1st New York Antibody Study Finds Millions Infected, Daily Deaths Hit Lowest Level in Weeks

Gov. Cuomo said Friday a decision on whether to extend the state's PAUSE directive, set to expire May 15, is about one week away; tied up in that executive order is the fate of New York schools

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What to Know

  • More than 23,000 tri-state lives have been lost to date, though NY reported its lowest single-day toll (422) since March 31 on Friday. Nearly 400k people have been infected; NJ eclipsed 100k cases Friday
  • 13.9% of people in New York's first antibody study tested positive, meaning they had the virus and recovered; that means up to 2.7 million people could have been infected statewide
  • Nationally, deaths passed a grim 50,000 milestone Friday, by NBC News estimates; total U.S. cases are approaching 900,000

Up to 2.7 million New Yorkers may have been infected with coronavirus -- more than 10 times the number of confirmed cases, according to preliminary results from the state's first antibody study. Less than two months ago, there were zero known cases here. How did the virus spread so dramatically so fast?

It was here well before New York City reported its "first" case on March 1, possibly as early as late January, researchers from Northeastern University say. They gave their model data to The New York Times, which reported nearly 11,000 may have been infected in the city by the time Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio jointly announced our "patient zero."

"The horse had already left the barn" by the time the nation shut down, Cuomo said Friday. He cited research on the number of flights (13,000, carrying over 2 million people) from Europe, the globe's second hot zone after China, to New York and New Jersey between January and March.

Knowing that now, "It was like watching a horrible train wreck in slow motion," Cuomo said. "We closed the front door but left the back door wide open."

New York City alone has more than 150,000 virus cases, almost a fifth of America's total. The city's health commissioner says that's likely the "tip of the iceberg;" she wouldn't be surprised if 1 million in the five boroughs have been exposed. Cuomo's antibody study lends credence to her theory.

The study found 21 percent of NYC samples tested positive for the antibody, meaning they had COVID-19 at some point and recovered. That was the highest positivity rate of all regions tested in this initial round; Long Island had the second-highest positivity rate (16.7 percent). In total, of the 3,000 people randomly sampled from 40 locations in 19 counties, 13.9 percent had antibodies.

While the preliminary data suggests much more widespread infection, it means New York's mortality rate is much lower than previously thought.

More than 16,000 people in New York have died of virus-related complications, with Cuomo adding another 422 to the toll Friday (the lowest single-day toll since March 31). With 271,000-plus confirmed cases, the mortality rate would be as high as 6 percent. With 2.7 million cases, it would be around 0.5 percent -- much lower, though still much higher than the seasonal flu.

Cuomo was quick to caution, though, that the death toll was higher than even the state's own official report -- it counts deaths in hospitals and nursing homes, but not at-home deaths or other "probable" cases. In other words, the mortality rate is still hard to determine properly.

The sample size of the first antibody study was also relatively small. People were hastily recruited at shopping centers and grocery stores, meaning they were healthy enough to be out in public. Acknowledging some data points were inexact, Cuomo says more people will be tested over time.

He wanted a preliminary picture, he said. Further testing is underway and Cuomo's team said they planned to share results as they emerge.

“We’ll have a larger and larger sample. But I want to see snapshots of what is happening with that rate," the governor said. "Is it going up, is it flat, is it down? And it can really give us data to make decisions."

Preliminary results from the antibody survey revealed that fourteen percent of New Yorkers tested positive for the antibody. Sarah Wallace reports.

Knowing how many people have antibodies could potentially help set policy on when to reopen parts of the state, the governor said. He projects New York revenues to decline $13.3 billion in the next state budget forecast, largely because of the pandemic. With the state's "PAUSE" directive set to expire on May 15, Cuomo said Friday he'd decide in about a week whether to extend it further. Tied up in that executive order is the fate of New York schools.

Antibodies don't guarantee a safe return to work, or to the classroom, for that matter. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease specialist, says it's reasonable to assume a person who has antibodies will be immune from reinfection, based on experiences with past viruses. It's unproven with respect to this novel coronavirus, however. Even if antibodies do grant that precious immunity, it's not clear how long it would last, Fauci says. Three months? Six months? The hunt for answers is underway in labs across the country and the globe.

Dr. Craig Spencer, a Manhattan emergency room doctor who famously survived Ebola and has been a prominent social media voice during this crisis, was quick to point out the limitations of Cuomo's initial study.

"It means a lot of us in NYC have been infected. But that's not surprising news - we've seen high levels of cases for over a month," Spencer tweeted. "It means the virus is STILL spreading in NYC. It means that the MAJORITY of us are still very susceptible! It means we still need to #StayHome."

For now, tri-state officials continue to drive home that last point. To date, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have seen nearly 400,000 confirmed virus cases, with the Empire State accounting for the lion's share (271,590). New Jersey eclipsed the 100,000-mark Friday, hitting 102,196, while Connecticut, which saw a bit later curve, has reported nearly 24,000.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said for days New Jersey has been slowing its infection rate. Additionally, the number of people hospitalized with the virus was down 17% from a high of about 8,300 hospitalizations on April 14 — moving in the right direction. However on Friday he said there had been a setback: It was now taking less time for the number of positive cases to double, particularly in the southern part of the state. "I cannot be more clear or more plain, everyone has a role to play ... we cannot ease up our social distancing," the governor said.

At this point, Murphy said he's not in a position to even consider next steps, adding, "We need to see more progress, and more slowing, before we can begin those considerations."

Neither New Jersey or Connecticut have yet attempted an antibody study like Cuomo's, which the New York governor previously described as the most "aggressive" in the nation. It's safe to assume, though, that their actual case totals are significantly higher than the reported numbers as well, given limitations on testing capacity and outreach in some hard-hit communities.

Cuomo's antibody study reflected higher positivity rates in communities of color, which mirrors racial disparities evident in overall case numbers in New York and across the country. Both the governor and de Blasio have extended outreach, opening up new central testing locations and funneling masks and other supplies into NYCHA facilities to equip people for self-protection. The mayor also wants the city to starting doing as many as 10,000 tests a week, and will open three more NYCHA testing sites next week.

More than 23,000 people in the region have died -- 16,162 in New York, 5,617 in New Jersey and 1,764 in Connecticut. Brooklyn may now be the deadliest county in America, based on the state's latest data. Murphy added another 253 fatalities to New Jersey's growing toll on Friday.

"We have lost more New Jerseyans to COVID-19 than we have in some of our nation's wars, more than 9/11," the governor said. "Let's include every person we have lost in the annals of our state's history. They cannot and will not be forgotten."

Updated modeling from the widely watched Gates Foundation-backed IHME predicts all three tri-states will see more ultimate fatalities over a longer period of time than previously projected. It now incorporates New York City's "probable" death reports (5,102) and data compiled by The New York Times.

The latest model run also has expedited the timeline by which New York and New Jersey could begin to relax social distancing restrictions. Presuming strong containment strategies, like contact tracing, isolation and crowd limitations remain in place, those states could ease restrictions after May 27. Connecticut, which has barely past its peak, according to IHME, looks a bit later, after June 9.

In New York, there has been some concern people are already getting too lax on social distancing. Mayor de Blasio said an apparent recent uptick in traffic on NYC streets and sidewalks gives him some cause for concern. He said that even though daily COVID-19 admissions at city hospitals have plunged — from 850 in late March to 176 on Thursday — as well as ICU admissions and positive coronavirus cases both dropping, New Yorkers have to be cautious. Easing up too quickly can undo progress it's taken months to make in a matter of days.

"I've been seeing it personally and I am worried about it," the mayor said, adding on Friday that the city needs 10 straight days of declining numbers before restrictions can be relaxed. "If it's folks starting to get too loose, that's a problem."

Still the mayor showed some signs of optimism Friday. "Today have just plain good news, our indicators moving in the right direction, which is down," he said.

During a press conference on Thursday, President Donald Trump asked that the White House coronavirus task force investigate whether a disinfectant could be injected as a treatment for coronavirus patients.

The approach of warmer weather has officials more worried people may abandon caution too early. President Trump's assertion Thursday night, that sunlight and humidity proved virus killers in a Department of Homeland Security study, may send mixed messages. The scientist he brought to the podium to speak about that study, not Fauci or Dr. Deborah Birx, declined to answer questions about whether the research had been replicated in other parts of the world.

Trump point-blank asked Birx whether she had seen UV rays and sunlight effectively used in hospital settings to help heal patients suffering from other viruses. She said she had not. Medical experts also warned harshly against people trying to treat themselves with disinfectant, which the president also posited as an option.

Asked about the disinfectant claim Friday, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, New York City's health commissioner, said: "Very clearly disinfectants are not intended for ingestion either by mouth, by ear, by breathing them in in any way, shape or form. Doing so can put people at great risk ... they can cause great harm."

The virus has caused enough harm on its own. Nationally, more than 900,000 coronavirus cases have been reported. The country passed a grim 50,000-death milestone on Friday, by NBC News estimates.

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