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Cuomo sets standards for reopening NY as the virus wanes

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo during his

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo during his COVID-19 update today, April 27, 2020. Credit: NYS Governors Office

 ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday set standards for reopening New York after most of the state has been shuttered for more than a month to stem spread of the coronavirus.

“We've come up with a phased plan to reopen New York, so every region in the state has the same opening template as we begin this process,” Cuomo said Tuesday.

The standards for hospitals include having enough beds for a potential return bout of COVID-19 when the traditional flu season begins in September, and watching closely the projected infection rate that is now only narrowly in an acceptable range.

Cuomo said hospitals in a region must have at least 30% of their beds and at least 30% of their intensive care unit beds available before that region can reopen. 

“If you hit 70 percent (of hospital capacity), you can expect the number to go up for the next two weeks as people get infected,” Cuomo said. Currently, every hospital has expanded capacity by at least 50% under an emergency measure that temporarily relaxed several regulations for room size and other criteria.

Cuomo didn’t detail the plan further. Cuomo spokesmen didn’t respond to questions about the plan, such as whether the hospital capacity requirement applies only to space needed for COVID-19 patients or for all patients.

As of Monday, Suffolk County’s hospitals were at 71.2% capacity, with 974 beds available out of total of 3,395. ICU beds were at 71.6% capacity, with 220 beds available out of 776 ICU beds. Updated numbers for Nassau County weren't available.

Cuomo also said testing must show the infection rate is below 1.1 people for every infected person, and probably below 1.0 persons to be safe. The current infection rate statewide is 0.8 persons for every infected person, he said.

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“If the transmission hits 1.1, that’s what we call an outbreak,” Cuomo said. “That means it’s going to spread much, much faster.”

Thirdly, hospitalization rates in a region must decline for at least 14 straight days and stockpiles of personal protective equipment, including masks and gowns, must be available. Further, regions must have “tracers” hired and trained to trace the contacts of those that are found through testing to have the coronavirus to see who they may have infected. Another major requirement is that regions have isolation quarters — likely hotel rooms — ready to be used to take infected patients so they don’t have to return home and infect relatives, which has been a problem, Cuomo said.

Spokesmen for the Greater New York Hospital Association and the Healthcare Association of New York State didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Cuomo’s plan.

Cuomo said setting that data points will be applied to all 10 regions before the regions can reopen. He hasn’t, however, approved any region or county to start reopening when his executive order that closed most of the economy expires May 15. So far, the only upstate regions that appear to at or near the criteria outlined Tuesday are upstate, where there are relatively few infections.

Construction and manufacturing businesses using new precautionary measures such as social distancing will be reopened first. A decision on schools is expected by the end of the week, although Cuomo said Tuesday, “I don’t know if you can open business on a large scale unless you open schools.”

Once reopened, hospitalization rates and other data points will be watched closely. If the standards aren’t met, they would act as “circuit breakers” that would trigger closing down at least some businesses and schools to keep the virus in check, Cuomo said.

“That’s the balance,” Cuomo said. “Reopen, but don’t infect more people or overwhelm hospital capacity.”

The data points are recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The additional guidelines regions must follow to reopen include: Testing of people with symptoms, people in contact with infected people and essential workers such as those in health care and public transit; expanded and improved use of telemedicine; “regional control rooms” to closely monitor hospitalization rates, and other triggers that could close businesses.

With Sandra Peddie and Matt Clark

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