Coronavirus Updates (April 23): Building the Testing & Tracing Army

In normal times, Suffolk County has just seven nurse epidemiologists working within its Bureau of Epidemiology and Disease Control to trace the contacts of people here who have been diagnosed with infectious diseases, according to Suffolk County Health Commissioner Gregson Pigott.

Now, as New York State builds a “tracing army” to stamp out the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, that number of contract tracers has already swelled to 140 people in Suffolk, said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday, and it will likely swell hundredfold again in a coordinated regional effort to identify people who have been exposed to the disease.

New York State currently has 225 of its own contact tracers in its Department of Health. Nassau County has 60, New York City has 200, Westchester has 50 and Rockland County has 40, said Mr. Cuomo.

Mr. Cuomo laid out on Wednesday, in his greatest detail to date, the state’s plan to test as many New Yorkers as possible for active Covid-19 infections, in an attempt to isolate the disease so that state residents can safely go back to work.

He made the announcement after a meeting at the White House with President Donald Trump Tuesday at which they hashed out a federal-state partnership that will now allow New York to double its testing capacity from 20,000 per day to 40,000 per day.

Along with testing, the state and New York City’s surrounding suburbs on Long Island, in Westchester and in New Jersey and Connecticut must now work together to trace the people who have come in contact with those who test positive.

“Wouldn’t you be identifying more positive people than you can possibly trace?” said Mr. Cuomo. “Yes. That’s true… It’s an extraordinarily impossible task. You do the best you can.”

“You don’t have months to plan for this,” he added. “You have weeks.”

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New York will be bolstered in this challenge by a $10.5 million contribution from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which will enable the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University to build an online curriculum and training program for new contact tracers.

Mr. Cuomo said the state will begin recruiting contact tracers from among 35,000 SUNY and CUNY medical students.

“We’re all eager to begin loosening restrictions on our daily lives and our economy. But in order to do that as safely as possible, we first have to put in place systems to identify people who may have been exposed to the virus and support them as they isolate,” said Mr. Bloomberg in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ announcement of the partnership. “Coupled with far more testing, it will help us drive the virus into a corner — saving lives and allowing more people to begin getting back to work.”

The New York State Department of Health is also conducting a random antibody survey of 3,000 people, designed to get a handle on what percentage of the state’s population has already had the virus.

This effort will provide initial guidance on how to do further antibody testing, and on the safest way to reopen the state’s economy.

Mr. Cuomo said the state is taking random surveys of people “at grocery stores and street corners,” which is slated to be completed by the end of this week.

About 20 grocery stores across the state are participating in the survey. Nurses from the State Department of Health are asking people who enter and exit the stores if they would like to participate in the test, which is done by retrieving a blood sample through a finger prick in a testing site outside the stores. People who participate will be informed of the results.

Mr. Cuomo said this is the “largest survey of any state population.”

His secretary, Melissa DeRosa, pointed out Monday that Germany had done a similar study of 3,000 people in a population of 83 million people, while New York’s population is just 19 million.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone confirmed Monday that the state is conducting the random testing in Suffolk, though he declined to say where.

When asked Wednesday how many New Yorkers he believed had already had the virus, Mr. Cuomo said “my guess is it’s going to be about 10 percent in high infection areas downstate, and in single digits upstate.”

To date, more than 254,000 New Yorkers have tested positive for the coronavirus, about 1.3 percent of the state’s population of 19 million, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the virus since it was first found in Wuhan, China.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Wednesday that the county is working with the governor’s office to ramp up its contact tracing efforts.

“As we align testing with the reopening of the economy, we need to know who has had the virus, who is safe and who needs to be protected,” he said. “We were doing contact tracing early on. We quickly determined that all our cases were community spread. None were from abroad. We know now the virus had been here [before testing began].”

Read Our Continuing Coverage of the Coronavirus Crisis

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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