New York City braces for 2nd wave of coronavirus as memories of devastating spring remain

No place in the United States knows more intimately the cost inflicted by the coronavirus than New York City, so a recent rise in positive cases there has local officials on alert.

The city had hoped to stave off a second wave this fall — with a state-wide mask mandate still in place and tight restrictions on indoor dining and shopping — but new COVID-19 infections continue to climb. Now the possibility of a city-wide school shutdown and tighter restrictions looms with each passing day.

“We all lived through the peak of the pandemic here, we saw how devastating that was and we hoped that we wouldn’t have to be dealing with this again,” said Dr. Chethan Sathya, a pediatric surgeon at Cohen Children’s Medical Center.

By June 8, when the city began reopening schools and businesses after a three-month lockdown, more than 21,000 people had died of confirmed or probable COVID-19. At its peak, in early to mid-April, the virus killed more than 500 people a day. New hospitalizations, which topped 800 a day in late March and early April, fell to double digits in early June.

Since Nov. 4, New York has experienced more than 1,000 new infections per day, a rate not seen since the beginning of May. Given the rising numbers across the country, Sathya said, it was almost inevitable that the city of about 8.3 million people was going to see the virus return in a significant way.

Commuters walk through the World Trade Center’s transportation hub Tuesday. New York City officials are bracing for an increase in travel ahead of the Thanksgiving weekend next week that could exacerbate an already steep rise in COVID-19 cases. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)

A looming danger

After a relatively quiet summer, the fall brought new flare-ups in the virus. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved to reimpose tighter restrictions on businesses, schools and houses of worship in neighbourhoods with clusters of cases. In some areas, the restrictions — the most severe since the spring — were met with anger and protest

“I believe this situation is going to continue to deteriorate over the coming weeks,” Cuomo said during a briefing last week. 

In response to the rising numbers, last week he ordered bars and gyms in the state to close at 10 p.m. and restricted indoor gatherings to 10 people. Cuomo held an emergency summit over the weekend with governors of neighbouring states to devise a region-wide plan to stem the rise in cases.

It’s an eerie echo back to the spring, when the country watched in fear as New York wrestled with the worst of the virus. Scenes of an empty Times Square — coupled with images of refrigeration trucks parked outside of hospitals to handle the overflow of bodies — helped drive home the seriousness of COVID-19.

“I think we all have PTSD from what that experience was like,” said Sathya, who, like so many health-care workers, was drafted into front-line service during the height of the pandemic.

This week, New York state approached 2,000 people hospitalized with the virus, a level not seen since early June, but still a far cry from the peak of 18,825 patients in hospital with the coronavirus on April 12.

A patient is transported outside of Tisch Hospital in New York last week. COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state are approaching levels not seen since the summer. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

Reasons for optimism

While New York’s numbers are causing concern locally, they are far from those found in the worst hot spots in the United States. In the last seven days, for example, New York City has just over 19 cases per 100,000 people, among the fewest in the country. North Dakota, by contrast, leads the U.S. with 186 cases per 100,000, while South Dakota has 161 and Iowa 137 per 100,000.

The mayor of New York said the number of hospitalizations in the city isn’t going up as rapidly as the number of cases, and more patients aren’t ending up in intensive care units, so he believes there is reason for optimism.

Construction workers in New York City wait in line to get their temperatures checked before returning to the job site on Nov. 10. The city says having the ability to test up to 60,000 people a day, with results often back in less than 48 hours, is critical to controlling a potential second wave of COVID-19. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

“We’re watching this literally every day, but if there is a silver lining, right now, it’s that this piece of the equation is acting differently than the other piece of the equation,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday at his daily briefing.

He pleaded with residents to take advantage of testing infrastructure to get a clearer picture of the virus’s grip on the city. The hope is a testing blitz can help target and isolate cases before they add to the spread of the disease.

The head of the city’s testing and tracing operation told CBC News that having the ability to test up to 60,000 people a day, with results often back in less than 48 hours, is critical to controlling a potential second wave, something that wasn’t possible in the spring.

WATCH | New Yorkers brace for COVID-19 surge:

For the third day straight, the U.S. has broken its own COVID-19 case record, with more than 150,000 new infections in just 24 hours. New Yorkers are scared about the situation getting as bad as it did in the spring. 1:43

“The big difference now is with this capacity, we have the ability to identify people very early in their disease course,” Dr. Andrew Wallach said, “perhaps even before they develop symptoms and get them into isolation so as to protect themselves and their loved ones. This is really a critical strategy as we do everything we can to prevent a second surge.”

Since Oct. 1, the city says, it’s installed 240 new testing locations, giving them the capacity to handle up to 300,000 tests per week. 

Parents on edge

While store shelves remain fully stocked and the city tries to keep humming along, thousands of parents are watching nervously as the average infection rate creeps closer to the threshold that closes New York City’s schools.

If the citywide seven-day average positivity rate of coronavirus tests reaches three per cent, that would trigger the closure and send all students to remote learning. It’s a number that the mayor has refused to increase even as it draws the ire of parents like Daniela Jampel.

People line up on Monday to receive free boxes of food from the Food Bank For New York City ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 26, as the COVID-19 outbreak continues across the U.S. Some parents in the city are worried that schools will close again as cases rise. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

“It’s infuriating because indoor dining is still open, gyms are still open, nail salons are still open,” the mother of two told CBC News. “What the mayor is essentially saying is that someone’s ability to get their nails done is more important than my daughter’s ability to go to school and have an education.”

Jampel, who started a petition to keep schools open and organized a protest over the weekend, points out that the infection rate within the school system is below a quarter of a per cent. Currently, about 50 per cent of the city’s 1.1 million students are learning remotely, while the rest are in a combination of in-person and at-home study.

“It’s an issue of priority — and do we prioritize people being able to sit inside and eat a pizza or do we prioritize educating the next generation of our children?” the mother of two said. 

Thanksgiving approaching

Wallach, with the city’s test and trace corps, said the two things keeping him up at night are families gathering for Thanksgiving next week and students returning home from college, both of which are a recipe for increased spread.

“It’s really important that folks get tested before they travel. It’s important that people adhere to very strict hand hygiene, that they wear face masks when they’re not eating,” the doctor said.

Wallach said long lines at testing sites are a good sign that New Yorkers are heeding the message to get tested.

Health officials say five to 10 per cent of current cases in the city can be traced back to gatherings and small events, but the mayor and police commissioner have said they won’t break up Thanksgiving gatherings.

They’re also still working on a plan to deal with the crowds who normally descend on Rockefeller Center to view the Christmas tree.

“We know a second wave is bearing down on us,” de Blasio said, “but we also know New York City has consistently performed better than other parts of the country because of the sheer level of participation of the people.”

Patrick Foye, chairman and CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, hands out face masks on the subway Tuesday as part of a new ‘mask force’ deployed to encourage mask use on public transit. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)

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