It’s important to keep in mind, in the wake of Governor Cuomo’s March 20 decision to impose a form of shelter-in-place statewide that would take full effect two nights later that this was not about the coronavirus pandemic spiraling, so much as it was our gaining a better handle on how serious it was.
While the number of cases statewide exceeded 7,000—more than 4,400 of them in New York City—by the time he moved off his initial decision not to take that step, it was less about a surge than a dramatic increase in testing that began Wednesday night and included 10,000 tests done beginning late Thursday.
The ramped-up testing has been accompanied by a growing awareness that younger people, while less-susceptible to the worst effects of the disease, are not invulnerable to it. After the youngest member of the City Council, 32-year-old Ritchie Torres of The Bronx, tested positive for the virus, he lamented from his bed that there was “a false sense of security among young people,” as if nothing really bad could happen to them.
Proof of that mind-set could be seen in interviews with people on spring break in Florida, who said they weren’t sufficiently worried about being infected to curtail their usual carousing in crowds.
Presumably the announcement Thursday night that a 34-year-old Glendora, Ca. man died of the coronavirus a couple of weeks after returning from Disney World delivered a cold slap of reality.
The increased restrictions on people’s movements are expected to reduce the level of risk, even as faster testing ensures that the number of those found to be infected continues to significantly grow. The Governor’s executive order has placed somewhat tighter controls on those who are 70 and older and therefore considered at greatest risk, as well as those with compromised immune systems and/or pre-existing health conditions. They will be required to wear masks when in the company of others and not visit households with multiple people.
Healthy people under 70 will be permitted to make trips to get groceries and medicine and can exercise and walk outside, provided they stay six feet apart from others, as called for under “social distancing.”
Even as those rules help, first-responders and health-care employees, as well as transit workers who will continue at their jobs, face daunting health challenges. Besides complaints from their unions that they are not being checked for the virus quickly enough—which may subside as the state and city increase their testing capacities—there is a greater concern that they often are not getting adequate protective equipment.
Matters certainly weren’t helped when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—after earlier stumbles that held up testing—reversed course on March 10 by advising that if N95 respirators were not available, it was permissible for health-care staff to make do with face masks.
The New York State Nurses Association the following day denounced that decision during a press conference where union officials outlined the greater chance of infection using masks that didn’t provide a full seal to cover their faces completely. The same position was subsequently taken by their counterparts in California, and unions for first-responders ranging from Emergency Medical Technicians to Police Officers here have made the same point in recent days.
PBA President Pat Lynch faulted Mayor de Blasio for not providing the necessary equipment quickly enough. The Mayor has put the onus on the Trump Administration for creating a situation in which he contended hospitals were in jeopardy of running out of vital supplies within just a few weeks. He called on President Trump to activate the military to transport supplies and help in constructing new medical facilities to meet the growing demand, saying angrily, “He should get the hell out of the way and let the military do its job.”
The national administration has belatedly been roused from its sluggish initial response as the crisis began to take shape, and stimulus bills passed by both houses of Congress should help address the considerable economic damage done by so many businesses being shuttered, while others have had to lay off large chunks of their workforces because of their reduced activities.
But urgency remains in getting protective gear to those who depend on it to stay healthy while treating or otherwise assisting persons afflicted with the virus. Mr. Lynch put a human face on their plight in a radio ad talking about the toll the crisis can take on his officers’ families because of their own vulnerability to infection when the cops come home.
What should go without saying is that the first-responders and health-care workers must get the needed equipment because of the vicious cycle that could further threaten the rest of us if large numbers of them become infected and are unable to continue doing their work. Sidelining them weakens our systems for delivering health care by overwhelming the available facilities, and by reducing the number of first-responders available to offer initial treatment and enforce the law at a time when both have become even more important than usual.
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