ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday outlined a plan to mobilize an army of more than 6,000 infection tracers to track down those who’ve been in contact with carriers of COVID-19 virus.
Their ranks may swell to as many as 17,000 if the number of New Yorkers infected surges, the governor said at his daily briefing, but he acknowledged that even that many would not be able to do the job completely. On Wednesday alone, for example, more than 4,500 people were newly confirmed infected; to interview each one, get an accurate list of everyone they’d had close contact with in the previous 14 days, then track down and contact each of those other people would be an impossible task.
“It’s a massive, exponential explosion of numbers of people,” Cuomo said.
The steps involved are not difficult, he said, but the scale at which they must be taken is.
Asked by a reporter how a tracer or a platoon of tracers could ever find all the passerby who’d been close to just one infected person in a market, the governor said they couldn’t.
“You do the best you can,” he said. Close contact is what’s being targeted, not general proximity.
This type of massive tracing campaign has never been done before and won’t be easy to create, but New York will get it done, Cuomo said.
Cuomo offered no price tag for this massive undertaking. He has previously deflected questions about cost, saying there’s no way to put a price on a life. He’s also notes several times a day that the state is $13.3 billion short on revenue, and his Department of Labor has processed 1.64 million applications for unemployment benefits through as of April 25.
He wants at least 30 tracers for each 100,000 residents, which would be about 6,000 for all of New York, plus supervisors, managers and support personnel.
There are already contact tracers at city and county departments of health statewide, as well as state Department of Health personnel who can perform these tasks, Cuomo said. There are also numerous state and local public-sector employees sitting idle at home during the pandemic who could be put to work as tracers, he added.
Even so, more people may need to be more hired, Cuomo said. “It will require, under any estimate, a tracing army to come up to scale very, very quickly,” he said.
Also, technology must be created, tested, purchased and deployed, the tracers must be trained, tested and monitored, and the entire operation must be enabled and authorized to trace people across borders into neighboring states.
“And by the way, we need it tomorrow,” the governor said, speaking figuratively but fully serious.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is leading the effort and has made philanthropic contributions toward it, made a guest appearance to discuss it via video link at Cuomo’s briefing.
Bloomberg said the hiring, training, deploying and managing the tracers will be the greatest challenge. He said CUNY and SUNY are assisting with identifying job candidates; Johns Hopkins University has developed a remote training program; and three new smartphone apps are being created to assist the tracers and those who are being traced before, during and after the process.
A vigorous regime of infection contact tracing is one of the 12 conditions Cuomo earlier this week attached to reopening the economy in one of the state’s regions. He did not say whether the tracing operation has to be in place and fully functional before he would consider reopening.
Also Thursday, Cuomo said he would continue to ban elective surgery in most of the Capital Region, placing the medical problems currently being experienced by local residents at a lower priority than the potential future needs of COVID-19 patients, should there be another surge.
Bed space and medical supplies must held in reserve.
On Wednesday he allowed partial resumption of elective surgery, but hospitals and all other surgical facilities in Albany, Columbia, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Schenectady and Warren counties are still barred from performing these procedures. Fulton, Saratoga and Schoharie are the only counties in the greater Capital Region where these procedures are allowed — and then only if the surgical facility and its county meet a detailed series of statistical prerequisites.
“Worst case scenario, you go to Saratoga County if you really have to go now,” Cuomo said, brushing aside a reporter’s question about the medical needs of Capital Region residents, some of which may be growing more serious as they go unaddressed.
“Let’s learn the lesson of what we went through,” the governor added, referring apparently to overwhelmed downstate hospitals, not the partially vacant upstate hospitals that have laid off staff. “Different regions in the state are not out of the woods yet. Don’t get cocky. You still see a high number in many places.”
Dr. Dennis McKenna, CEO of Albany Medical Center, the Capital Region’s largest hospital, offered a diplomatic rebuttal Thursday in the daily video update he provides with Dr. Fred Venditti, Albany Med’s chief medical officer.
Capital Region hospitals seek to resume elective surgical treatment not of cosmetic or nuisance conditions but potentially serious health issues such as lumps in the breast or thyroid nodules, McKenna said. These usually can be delayed for a while but not indefinitely, he said, and they’ve been on hold for seven weeks now.
“We’re really talking about the resumption of what I call medically necessary care,” McKenna said. “We take COVID-19 very seriously. But increasingly we’re trying very hard to advocate for the other medically necessary procedures out there.”
He said Albany Med would apply for a waiver to be allowed to resume these procedures.
It’s an issue that has plagued hospitals upstate, which have lost up to 50 percent of their revenue streams since mid-March.
Glens Falls Hospital, for example, complained Wednesday about the governor’s decision to block it from resuming procedures, noting that it has more beds, fewer COVID patients and fewer recent admissions than Saratoga County’s only hospital, which now is able to resume elective surgery, provided it meets all of the conditions set.
Glens Falls Hospital, one-half mile outside Saratoga County, has furloughed over 350 employees and begun soliciting monetary donations from the community for care of COVID patients.
In other COVID-19 related developments Thursday:
- The death toll reached 18,321 statewide. The greater Capital Region had a particularly heavy 24-hour loss of life — two dead in Albany County, four in Schenectady County, three in Washington County and two in Warren County. Both Warren County deaths were nursing home residents; seven of the 11 COVID deaths in that county have resided at elder-care facilities.
- The Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region announced formation of the COVID-19 Small Business Continuity Grant Program, which will make awards of up to $20,000 to help keep businesspeople afloat. It is for businesses with 50 or fewer employees that have a physical storefront in the Capital Region, or contractor/gig workers who have experienced a 10 to 25 percent revenue loss due to the pandemic. Application is through the Community Loan Fund website.
- Cuomo announced the New York City subway system would stop running from 1 to 5 a.m. each morning starting May 6 so that cars and stations could be sanitized. Long Island Rail Road and Metro North trains will be sanitized in the same period each day.
- The Fulton County Public Health Department said anyone at the Sand Pit in Meco from 11 a.m. April 24 to 1 a.m. April 25 should contact it immediately and remain at home under precautionary quarantine until May 9.
- The Salvation Army, Tri County United Way, Comfort Food Community and Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York will offer a drive-through food pantry at the Washington County Fairgrounds on Thursday. The event is first-come, first-serve and open to anyone who needs food.