ALBANY – Governor Andrew Cuomo's daily press conference was, for the second day, a combination of devastating numbers and a glimmer of hope.
He announced that 799 New Yorkers died from the COVID-19 virus since yesterday, a new record since the virus was first identified in the state 39 days ago. 7,067 New Yorkers have died in total so far. Cuomo compared that to 2,793 people lost on 9/11, a scale of loss he said, at the time, seemed impossible to ever see again.
The state has been essentially on shut down for 18 days, and he said that the efforts to isolate appear to be effectively flattening the curve. The projections, right now, seem in line with the Gates Foundation-funded study that predicted about 73,000 hospitalizations, well below the worst-case-scenario Columbia University model that predicted as many as 136,000 hospitalized.
“We have a 90,000 bed hospital capacity statewide,” the governor said. “We have a plan to convert dormitories, that could get us to 110,000 beds. But there is no way we can meet that highest projection. So what we do makes the difference. We can save lives. We are flattening the curve – so far.”
Cuomo referred back to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, that hit in three waves, and he pointed to reports that indicate Asia may be experiencing a second wave of this coronavirus. For now, he said, the hospitalization rate is way down, as are ICU admissions – down to their lowest levels “since this nightmare began.” But he said it is far too soon to predict when social distancing can be relaxed.
“Dr. Fauci (Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) told me you'll see deaths increase while hospitalizations drop,” the governor said.
It reflects, Cuomo said, the loss of people who have been sick the longest. He said he'd be calling in additional funeral directors to deal with the bodies of those who have passed.
The governor said new testing sites will be set up in minority communities downstate, to not only get more information on the virus, but on the underlying economic and social reasons those communities are hardest hit in hopes of creating policies that alleviate those risks.
Turning to the state's “devastated” budget, which has a predicted $10 to 15 billion shortfall, Cuomo said he is freezing scheduled pay raises for 80,000 state workers for 90 days. Budget Director Robert Mujica said the move will save the state $50 million dollars during that period.
“The federal government promised it would help,” Cuomo said. “I know we don't have money to pay the bills we're incurring. The other option is layoffs. So let's freeze the 2% pay hike and see if the federal government gets us some help.”
He said federal legislation is essential to stabilize the state and local governments.
“Past legislation promised us $6 billion in healthcare cost relief. When we went through it, in reality, it's $1.3 billion. It disqualified a third of New York's Medicare recipients.”
There have been 800,000 new unemployment applications, with 350,000 just last week, and Cuomo said the online system has crashed because of the volume. He said a thousand people are working just to handle the phone calls necessary to complete applications. The state has been working with Google to upgrade the system, and Melissa De Rose, Secretary to the Governor, said the site would shut down between 5 and 7 Thursday night to reboot. The new system will have fewer questions, will be entirely online, and if any fields are left blank, applicants will be called by the Department of Labor, instead of having to make the call.
“No matter when you finally get to apply,” the governor said, “you will be getting paid retroactively.”
Cuomo said New York is continuing to work with private companies and the states of New Jersey and Connecticut to develop testing to a scale that will allow people to return to work. He also asked anyone who has recovered from the COVID virus to contact the state to donate blood to help develop a plasma treatment for those still hospitalized.
He revisited the issue of coordinating the purchase of needed medical supplies, saying that the competition for those essentials among states “was just crazy” and “can't happen again.”
One option, he said, was for the federal government to coordinate that effort, as FEMA has done in the past. The other option could be, he continued, a state consortium that would assume the responsibilities the federal government may not want to take.
A final reporter question asked how confident the governor felt about getting help on the federal level, a question that could refer to either the government or the state's federal legislators, or both.
“How confident am I of federal responsibility and action?” he answered. “Not that confident.”