, the Nassau Inter-County Express (NICE) and Suffolk County Transit, announced that they, too, were implementing rear-door boarding, with the first several rows of seats blocked off to create distance between bus riders and drivers. NICE is temporarily suspending fare collection.

“NICE Bus remains committed to the health, safety, and well-being of riders and employees,” NICE spokesman Jim Green said.

The state's semi-shutdown is also clearing traffic from Long Island’s roads, the New York State Department of Transportation said. The department “estimates that rush-hour traffic volumes on Long Island state roadways are as much as 50 percent lower than a typical weekday,” spokesman Joseph Morrissey said.

There was confusion in some industries Monday over just what businesses had to close under Cuomo's order.

Not until Monday afternoon did the state deem landscape maintenance and pest control essential, said Carol Isles, administrative director of the Long Island Nursery and Landscape Association.

That means mowing and spring yard cleanups could go on. Tree planting and new bed construction could not, she said.

She said the industry was working on guidelines to protect workers and help slow the spread of the virus, including possibly not crowding truck cabs with workers by sending additional vehicles where possible. 

Government workers also tried to figure out who should show up at work.

The state last week shut down DMV offices, and the federal government shut many IRS call centers and door-to-door field work on the U.S. census.

The state lottery on Monday was still up and running, though.

State Gaming Commission spokesman Brad Maione said the commission has “vastly reduced overall in-office staffing,” though he could not provide numbers, including how many lottery employees had to report to work on Long Island.

Dan Levler, president of Suffolk’s largest municipal union, said many workers, including county epidemiologists, public health nurses and sanitarians, still have to report. Other workers are reprising their roles.

School crossing guards, for example, have been volunteering at the county’s 311 call center.

Bellone said the county was studying the impact of the economic shutdown.

“This is just really a slice of the problem but an indication of where this is going and what we are facing — we had reported nearly 4,000 furloughed or laid-off employees directly to our business response unit," he said. Many work in the restaurant and bar industry, he said.

TO HELP IN CORONAVIRUS FIGHT

  • The Nassau County Police Department is requesting medical supplies, including N95 surgical masks, eye protection, Nitrile rubber gloves, disposable gowns, shoe covers, no-touch thermometers, HEPA filters for ventilators and anesthesia machines, antibacterial and disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizer. Donations will be accepted at Field 3 of Eisenhower Park on Park Boulevard in Westbury. Collection hours will be 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and then again from March 30 to April 3.
  • In Suffolk County, a medical safety equipment drive is ongoing, officials said. The drive yielded 40,000 gloves, more than 3,000 N95 masks, 1,500 gowns and more than 3,000 ear loop masks as of Monday since its Saturday launch, the county said. Donations can be dropped between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays at the Suffolk County Fire Academy, located at 102 East Ave. in Yaphank. For large donations of supplies, email FRESfinance@suffolkcountyny.gov.
  • The New York Blood Center said it is in urgent need of donors, since coronavirus concerns have resulted in "critically low blood and platelet appointments" across Long Island. The NYBC has six centers in Nassau and Suffolk and said safety protocols are in place as they urge healthy individuals, who have not been exposed to coronavirus, to donate. The NYBC said if you are unsure if you can donate, you can ask their experts at 800-688-0900.

SOURCES: Nassau County, New York Blood Center, Suffolk County.

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