City leaders gathered in the ‘war room’ of the Office of Emergency Management in Brooklyn Monday to maximize preparedness for the spread of the coronavirus after learning that a Manhattan resident contracted the virus — and that her husband might also have it, too.
The couple, both health professionals, just returned to the United States from Iran, where 64 people have already succumbed to the virus and nearly 1,000 became ill. Both are in their 30s and are said to be stable and self-quarantined while waiting for the virus to run its course. They will be monitored for 14 days, health officials say.
More than 86,000 cases have been reported worldwide, officials say.
Led by Mayor Bill de Blasio, officials jammed into a large meeting room at a long table where they discussed scenarios to be dealt with should the virus emerge in the public other than the two confirmed cases in Manhattan.
Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot said most of those who get the virus suffer only mild symptoms, though 20% are more serious, and up to 5% of cases end in death. However, she said, most of those who do not survive are already “health compromised.”
Some of those at most risk of having more serious symptoms are those with asthma, lung diseases, heart ailments or those who smoke. While there is no clinical evidence as yet, Barbot believes vaping may also make victims more likely to suffer more serious symptoms.
On a more positive note, Dr. Barbot said the virus “does not seem to effect children in any meaningful way.”
Mayor de Blasio applauded the Centers for Disease Control for finally distributing test kits to New York City, tests to be conducted at the Health Department lab on First Avenue in Manhattan, making results available on the same day of the test whereas it took up to four days for results to come from CDC labs in Atlanta.
Dr. Barbot said testing will begin Monday afternoon with the new test kits of any suspected cases. Patients will also be tested for 26 other viruses and flu strains with symptoms that mirror that of coronavirus.
“We are conducting exercises with increasing amounts of difficulty to give us the highest readiness in anticipation of more people coming down with the coronavirus,” de Blasio said after he round-table discussion with officials. “So far, New Yorkers are clearly doing the right things and there will be no denials or sugar coating of the information.”
The mayor said the city may have to be ready for many more coronavirus cases in the months to come — despite new travel restrictions for four countries including China, South Korea, Iran and Italy.
Officials are concerned that the virus is becoming a pandemic.
“Viruses don’t respect borders and while we have the first individual with the virus and her spouse being suspected of being the second, we believe there will be more cases,” de Blasio said.
However, Dr Barbot said those at the highest risk of getting the virus are those who have prolonged exposure to those with the virus. She said those traveling on mass transit have little to fear, as the disease is not transmitted through incidental exposure or through ventilation systems.
“It is not transmitted like measles, so you won’t get it merely from riding the subways – you get it from secretions,” Dr. Barbot said. “You have to have prolonged contact, usually from a family member in the same household.”
There was also some concern about undocumented people shying away from seeking health care or to be checked for the virus.
“We don’t ask about your documented status, we just want to ensure that people receive proper health care,” de Blasio said, adding that his office of Immigration Affairs has been reaching out to the immigrant population to assure them that seeking health care will not get one deported.
Also, despite the chances of children getting the virus being low, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said they are on the alert for any signs of change. He said any child who is suspected of having a cold or flu are being asked to seek medical attention and not come to school.
There is also outreach to the city’s nursing homes from the Department of Aging with the city distributing manuals to facilities on how to keep their populations safe from the disease.
The NYPD and FDNY are also prepared with large stockpiles of masks and gloves. Upon receiving a call, police will stand by outside a home as medical technicians see to people complaining of illness. First responders are also receiving special training on how to deal with suspected coronavirus sufferers.
Speaker Corey Johnson expressed concern about the virus, but also said he has heard reports of xenophobia related to the virus and “any racism or discrimination based on origin or race in this city is unacceptable.” He said the City Council will hold a hearing on Thursday regarding the virus to discuss nuances of the disease and its impact on the city and its residents. He said they will be monitoring to make sure employers provide sick time as prescribed by law to those who need it.
The cost of the coronavirus to the city cannot at this time be quantified, the mayor said, simply saying, “we are not holding up any dollar figures at this time until it runs it’s course.”
More importantly, Dr. Barbot said, New Yorkers should take precautions including washing hands, using hand sanitizer, cover one’s mouth or nose when sneezing or coughing and seek medical help if feeling ill.
Meanwhile, many pharmacies and retail stores are reporting a run on hand sanitizers. The Duane Reade on Jay Street and Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn was completely out, though store employees said they should be restocked by the end of the day.
Officials say anyone with questions about getting medical assistance can call 311 for assistance.
“Nobody should suffer in silence,” de Blasio said.