New York started coordinating with local health departments in early January to prepare for a potential outbreak of the new coronavirus in the state, which by Wednesday had infected nearly 95,000 people and killed more than 3,200 world-wide.
With a cluster of five cases emerging in Westchester County over the last two days, the outbreak may now be here.
Federal and state officials urged calm, pointing to the diseases’ relatively low mortality rate while admitting further outbreaks in the U.S. were expected.
The new coronavirus and its resulting disease, COVID-19, emerged in December in the city of Wuhan in central China. Though new cases in China have dropped to a tenth of what they were in late January, the coronavirus is now spreading in other parts of the world.
Ten countries have reached more than 100 cases, including South Korea, France, Spain and Singapore, according to the New York Times.
University at Albany Professor Louise-Anne McNutt, a former Epidemic Service Officer for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the coronavirus did not present an existential threat to humanity or the U.S., but it would alter the world and result in many deaths.
“I think this is going to be a life-changing year for the world,” she said.
Coronavirus in the Hudson Valley
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the first case of the coronavirus in the Hudson Valley Tuesday: a 50-year old attorney.
By late Wednesday, the coronavirus had spread from the attorney to infect nine other people.
Around noon Wednesday, Gov. Cuomo announced the attorney’s 20-year old son, teenage daughter and wife had tested positive for the coronavirus, as well as the man who drove him to the hospital.
Hours later, Cuomo announced five others had tested positive: a friend of the attorney and the man’s wife, two sons and daughter.
The attorney, who has an underlying respiratory condition, is in intensive care in a New York City hospital, according to LoHud.
Cuomo told reporters outside the 4 p.m. press conference further spread of the disease was inevitable, according to CNBC.
More cases were expected in the state as further tests were undertaken, Cuomo said, but he urged calm, saying the most cases did not require hospitalization.
The state started preparing for the coronavirus in January, coordinating its efforts through a centralized incident management system and holding regular public health emergency preparedness calls, according to state Department of Health (DOH) spokeswoman Jill Montag.
Columbia County Health Department Director Jack Mabb said the state realized in early January “it needed the local health departments to be the boots on the ground.”
People returning to the U.S. from Hubei province, where the epidemic began, were funneled through a handful of airports, including JFK in New York City, and screened for the virus, he said.
If symptom-free, the travelers were allowed to continue home, where they would be monitored by their county’s health departments, which repeatedly checked for high temperatures and other symptoms, Mabb said.
Anyone coming back from Iran, Italy, South Korea or elsewhere in China also went through screening with the possibility of monitoring or quarantine if they displayed symptoms, Mabb added.
“At this time, we don’t have anybody in the county who’s positive, nor do we have anyone in the county who’s a patient under investigation,” he said, though there were several people being monitored in nearby counties.
Samples can now be tested for the coronavirus at the state’s Wadsworth Center and the New York City Public Health Lab, according to a state DOH spokesperson. Mabb said testing now only took a few hours, instead of the 12-plus hours it took when the tests could only be conducted by the CDC.
Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson had protocols in place derived from the CDC and the DOH should the coronavirus spread to Columbia County, according to Columbia Memorial Health spokesperson Bill Van Slyke.
“It’s a fast-moving issue, as updates come out through the day, every day, from the CDC and DOH, and we remain tuned into those agencies to ensure that our planning and preparedness stay up to the minute,” he added.
Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan led a health emergency exercise Tuesday, which included a run-through of numerous scenarios to prepare for a potential outbreak.
There are no suspected cases in the county, according to Ryan.
However, multiple people returning from areas hit by the virus are voluntarily quarantining in their homes and are being monitored by the county’s health department, as per CDC and state guidelines, Ryan added.
What We Know So Far
By Wednesday afternoon, people had been sickened by the coronavirus in 77 countries, according to the New York Times.
Most countries’ cases were from travelers who were infected in hot zones, then were treated upon their return, the virus contained.
However, there is major sustained local transmission of the virus in China, South Korea, Japan and Italy, with at least some local transmission in 26 other countries as of Tuesday, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced Tuesday 3.4 percent of reported COVID-19 cases resulted in death. He contrasted it with the seasonal flu, which has a mortality rate far lower than one percent.
However, many health experts said the true mortality rate of the coronavirus was far lower because mild or asymptomatic cases weren’t reported.
Louise-Marie McNutt said she suspected the mortality rate in the U.S. would be closer to .2 percent because of the country’s advanced healthcare system.
New York was particularly prepared, McNutt said.
“In New York we’re well-situated to minimize deaths because we have a healthcare system that has really thought about pandemic infections…the government has always known that when there’s a pandemic, it’s going to hit [New York City], and they’ve been very good a preparing, better than many states in the country,” she said.
However, other countries would fare far worse.
The mortality rate in African countries could be many times higher, McNutt said, because of their limited healthcare system and the large number of people with compromised immune systems from HIV and malnutrition.
“We’re bracing for true devastation, to be quite honest,” she said of the region.
The coronavirus impacts the elderly and those with chronic diseases most severely, McNutt said, as well as cigarette-smokers.
Unlike the seasonal flu, the coronavirus does not appear to be destroyed by warm weather, McNutt said.
Even with a mortality rate between .2 and two percent, the disease would most likely alter the world because of its eventual breadth, she added.
“I don’t think there is any question this is a pandemic,” she said. “I don’t think there is any question this is going to go across the United States, as well as every country in the world – the big goal right now is to slow it down so that we have an opportunity to develop vaccines.”
A deployable vaccine is one-to-two years off, McNutt estimated.
However, a treatment for the virus may be closer.
The pharmaceutical company Gilead will be testing whether its anti-viral drug remdesivir can treat the disease, according to CNBC. The drug showed promise against other strains of coronavirus such as SARS and MERS.
Life could be very different until a vaccine is developed, McNutt said, but she urged healthy individuals not to panic.
McNutt sees great anxiety in her college students, some of whom told her in recent days they were afraid to visit their parents in New York City.
She urges everyone to take precautions, most specifically to wear leather or cold-weather gloves – the coronavirus is most often transmitted when someone touches their mouth or eyes, something one is apt to avoid while having covered hands.
Healthy individuals who are infected with the virus are not likely to experience life-threatening, or even serious symptoms, but should take extreme precautions to not transmit the virus to less healthy people.
But for her college students, she had a message:
“Live your life.”