Cuomo Authorizes NY Pharmacies to Help Test for COVID-19; Tri-State Cases Pass 400K

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. Over 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 have surpassed 900,000

Fifty-five days have now passed since the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was reported by health officials in New York State. In that time, more than 23,000 tri-state lives have been lost as New York City remains the epicenter of the virus's grip on the U.S.

On Friday, New York had the lowest single-day death toll since March 31, with 422 people dying from COVID-19. That number rose slightly Saturday when Gov. Cuomo reported another 437 related deaths.

The good news: Antibody testing is expanding across the state, starting with health care workers, public transit employees, and other first responders. Cuomo says antibody testing for frontline health care workers is underway Saturday at four hospitals in New York City. Next week, he says, antibody testing will expand to MTA/transit workers and police officers across the state.

Antibody testing is a way of determining if a person has been infected by the coronavirus even if they hadn’t shown symptoms.

Making such testing widely available is seen as a key to reopening society, but the World Health Organization on Saturday warned there is currently no evidence that people who have antibodies are protected from coronavirus.

Under a new executive order, Cuomo plans to grant independent pharmacists the authority to conduct diagnostic tests for COVID-19 - collected samples will be tested at labs off site. This could add an additional 5,000 testing locations in New York State.

After weeks of reserving conventional coronavirus testing to people with symptoms to conserve supplies, the state is expanding eligibility to include first responders, health care workers and a long list of essential employees, such as bus drivers, dry cleaners, undertakers and grocery store workers.

“Why? Because these people have been carrying the load and they have been subjected to the public all during this crisis, and because they’re public facing,” Cuomo said. “These are the people you interact with.”

According to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Friday was a good day in the city in regards to coronavirus. The bad news: The city still needs to string 10 of them in a row in order to start relaxing some of the social distancing guidelines.

Daily COVID-19 admissions at city hospitals have plunged — from 850 in late March to 176 on Thursday — while ICU admissions and positive coronavirus cases have both dropped as well.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has said for days the state 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.

Still, New York has had more than 16,000 residents die as a result, including at least 11,544 in NYC (which could be as many as 16,646, if including the deaths with probable connections to the coronavirus).

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.

New Jersey also had a bit of a setback Friday: 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."

"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."

In the city, 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 New Yorkers must remain cautious, as easing up too quickly can undo progress it's taken months to make in a matter of days.

More than 23,000 people in the region have died -- 16,599 in New York, 5,863 in New Jersey and 1,862 in Connecticut. Brooklyn may now be the deadliest county in America, based on the state's latest data. Murphy added another 264 fatalities to New Jersey's growing toll on Saturday.

Nationally, more than 900,000 coronavirus cases have been reported, while the tri-state crossed 400,000 cases on Saturday. The country passed a grim 50,000-death milestone on Friday, by NBC News estimates.

Updated modeling from the widely watched Gates Foundation-backed IHME predicts the tri-state will ultimately see more 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.

Antibody Testing Answers

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."

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.

Given the 271,000 cases confirmed by the state so far, 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.

“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.

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.

Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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