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Cuomo: New York reaching 'new heights' in COVID-19 testing and tracing

Health care workers photographed in June as they

Health care workers photographed in June as they waited to start testing for the coronavirus at South Ocean Care in Freeport. Credit: Howard Schnapp

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Lisa L. Colangelo, Scott Eidler, Bart Jones and David Olson. It was written by Colangelo and Jones.

The number of New Yorkers testing positive for COVID-19 remained under 1% for the fourth straight day, while the state hit a record high for tests given in one day, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday.

Of the 87,776 tests reported to the state Tuesday, 700 were positive, he said, putting the daily level of confirmed cases at 0.79%.

"New York is reaching new heights in its ability to track and trace the virus,” Cuomo said. “As we prepare for the fall, I urge everyone to wear masks, socially distance and wash their hands, and I urge local governments to enforce state guidance on reopening."

Thirty-seven of the new cases were found in Nassau County, 55 in Suffolk County, and 386 in New York City, according to state figures.

The level of tests confirmed positive was 0.9% on Long Island and 0.8% in New York City.

Cuomo noted that New York’s progress in drastically reducing the number of COVID-19 cases is threatened by the virus' surge in other parts of the country.

In New York City, an uptick of coronavirus cases in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood is prompting the city to reach its 38,000 or so households to urge testing, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

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City workers are being sent to knock on every door and attempt to reach local numbers, via robocalls, he said, and testing vans are being sent into the neighborhood.

“We now have a warning light. We have a sign there’s something going on that we want to know more about, [that] we want to delve into further,” de Blasio said, adding the city plans "to saturate Sunset Park over the next few days" to ultimately "get as many people tested as possible as quickly as possible.”

Over two weeks, there have been more than 3,300 New Yorkers tested in the neighborhood, with 228 infections in that ZIP code, 11220, said Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city health department commissioner.

“In a way, the ZIP-code-wide rate was like the beep of a metal detector that told us where to dig,” he said at de Blasio’s news conference.

The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state increased slightly to 558. Seven people died from the disease.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the 55 positives out of 5,030 tests in the county in the last 24 hours yield a 1.1% positivity rate. “We have been hovering around that number over the last few weeks,” he said.

Bellone criticized President Donald Trump and, again, called on the federal government to pass a relief package to help local governments. “As a county government, we are on the front lines of fighting COVID-19,” he said.

Failure to pass federal relief sends the message that “it is OK to defund local government, to defund the police, to defund public health workers," he said.

Drills did not anticipate COVID-19 crisis

New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said the state had been preparing for the possibility of a major disease outbreak but that “those drills also could not have fully anticipated the enormity of the strain on our health care system and our public health system that a pandemic of this scope, swift onset, unique nature and infectiousness could bring.”

Zucker spoke Wednesday via videoconference during a joint Assembly-Senate hearing on the effect of COVID-19 on hospitals.

If there’s a future surge or another health emergency, hospitals could quickly respond because of policies put in place in March and April, such as a state requirement to expand bed capacity by at least 50%, Zucker said.

In addition, there are temporary hospitals constructed at Stony Brook University, SUNY Old Westbury and elsewhere that were not used because the number of COVID-19 cases began to fall in April, he said.

Zucker insisted that the state provided enough personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns for health care workers. “We provided 24 million pieces of PPE, and there was available PPE for all those who needed it,” he said.

Yet hospital employees told Newsday during the peak of the crisis that there was a PPE shortage, and Assemb. Dan Quart (D-Manhattan), said, “There seemed to be a disconnect, at least from my perspective, between hospital administrators and what they were telling you, and nurses on the nightly news saying very specifically there wasn’t enough PPE.”

State health department spokeswoman Jill Montag said in a statement, later in the day, that when state health officials “heard from nurses on the ground that they needed more or better PPE, we immediately started daily conversations with union representatives, tightened protocols and treated the situation with the urgency it deserved to help ensure our front line responders had necessary PPE.”

Hospital advocates: Losses mounting

Healthcare Association of New York State president Bea Grause said in a statement that she was scheduled to deliver at the hearing an analysis her organization commissioned estimated that hospitals statewide will lose $20 billion to $25 billion through April 2021 because of COVID-19.

Factors include hiring additional staff to address the pandemic, expanding bed capacity and losing revenue from the state’s weekslong ban on elective surgeries, as well as from an overall drop in use of health care services.

Federal relief funding only will make up for about $9 billion of the shortfall, said Grause, noting all hospitals in New York are nonprofit and the pandemic “will only exacerbate their already precarious financial situation.”

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said “safety-net” hospitals that primarily serve Black and Latino patients are especially stressed, and he called for “a long-term commitment to make sure that these institutions can continue to thrive” because, even before COVID-19, these hospitals were in crisis mode.

Zucker said the pandemic, which data shows disproportionately affected Black and Latino New Yorkers, “showed the health disparities that exist in society. And we need to address them, and we are addressing them.”

As schools statewide plan a return to classes, the union representing teachers in New York City questioned preparedness, with Michael Mulgrew, of the United Federation of Teachers, saying Wednesday that teachers and administrators believe "that school buildings will not be ready to open in September."

Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education, said the schools will only open "if we meet the strictest standards set by any school district in the nation" and that "the vast majority" of city students are planning to return to blended learning, combining use of technology with classroom instruction.

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