Popular restaurants and bars on Long Island were packed on weekends. The Islanders played to sold-out crowds at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. Students brushed against each other in school hallways. The economy was humming along.
That was a month ago, when COVID-19 was a problem somewhere else. There were no cases on the Island the first few days of March, and no outward sign the virus would spread widely within the United States.
Looking back to before the first Long Island case was diagnosed on March 5, “My sense is it was here, and it was present, and it was being transmitted,” said Dr. Brian Harper, a former Suffolk County health commissioner and currently chief medical officer of academic health centers at the New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury. “After doing more testing, then you begin to realize how many we had.”
The first U.S. cases in late January, all out of state, involved people who had returned from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated.
In the space of a month, the number of Long Island cases has skyrocketed from that first case March 5, to eight by March 8, when the first COVID-19 diagnosis was confirmed in Suffolk County, to 430 on March 18, to 24,716 by Saturday.
Early on, public health officials’ focus was on people returning from Wuhan.
When Nassau on Jan. 24 announced a coronavirus test of someone who had “passed through” the county — it resulted negative — only people who recently had been to the Wuhan area, or had contact with someone who was in the region, and had flu-like symptoms, were being tested.
“While this is a serious public health threat, CDC continues to believe the immediate risk to the U.S. general public is low at this time,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Jan. 26.
The similarity between flu and COVID-19 symptoms made it difficult to grasp the virus’ spread without large-scale testing, Harper said.
By late January and February, “public health people and research people were expressing concern” because of the rapid spread of the disease in China and the potential for a pandemic, said Danielle Ompad, an associate professor of epidemiology at the New York University School of Global Public Health in Manhattan.
But, she said, “I’m not sure that everybody [policymakers] was taking it seriously.”
The fear was so focused on China through most of February that officials on Long Island and New York City crowded together at Asian-owned restaurants and other businesses that had suffered huge drops in customers because of coronavirus fears, to encourage residents to patronize them.
In Nassau and Suffolk, people who recently had returned from China and, later, other countries with early outbreaks, were told to self-isolate upon their return and were monitored.
“That’s classic public health containment strategy,” said Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Health Department. “You think of somebody that’s been in a risk area. You quarantine them so if they become symptomatic, they’re not spreading it to others.”
The first New York case, on March 1, was of a Manhattan woman who recently had been to what by then had become a hot spot, Iran, a point officials emphasized to tamp down fear.
“There is no reason for undue anxiety,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at the time. “The general risk remains low in New York.”
The first Long Island case was “community spread,” meaning the source of infection was unknown, as was the first Suffolk case March 8.
Pigott recalled how he and other public health officials initially were following CDC guidance that zeroed in on China and, later, other countries. Testing was for people who had a travel history, he said.
When testing rules loosened, “Then all of a sudden we’re seeing all these positive cases of people who had not traveled. And it was like, oh, it’s here now.”
Nassau health department officials declined to comment on how they reacted to initial cases there, spokeswoman Mary Ellen Laurain said.
Initially, both counties tried to find all those who had been in contact with people who tested positive, so they would self-isolate. As the numbers mounted, that became impossible.
Schools and universities began canceling classes after employees and students tested positive or developed symptoms, until on March 15 all Long Island and New York City schools were ordered closed. Cuomo first restricted capacity at venues like bars and restaurants, and then closed them completely to all but takeout and delivery, before shutting down nonessential businesses statewide.
Today, nearly one in 10 of the more than 1.16 million cases worldwide are in New York State. Nearly 3,600 New Yorkers had died of the disease as of Saturday, with the peak impact still expected to be days or weeks away.
“I didn’t imagine it would get to this point this quickly,” Harper said.
But, he said, “I knew it had the potential to. This was a new disease so it was very difficult to predict which way it would go.”
With Andrew Gross
The number of COVID-19 cases on Long Island has gone from 1 to 24,716 in a month.
- March 5: 1
- March 12: 56
- March 19: 611
- March 26: 6,649
- April 4: 24,716
SOURCES: Nassau, Suffolk and New York State health departments