This story was reported by Rachelle Blidner, Matthew Chayes, Lisa L. Colangelo and Deborah S. Morris. It was written by Colangelo.
New York unveiled a new cellphone app Thursday designed to notify residents if they come near others who have tested positive for COVID-19, while Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called for a crackdown in "hot spots" where the number of cases are increasing in Brooklyn, along with Rockland and Orange counties.
The COVID Alert NY app, downloadable via Apple iPhone and Android cellphones, was created in conjunction with Bloomberg Philanthropies and those technology companies. It cost about $700,000 to develop with funding from the federal government and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Using the app is voluntary and the person who agrees to have their testing status revealed will remain anonymous.
"What this app will do is it will tell you if you were within six feet of a person who tested positive ... for 10 minutes, so it will tell you if you were, quote-unquote, in contact with a COVID-positive person," said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
It will "not only bring contact-tracing to a new level, but it will also give people comfort," he added.
While the overall number of new positive coronavirus cases across the state remains below 1%, spikes in the 20 hot spots was 6.5%, Cuomo said, up from the 5.5% reported on Wednesday.
Cuomo said the 20 hot spots "require full attention and effectiveness and action," calling on local governments to enforce mask-wearing and physical-distancing orders.
"These ZIP codes are not hermetically sealed," he said. "People from these ZIP codes go to the surrounding communities. They shop in the surrounding communities. They take buses, et cetera. … It has to be enforcement. It's no longer about public education."
Although Long Island ZIP codes in several Long Island communities around Huntington Station, Brentwood and Valley Stream were included Wednesday among hot spots, Cuomo said Thursday the recent rise in cases is largely confined to the Brooklyn, Orange and Rockland areas.
'The lowest infection rate'
Another 109,000 COVID-19 tests were processed on Wednesday, yielding an overall positive rate of 1.2%, but Cuomo said those numbers included an oversampling of the hot spots. Excluding the clusters, the state's positivity rate drops to 0.98%, which Cuomo said is "the lowest infection rate in the United States of America."
Long Island had a 1% positivity rate and New York City was at 1.3%. There were 1,382 new positive cases reported in the state, including 46 in Suffolk County and 72 in Nassau County. Eleven state residents died Wednesday of coronavirus-related causes. One of those cases was in Nassau.
States/regions in red are included on New York's travel advisory list as of Oct. 27, 2020. Guam and Puerto Rico, not pictured, are also on the list.
"We expected school reopenings to pose a new challenge, and Nassau remains on high alert with regard to infections at schools and universities," Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement. "The County Health Department is working closely with the State and hotspot communities to halt any spread of the virus in its tracks, as well as ensure that health and safety guidance is followed."
Cuomo said the state's education dashboard, which tracks positives in elementary and secondary schools, shows 1,206 cases among students and staff, on and off-site.
The Bayport-Blue Point School District said Thursday night that Bayport-Bluepoint High School would be closed Friday after a student test postive for COVID-19. In a message to parents and guardians, district Superintendent Timothy P. Hearney said the student last attended school Wednesday.
The high school will be closed for cleaning but "all students in both the blue and gold cohorts will participate in distance learning on Friday," Hearney said.
A Lindenhurst High School student tested positive for COVID-19, but the student and a sibling have not been in the building since Sept. 18, said Schools Superintendent Daniel Giordano in a message to residents Thursday. No other students or staff members are being asked to quarantine.
Separately, a BOCES service provider who was in contact with a student at Lindenhurst High School and the Daniel Street Elementary School tested positive for COVID-19, Giordano said. While the students do not appear to have COVID-19 symptoms, they will remain out of school until a health department investigation is completed.
The new COVID Alert NY app will notify users if they have come within six feet of anyone who has tested positive so they can take measures to avoid spread. Officials said there is no threat to privacy because the software uses Bluetooth technology to send anonymous information from cellphone to cellphone, rather than collecting location data.
"We don’t collect any data, we don’t track people … it’s completely a voluntary program," said Lawrence Schwartz, a former secretary to the governor assisting with the COVID-19 response.
A state-specific version of the app is available in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, officials said. Connecticut has announced it will launch its own in the coming weeks.
In other developments, the State Liquor Authority and State Police Task Force issued seven violations to bars and restaurants for not following state requirements to protect staff and customers against COVID-19, including four in Suffolk County.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that intensified inspections, enforcement and testing are continuing in Brooklyn and Queens ZIP codes experiencing an uptick in coronavirus infections. The city said it has identified clusters in 11 neighborhoods where positivity rates are above 3% and cases are growing at an alarming rate.
De Blasio said "hundreds" of businesses were visited on Tuesday and Wednesday, resulting in 130 warnings and 16 violations issued for not following COVID-19 regulations. The city also gave agencies the power to issue closure orders for noncompliant businesses.
The final group of city schools reopened Thursday after being closed since March. About half the city’s 1.1 million students are expected to attend in person, with the remainder opting for full-time remote learning.
"Parents will watch for the coming days and weeks and then make more decisions," de Blasio said. "And I think you’ll see the attendance keep growing as people see consistent success with the schools."
He said the John F. Kennedy Jr. School in Queens closed Tuesday and will hold remote learning for two weeks after two positive COVID-19 cases.
Towns react to hot spots' concerns
Jennifer Culp, a Suffolk County health department official, told county legislators Thursday that the cases in Brentwood and Huntington are not widespread.
"We were aware of those isolated cases and believe that’s what they are, that it’s not a cluster or an outbreak in either of those areas," Culp told the legislature’s health committee.
Officials in some of the towns where several communities have recently seen higher rates of COVID-19 positivity said they are working to educate residents.
Caroline Smith, a spokeswoman for the Town of Islip, said in a statement that it is using bilingual signage, social media posts and robocalls to create awareness about the coronavirus. She said the town was "disproportionately hard hit in Brentwood, Central Islip and North Bay Shore," and has urged Suffolk County to use CARES Act funding to reopen free testing sites in affected communities.
Huntington Town Supervisor Chad Lupinacci said he has been in touch with the governor’s office and that his office monitors infection rates daily.
"As temperatures begin to fall a little, people still have to be careful as they begin to gather inside," Lupinacci said. "I think people have become a little more relaxed as they try to assume some normalcy in their lives."
ABOUT THE APP
- COVID Alert NY, the new free mobile app, allows users to find out if they were in contact with a person who tests positive for COVID-19.
- The app uses Bluetooth technology, not GPS location data, to ensure privacy. It can detect when another phone with the app is within six feet — if the user chooses to turn on exposure notifications — and exchange a secure random code.
- If someone with the app tests positive, a contact tracer from the New York State Department of Health will ask that person if they want to anonymously notify the list of “close contacts” their phone has collected through the app. The identity and location of the individual is never revealed.
- On a daily basis, the app will compare a users’ list of close contact codes with the codes of users who have tested positive. If there is a match, the user will get an “Exposure Alert” with advice on what to do next.
- The app can be downloaded from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store. It’s available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Bengali, Korean, Russian and Haitian Creole.
- For more information, visit https://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/covid-alert-ny.
SOURCE: New York State.