If New York acted more quickly, an early lockdown could have saved 17,000 lives, study says
The Capital Region and Western New York could begin the reopening process in the coming days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration re-calibrated its metrics; May 17, 2020. New York State Team
ALBANY - Questions over whether New York should have enacted a lockdown earlier in March as the coronavirus spread gained new scrutiny in recent days after a new study found 17,000 people might not have died if the state and city acted more quickly.
The analysis from Columbia University disease experts found that if the country had started stay-at-home orders on March 1, at least two weeks before it did, about 54,000 deaths may have been avoided.
The national death toll is approaching 95,000.
"A longer response time results in a stronger rebound of infections and death," the study released late Wednesday found.
"Our findings underscore the importance of early intervention and aggressive response in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic."
No state has drawn more questions about its actions than New York, which has been the virus' epicenter with more than 23,000 deaths. More than 90% of those have been in New York City and its immediate suburbs.
The study found that the 17,500 deaths in the New York metropolitan area might have been avoided if the state and city limited exposure just a week early, and as many as 20,000 deaths if it acted two weeks earlier.
"These dramatic reductions of morbidity and mortality due to more timely deployment of control measures highlights the critical need for aggressive, early response to the COVID-19 pandemic," the report found.
Should New York have acted more quickly?
The study added a new layer of scrutiny to the response by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in early March as the state identified its first case in March 1 and then started to close up businesses and schools over the next several weeks.
A statewide shutdown of all but essential businesses occurred on March 22, when the number of cases swelled to 15,000 and deaths reached 114.
A recent ProPublica report contrasted the responses of New York and California, the most populous state. San Francisco Mayor London Breed, for example, shut down the city on March 16, when it had just 40 cases and no deaths.
The state has had about 3,000 deaths.
“I really feel like we didn’t have a lot of good options,” Breed told the site about the decision to shut down early.
Cuomo and de Blasio have defended their actions, saying they took broad-based steps to shutter the city and state as cases climbed.
Cuomo, for example, created a containment zone in New Rochelle on March 10 when the virus spread there, one of the first outbreaks in the nation.
New York now has more testing than any state in the nation, with more than 1.5 million people tested.
"I wish we had known so much more in January, February, beginning of March," de Blasio said Thursday when asked about the Columbia report..
"I wish we had the testing that would have told us what was going on. I mean, right now, we're not sure when this disease started to be present in the city."
De Blasio said the virus might have started to spread in the city as early as January, but it did not have testing available. He said the city didn't have its first death until March 14.
"And we were fighting in those two weeks to see if we could contain this without any ability to see how deeply it had spread because we didn't have the testing," he said.
"And immediately after that first death, it was the next day that I indicated and called for the schools to close. That night, we closed down the bars and restaurants. Two days later, I called for shelter in place."
How New York responded when the outbreak started
On March, 12, when the number of cases statewide hit 325, Cuomo announced a statewide ban on gatherings of 500 or more individuals, which shut down Broadway and cut all smaller gatherings in half.
On March 16, two days after the state's first death, New York ordered all schools closed by March 18 when the number of cases hit 2,300. Then the stay-at-home order was announced March 20.
Cuomo, in particular, has also faced criticism over the handling of cases in nursing homes, where at least 5,600 people have died across the state.
A March 25 directive allowed patients with COVID-19 to either return or enter nursing homes, which has been knocked for fueling the spread among the vulnerable population.
The policy was reversed May 10, and now nursing home patients with the virus have to stay in the hospital until they test negative.
An Associated Press analysis Friday showed more than 4,300 coronavirus patients were sent to New York’s nursing homes.
Cuomo has defended the actions on nursing homes, saying they could have always asked for the state's help to handle COVID-19 patients and still had to follow strict protocols to isolate patients.
"We worked it out so we always had available beds. Nobody was deprived of a bed or medical coverage in any way and still people died," he said Sunday.
"Still people died. Older people, vulnerable people are going to die from this virus. That is going to happen despite whatever you do."
Defending New York's steps
Cuomo has spoken increasingly about how the virus spread to New York was because the federal government didn't act sooner in shutting down travel from Europe to New York in the weeks leading up to the virus' spread in the U.S.
Cuomo has cited research that showed 3 million Europeans came through New York’s airports from December to March.
Add the travel to New York City with being the largest and most densely packed city in the nation with a massive transit system, and it created a volatile mix that quickly led to the virus' spread.
"We had more cases than anyone else — not because there is anything particular in the air in New York but because we had people coming from Europe bringing the virus at a time when no one knew the virus had moved from China to Europe," Cuomo said May 15.
Cuomo said the curve of cases and deaths is coming down in New York while it is rising in other parts of the country because of the efforts of residents to take precautions and the steps the state took.
"So the problem had nothing to do with us but we were then tasked with resolving it and New Yorkers stepped up to the plate and have done a great job," Cuomo said.
Joseph Spector is the New York state editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany
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