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NY to launch coronavirus tracing with Bloomberg's help

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday said the number of hospitalizations, new cases, intubations and deaths attributed to the coronavirus continue a downward trend. Credit: NY Governor's Office

ALBANY — Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will lead a massive effort to recruit and train a medical “tracing army” to find people infected with coronavirus and isolate them to slow the spread of the disease, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday.

Bloomberg will contribute $10 million to the effort, which will be run through the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. It will design the curriculum and training programming for the 35,000 medical students expected to work as tracers. The state Department of Health will work with the State University of New York and City University to identify and recruit students.

Officials say wide-scale testing, tracing and isolation are considered crucial to taming the coronavirus outbreak in the downstate region -— and one of the keys to lifting stay-at-home orders.

The tracing program is one of three major testing-related initiatives underway in New York, where the pandemic has claimed at least 15,000 lives.

 “We’re all eager to begin loosening restrictions on our daily lives and our economy,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “But in order to do that as safely as possible, we first have to put in place systems to identify people who may have been exposed to the virus and support them as they isolate.”

The most recent stimulus package, approved by the Senate this week, calls for an estimated $1.5 billion for New York to conduct tracing. A Cuomo aide said it was unclear if this would cover the eventual full costs of tracing because it was uncertain how long the project would take.

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The plan will be coordinated with New Jersey and Connecticut.

“It all has to be coordinated. There is no tracing that can work with one jurisdiction,” Cuomo said at his daily briefing at the State Capitol. "You don't have months to plan and do this. You have weeks. Super ambitious."

Cuomo and Bloomberg called the tristate coordination unprecedented.

Given that New York alone has more than 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, indicating millions of others likely have been in contact with an infected person, Cuomo conceded tracers can’t run down every single contact. But reaching as many as possible is the goal.

“Will you be identifying more people than you could ever possibly trace? Yes,” the governor said.

Besides tracers, the state has begun a random survey of customers in downstate grocery stores to detect the presence of coronavirus antibodies and whether somebody has been infected. The goal, the state says, is to get 3,000 people tested. The results could give health experts a gauge of how many people are infected, though some have debated the accuracy of the tests.

In Los Angeles, where antibody tests already are underway, the University of Southern California says early results indicate “infections from the new coronavirus are far more widespread — and the fatality rate much lower — in L.A. County than previously thought.”

The third leg of research is the ongoing diagnostic testing — often referred to as the nasal swab test — of people who show symptoms or have been in contact with others infected. The state has been testing about 20,000 people daily at hospitals, drive-thru testing centers and other venues. Cuomo would like it increased to 40,000 by mid-May, an administration official said.

Cuomo traveled to Washington to meet with President Donald Trump on Tuesday to discuss testing — particularly for the federal government to provide more help in securing a supply chain for tests. Trump said the federal government will “work together” with national manufacturers to help states secure more coronavirus test kits.

According to state officials, tracers would interview people who have tested positive for the virus to identify people they may have been in contact with while ill, reaching out to those contacts to alert them to a potential infection and then referring them to medical providers. Contacts who aren’t ill would be asked to stay at home for 14 days to prevent them from spreading the virus to others.

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