NYC Subways to Close Overnight; State Deaths Hit New Daily Low, NJ Sees Tragic New High

New York state has seen its daily death and hospitalization rates hit monthly lows in the past week; New Jersey reported a new single-day fatality high (460) on Thursday

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What to Know

  • More than 27,000 tri-state lives have been lost to date. New York alone has reported 18,321 deaths, though the real toll is likely higher; the state eclipsed 300,00 confirmed cases on Thursday
  • To help protect essential workers, NYC subways will shut down between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. each night to be thoroughly disinfected
  • NJ Gov. Phil Murphy says his shutdown order will remain in effect statewide indefinitely; he reported a new single-day high in deaths (460) Thursday but has seen progress on key metrics

New York City subways will be shut down for four hours overnight, each night, to allow the MTA to disinfect every single car on every single train in its fleet, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday. The move comes days after the governor described the deteriorating transit conditions as a "disgusting" affront to the essential workers who use trains to get to work every day.

Subways will be closed from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. daily starting May 6. On average, about 11,000 customers currently use the subway during those four hours, the MTA says. Metro-North and LIRR trains will also be disinfected daily, but without service disruption, Cuomo said. Bus service will continue 24/7.

When the crisis first started, the MTA stepped up with a plan to clean subways and buses every 72 hours. That in and of itself was a monumental undertaking. Now the agency plans to do that every 24 hours -- and more thoroughly. The pandemic compounded existing problems and birthed new ones; protecting essential workers is too important to risk further infection, Cuomo said.

"I had two great nightmares from Day 1," the governor explained. "Nightmare 1: You did everything you did and you didn't stop the rate of increase of the virus. Second nightmare: The essential workers say, 'I'm not going to work. It's too dangerous. I'm staying home, too.'"

It is our obligation to make sure they can get to work safely, Cuomo said. If not, you lose electricity, you lose health care, you lose food -- and then society really starts to fall apart. He described the MTA's new plan as "unprecedented."

It's one thing to clean a train. How do you actually disinfect one? Studies show the virus can live on surfaces for days. You have to disinfect every place that a hand could touch on a subway car -- every pole, every door -- wherever a hand could touch or droplets could land, Cuomo said. It will require a new process, new methods and new cleaning agents.

"I would wager in the history of public transportation in this nation you never had a challenge of disinfecting every train every 24 hours," the governor said.

To mitigate the overnight disruption, the MTA will implement what it calls an Essential Connector Program, offering dollar vans to essential workers and for-hire vehicles at no cost if necessary to ensure they can get to work safely.

“Essential Connector” customers will be limited to two trips per night on for-hire-vehicles and must show proof of essential travel. Rides will also be available to customers requiring wheelchair accessible vehicles. See more details on the MTA's complete essential service plan here.

Mayor Bill de Blasio joined Cuomo in making the announcement. It was their first joint media briefing since they announced the city's first known coronavirus case on March 1.

Conditions in the subway system have, by all accounts, rapidly deteriorated since the pandemic hit. MTA employees and NYPD members who monitor and maintain the system have gotten sick; some have lost their lives. Even with ridership down 92 percent, thousands and thousands of essential workers use the subway daily to do their part to meet New Yorkers' needs.

From a historical perspective, shutting down part of the MTA is an exceedingly rare event. Since October 1904, there have only been 10 times when the New York City transit wasn't operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to the MTA. There have been three each of storms, blackouts and work strikes that have knocked out service, as well as the terror attacks on September 11. Aside from 9/11 and the strikes, each of the interruptions lasted just one day. The MTA said this also marks the first time service has been either partially or completely shuttered due to a health-related situation.

The union representing transit workers cheered the decision, calling it "exactly the aggressive and dramatic action we wanted to safeguard transit workers worried they could contract the virus from people camped out in the system," said Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano.

"We owe it to them to support them in every way possible," de Blasio said. "We owe it to them to help them be safe on their way to work and back home to their family. We're finding a way to make the subway system cleaner maybe than it's ever been in its history and address the crisis in a new way."

The mayor has faced mounting criticism over reports of homeless people crowding the subways. De Blasio initially came up with the idea to close ten key stations and allow for better cleaning while reaching out to the homeless who have been sleeping on the subway cars. Then Gov. Cuomo upped the ante by ordering all 472 stations to shutdown overnight — which should help address the issue, though de Blasio has said homeless people on the subways is not a new problem, it's just more noticeable with the heavy reduction in ridership.

On Wednesday, he unveiled new plans to help the homeless. The city will move 1,000 people from shelters to commercial hotels this week, with the goal of moving 1,000 more each week on top of the 6,000 already in hotels. The health department launched testing this week at large city shelters and plans to expand access across the system by mid-May. Anyone who tests positive will be safely isolated, the mayor said.

Two States, Different Points on the Curve — and Harsh Reminders on Social Distancing

The signs of progress are clear: New York state averaged fewer than 1,000 new hospitalizations a day three times this week, for the first time in a month. Daily death rates, while still "disgustingly high," as Gov. Andrew Cuomo says, are the lowest in a month and inch lower each day. They hit their lowest single-day toll yet (306) on Thursday.

New Jersey has seen more ebb and flow on that tragic metric. Gov. Phil Murphy reported a new single-day death high (460) Thursday in his state, which has now lost more than 7,000 people to the virus. Hospitalization and intubation numbers, though, have stabilized or are decreasing.

The most recent death toll includes 55 people from a Paramus veterans home who have died; at that home, 98 percent of residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and some officials are considering sending in infectious disease doctors to help. New Jersey nursing homes have been hit hard by the epidemic, and some haven't helped by not being completely transparent when it comes to information getting to residents' families regarding who is sick.

The two states have shipped ventilators out to states in need, no longer pleading to have them sent in. The USNS Comfort departed from New York City Thursday, and the U.S. Army says it will break down its 1,000-bed, built-in-a-week field hospital at Manhattan's Javits Center Friday.

Still, it's all relative. A virus that was unknown to science six months ago continues to kill someone every 2 minutes across the tri-state area. We cannot let down our guard, its leaders say, even to mourn our dead.

Mayor de Blasio issued a harsh reminder, and stern warning, as he faced criticism for breaking up a crowd of thousands that lined streets in Brooklyn this week for a rabbi's funeral. The synagogue that held the gathering has since apologized.

"Large gatherings of any kind, anywhere, are still forbidden. The amount of danger created by that kind of gathering is simply inestimable," the mayor said of the funeral. "The fact that people will die because of it, it just goes against everyone's values."

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea pleaded with New Yorkers to protect his officers on the front lines, who risk their lives daily to keep the city safe. A number of NYPD lives, including veteran detectives, have been lost already.

"People have to be accountable for their own actions," Shea said.

It is that very personal accountability that has prevented this crisis from becoming even more of a catastrophe than it is, Cuomo says. Months ago, virus models projected much higher death rates for New York and the nation. Today, those projections, while still sobering, are significantly lower.

"The projections didn't change. We changed the reality" through our actions, Cuomo said. But our actions can just as easily swing the curve the other way.

Leaders in hard-hit states across the country are trying to ensure that doesn't happen when warm weather hits. At the same time, they're slowly reopening lower-risk areas to give their anxious people some reprieve.

De Blasio says he plans to unveil new warm weather plans in the coming days. With a 70-degree weekend looming, he said Thursday the city would give 100,000 free masks to people in parks this week and expand supply handouts from there. An effort to open 40 miles of city streets to pedestrians in May, with a goal of opening up to 100 miles in the coming months, is underway.

Citi Bike is opening another 110 stations in the Bronx and Manhattan, and Citi and Mastercard have extended their one-year free membership to essential workers, the mayor said. New York City's beaches typically open on Memorial Day, which won't happen this year. But other beaches and activities could open deeper into summer, de Blasio says. It's a matter of balancing which businesses can afford to open economically with the city's need to protect public health.

In New Jersey, Murphy said he would allow state parks and golf courses to reopen Saturday. Playgrounds, pavilions and bathrooms remain closed. State park parking lots will be limited to 50 percent of capacity. Face-coverings are recommended. Social distancing is required.

Murphy said county parks could reopen, too, but left that decision to local municipalities. A number of mayors in New Jersey's hardest-hit counties said Wednesday they would keep their parks closed to protect public health. The governor, meanwhile, met with President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., Thursday to discuss testing, state financial aid and reopening.

Murphy later described the meeting as productive, telling MSNBC shortly after it wrapped that he and the Trump administration are embarking on "a very significant partnership" to more than double the Garden State's testing capacity by the end of May. He also says that COVID-19 fatalities are continuing to spike, but that most other indicators are on a downward trend. He says that there's progress overall in New Jersey, but that "we're still not out of the woods," despite the state taking "baby steps" to reopen its economy.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont unveiled a plan for a limited reopening of the state on May 20 during his daily press conference. At the top of the list to start any reopening remains a 14-day decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations — of which the state reached its eighth straight day of net decline on Thursday. The other criteria include things states like New York and New Jersey have also listed, such as increased testing and contact tracing available, adequate healthcare capacity, sufficient supply of PPE and maintaining social distancing.

The reopening plan is laid out in four phases, with each stage slowly easing restrictions or opening businesses based on how social distancing and other health risk management can be assessed.

Lamont said May 20 would be "an important day for us," as that's when it's possible for things like restaurants (outdoor only, with no bar areas), remaining retail, museums and zoos, hair and nail services, and business offices might be able to reopen. Businesses would still be encouraged to work from home, where possible.

The businesses listed by the governor represent about 30 percent of the state's unemployment claims, according to Josh Geballe, chief operating officer for the State of Connecticut. Businesses such as the casinos and professional sports teams would open a later dates, said Lamont.

"Those places where it's tough to social distance, those places where you have a big crowd, I think are a little bit tougher to make sure we keep this virus under control," Lamont said.

When Will It Be Safe to Reopen?

"We know better days will come. We can hasten their arrival if we keep up with our social distancing, washing our hands, and staying at home," Murphy said Wednesday. "We will get there."

But when? There's no "X" date.

A number of lesser-impacted states have already kickstarted their reopenings. Tri-state governors have laid out initial blueprints for their states; they all include a contingency that certain metrics around hospitalization be met before the process can even begin. Once it does, it will be gradual with intense monitoring.

The widely watched Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) virus projection model, one relied upon by infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and often cited by Cuomo, pushed back its reopening timelines for each of the three tri-states in its latest revision Wednesday night.

IHME now says New York and New Jersey can look to relax restrictions after May 29, presuming strong containment measures stay in place. That's a day later than its previous forecast. Murphy has already extended New Jersey's shutdown order statewide indefinitely. Cuomo expects to allow his "PAUSE" directive to expire after May 15 in some parts of New York, like upstate, which has seen much slower infection spread, while extending it in places like New York City.

The institute also revised its ultimate death projections slightly upward for the two states, but predicts the last deaths in each state will happen a bit sooner than its previous run. Now IHME says New York could lose up to 24,313 people through May 22; New Jersey could lose up to 7,246 people through May 19 -- less than two dozen more than its current toll of 7,228.

New York alone has already lost more than 18,300 people. If New York City's 5,295 probable fatalities were included, the toll would be nearly 24,000. Queens and Brooklyn have reported more deaths than any other county in America.

Connecticut has reported 2,257 deaths to date. Unlike its tri-state counterparts, Connecticut saw its ultimate death projections dip slightly over a longer time period in IHME's latest model run. IHME now says Connecticut could lose up to 3,315 through June 13.

The revised model pushes Connecticut's reopening timeline back by nearly a week for the second time in as many days. Connecticut, which hit its peak death and resource points a bit later than the other states, can look to relax restrictions after June 21, IHME said Wednesday.

Beyond the question of when we can reopen safely lies a question that haunts minds daily: When will this be over? We simply don't know, Cuomo says.

We don't even know how many are really infected. The tri-state area has reported more than 450,000 confirmed cases to date: 304,372 in New York, 118,652 in New Jersey and 26,767 in Connecticut. Early antibody testing in New York indicates the actual case total could be 10 times higher. New York City alone has reported more than 167,000 cases; data shows it may have had up to 2.1 million.

Expanded testing helps isolate more positives. The city is conducting about 14,000 tests a week and expects to be able to conduct up to 43,000 tests a week by mid-May. Cuomo says the state is conducting 30,000 tests a day. It may never be possible to test every single New Yorker; they'll try to reach everyone they can.

White House Reopening Guidelines Leave Room for Interpretation

For states considering lifting quarantine measures, the official guidelines propose either a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases within two weeks or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests.

As shown below, when you compare yesterday’s new case count with that of two weeks ago, the number is often lower, simply because the counts fluctuate. The criteria has been criticized by some for being vague, creating the opportunity for any governor to argue the numbers are favorable enough to start reopening.

Source: The COVID Tracking Project
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC

There's a lot about the virus that no one knows or fully understands, not even the globe's top health experts and scientists. Barring a vaccine or effective treatments for the virus, Harvard researchers say social distancing could be necessary into 2022. More than 70 vaccines are in development worldwide, but approval could be 12 to 18 months out if not longer.

Gilead Sciences, one of the leaders on the experimental drug front, released some data on a clinical trial of the drug remdesivir on Wednesday. Fauci said the results showed "good news" and could potentially change the level of care for COVID-19 patients. Northwell Health in New York says it has found some promising early results in a trial that uses a common, inexpensive heartburn drug as treatment in tandem with other experimental drugs. Final results are pending.

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