Shutdown Ends in 70% of New York Regions; Infection Spread Still High in Some NYC Nabes

Nearly 150 cases of a new severe inflammatory syndrome affecting children have been identified in New York City; New Jersey reports 15 cases. The vast majority of patients tested positive for COVID or antibodies

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What to Know

  • A seventh New York region reopened Wednesday, leaving just New York City, Long Island and Mid-Hudson shut down; NJ and CT have also eased a number of restrictions -- and tri-state beaches reopen Friday
  • New York will allow religious gatherings of no more than 10 people starting Thursday, presuming strict adherence to social distancing
  • New antibody testing in lower-income NYC neighborhoods shows infections are still spreading; 27% of 8,000 tested had antibodies, compared with about 20% of the population citywide

And then there were three. Just New York City, Long Island and the Mid-Hudson regions remain shut down, more than two months after Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially issued his sweeping closure. New Jersey is inching along its reopening roadmap, relaxing more restrictions each day, while Connecticut took its first major statewide steps on Wednesday.

Diners there were eager to enjoy some meals at their favorite restaurants, in some cases lining up to be able to sit (albeit outside) and eat for the first time in nearly two months. The surroundings were not all that had changed, as menus are now found on customers' cellphones. Some retail, like malls and other stores, also opened along with outdoor zoos and museums. Face coverings were required in all places that reopened.

The moves haven't been without controversy. Connecticut pushed back its planned reopenings of hair salons and barbershops after employees and business owners questioned whether it may be too early for such close contact. On Long Island, Nassau County is limiting some beach access to residents only, concerned those in still-shut New York City will crowd its shores.

Glaring "Proceed With Caution" signs line the path forward across the anxious, yet eager tri-state area. And with good reason.

"If people get arrogant and casual about this pandemic, you will see the infection rate go up," Cuomo said Wednesday. "It’s that simple."

New virus model projections underscore the point. Of all three tri-states, New York is the only one to see its ultimate projected death toll from COVID-19 fall over the last week. The projected national death toll has increased, too.

Nicholas Reich, director of the UMass Influenza Forecasting Center of Excellence and associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, led development on the COVID-19 Forecast Hub.

It curates data from 41 respected virus projection models to develop a sort of composite model, one that Reich says offers a more accurate picture of the next four weeks than any single model can project.

In its latest model run, published early Wednesday, the COVID-19 Forecast Hub projects New York could lose up to 31,517 people total to the virus by June 13. While that's notably higher than the current confirmed toll of 22,976, it's several hundred fewer deaths than the last model run projected it could see by June 6.

The daily tolls Cuomo has been revealing in his briefings support the change. This week, they have fallen below 115 for the first time since late March. Long Island had been losing about 100 people a day at the peak of the crisis; now it is averaging roughly 13 deaths a day, the governor said.

New cases and hospitalizations continue their slow decline, though infection continues to spread in communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods. In New York City, 27 percent of 8,000 people in lower-income neighborhoods tested positive for antibodies, Cuomo said Wednesday.

“The spread is continuing in those communities and that’s where the new cases are coming from,” Cuomo said.

The highest rate of positivity was in the Bronx (34 percent), compared with 19.9 percent citywide. Certain neighborhoods, like Brownsville, Brooklyn (41 percent) and Morningside in the Bronx (43 percent) have even higher antibody rates. New data published by the city health department shows death rates are higher in these ZIP codes. Overall, the five boroughs account for two-thirds of the confirmed death toll statewide. The city reports another 4,781 probable virus deaths, primarily in lower-income neighborhoods, which bring its toll above 20,000. A recent CDC report suggests the actual toll could be even higher.

To help combat the disparities, Cuomo says he'll double church-based testing sites with Northwell to 44. The state will partner with SOMOS to open 28 test sites and expand testing to another 40 NYCHA developments as well.

Also on the testing front, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he wants daily free testing done in nursing homes across the city, with 3,000 conducted per day starting next week. More than 5,000 New Yorkers have died from COVID-19 in nursing homes, a number Cuomo attributed to the state following the CDC's — and President Trump's — guidelines regarding how to deal with it in those facilities.

"This is as transformative a moment that we will ever see, so we better do things differently," de Blasio said Wednesday, adding that he wants to move care for the elderly away from nursing homes, moving the residents into private houses.

Personal protective equipment is a proven infection mitigator. Police officers, healthcare workers, firefighters all have lower antibody rates than the citywide average. These supplies are being funneled into hard-hit communities. It's one thing to provide the equipment, though -- another to get people to use it. More targeted outreach is in the works, and Cuomo has directed local governments to focus on high-risk neighborhoods.

New Jersey has lagged New York a bit on the curve. It's still reporting nearly 200 deaths a day and now reports more deaths per 100,000 residents than any state in America. To date, it has lost at least 10,747 people. Reich's ensemble model has raised its cumulative death projections for New Jersey, now projecting a loss up to 12,848 by June 13, up by more than 400 from its last report. The projections for Connecticut have also increased by a few hundred.

The national picture has darkened slightly as well. The country has lost nearly 93,000 people so far, according to NBC News. It could lose another 20,000 over just the next four weeks, the COVID-19 Forecast Hub projects. There's a 10 percent chance the toll could be less than 107,000, and an equal chance it could be higher than 121,000 by June 13, the latest model run says.

“As we move forward into a very uncertain phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is vital that we be critical consumers of models," Reich said in a statement. "By looking at models from different research groups, we can improve our understanding of the range of possible future outcomes."

Region by Region Status

Source: New York State; Report as of May 18

The uncertainty around this virus has stalled progress to some degree. It has proven highly adaptable, mutating into a more contagious strain since first emerging in China last year. Asymptomatic people can transmit it. Children, once largely thought to be spared, are being sickened by a new COVID-linked syndrome that attacks their blood vessels, rather than their respiratory system. It can attack their hearts.

Nearly 150 possible cases of what the CDC has termed multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) have been identified in New York City alone. At least three children statewide have died. New Jersey has identified at least 15 cases as of Wednesday; 11 of the children have tested positive for COVID or the antibodies. Nearly half of America's states are now reporting cases.

The emergence of the new syndrome has prompted new concerns about summer camps running in some capacity this year, and further complicated the question of schools reopening as usual in September. There is also a new problem growing among parents who are refusing to vaccinate their children, with vaccination rates plummeting since the start of the coronavirus shutdown.

Still, the economic gears are beginning to churn. Signs of normalcy are returning. New York City, even while still shut down, feels more vibrant this week than it has in months.

For the first time since March, some families will be able to visit their loved ones in New York hospitals, part of a two-week pilot program involving 16 facilities that Cuomo announced Tuesday. Nine New York City hospitals are participating.

Also for the first time in months: Religious gatherings of 10 people or less will be permitted statewide as of Thursday, presuming social distancing guidelines are followed. The same small crowds will be allowed for Memorial Day ceremonies. In-person sales at car and motorcycle dealerships and bicycle shops resume later this week in New Jersey. (Here's a list of what's opening in the tri-state.)

More restrictions will relax as health indicators and the states' abilities to safeguard public health improve. They could be reinstated if health indicators deteriorate or people stop complying with proven mitigation measures.

In other words: Don't let your guard down. Social distancing and face coverings aren't going away anytime soon. Neither is remote work, where possible. These safety precautions will be entrenched in the "new normal" even as the daily number of new virus cases falls lower and lower.

"COVID-19 has changed everything. After 9/11, new security measures were put into place that we were not accustomed to," New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said earlier this week as he detailed his state's path forward. "Those practices are now part of our routines. The aftermath of COVID-19 will be similar."

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