New York City could be dealing with the coronavirus outbreak through September, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference at City Hall Wednesday afternoon.
“For six months we could be going through this and trying to achieve some kind of normalcy,” said de Blasio. “I want people to see that and acclimate themselves so we can help them understand the battle ahead — because they need to be a part of it.”
At the time of the press conference, de Blasio announced that there were 53 confirmed cases in the city. He said the city would not continue to report on individual cases because the volume has grown too large. With exception, if a notable city figure tests positive for the disease — as was the case with the head of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority — that information will be released.
The mayor was clear in that the city will be making decisions about things such as school closings and event cancelations on a case-by-case basis.
At the time of the press conference, it was unclear whether or not the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade would indeed take place on March 17. They mayor said it was a difficult decision to make and that he was in touch with organizers.
Later that night, it was announced that the event, which draws about two million spectators a year, would be postponed.
“I know this decision didn’t come easy, so I’ll make this promise: this is a postponement, not a cancellation,” de Blasio said in a tweet Wednesday evening. “Whether it’s in the heat of summer or on a clear fall day, New Yorkers will come together to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and our city’s great Irish-American community.”
But during the press conference, the mayor said he was reticent in going to extreme measures because of the unintended consequences those actions could have. For example, he said closing schools would be a huge disruption for people families who depend on schools for care and nutrition for their children. Additionally, he said students missing months of education would be extremely harmful.
“We’re going to do this day by day and hour by hour,” de Blasio said. The mayor said he understood that people are feeling anxiety and would want definitive answers on what will happen as the virus continues to spread, but he could not do that.
“We have to become comfortable with the fact that uncertainty is a part of life,” he said. “It’s not black and white ... it’s going to be nuanced, difficult and prolonged.”
The mayor rejected the notion that there are not enough tests in the city.
“What I think we have here is there, there are people understandably just want the test, right?” the mayor said. “They don't even have symptoms and they want the test or they have very initial symptoms they want the test. I don't blame anyone who feels that in this atmosphere, being bombarded by alarming stories.”
He outlined the advised protocol for anyone who believes they’re developing the symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. The first is to not go into work and to not send their kids to school. He said those people should remain at home for 48 hours and if their symptoms remain or worsen, they should consult a doctor. The doctor will first test for what the mayor called “more traditional diseases.” This test, called BioFire, will rule out 26 other diseases. If those diseases are ruled out, the patient will be tested for coronavirus.
Additionally, anyone who has been in contact with someone infected by the virus or is returning from a deeply affected country, such as China or Italy, will be tested for coronavirus.
“If any one of us just woke up in the morning and said, ‘Jeez this seems really controversial, I'd like to get tested’ ... that's not what we're going to accommodate right now,” said de Blasio. “It's not for lack of testing capacity. It is, I think, intelligent prioritization.”
The mayor said he wanted to emphasize that people would not be asked about their documentation status and uninsured people would not be turned away. He said everyone would be taken care of regardless of ability to pay.
Deputy Mayor Raul Perea-Henze, of Health and Human Services, said the number of samples the city can test each day is now growing as additional labs are joining the effort. Three more labs went online yesterday and 28 more statewide have been approved to begin testing samples. Hospital labs will also begin testing samples, and by the end of the week, Perea-Henze said the labs collectively will be able to test 5,000 samples a week.
Transmitting the virus
Since the coronavirus is a novel disease — meaning it has not existed before — Commissioner Oxiris Barbot of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that scientists are learning new information about how the virus behaves all the time. It is one of the distinct challenges of fighting the spread of the infection.
But with the information Barbot and her colleagues have now, the commissioner said the most common transmission has been through prolonged interaction with an infected person.
“It’s people who have spent a significant amount of time together, which can range from having close conversation over a meal or in other situations that might make it easy to transmit the virus,” said Barbot.
However, a study funded by the federal government and published Wednesday showed that the virus could live in the air for several hours and up to three days on surfaces.
Scientists found that viable virus could be detected up to three hours later in the air, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.
When questioned about the study, Barbot said that there is a difference between the virus surviving in a laboratory setting and a real world setting.
“I don't want New Yorkers to come away thinking that in any way, shape or form they have to worry more about one particular surface or another,” said Barbot. “The important thing is to focus on the fact that hand-washing, covering your mouth and your nose when you cough is an appropriate way to protect yourself and your family during the outbreak.”