Suffolk County Reopening Still In Question, With Metrics Unmet

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County Executive Steve Bellone at a daily media briefing.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran this week predicted a date to reopen the economy of the end of June for her jurisdiction. Her Suffolk County counterpart, Steve Bellone, declined to offer his guess on Monday on when it will happen here. Rather, he said, his administration is doing everything it can, working with stakeholders, the county’s varied municipal leaders, and the business community to “get ready.”

Of all the metrics a region must meet before it can reopen, Mr. Bellone said the standard related to contact tracing is the heftiest lift. The county must assemble “an army of investigators” who, once a patient tests positive for coronavirus, finds out who the patient has interacted with, then contacts those people and advises them to self-quarantine.

“It’s a huge task,” Mr. Bellone said.

A standard of at least 30 tracers for every 100,000 people in the population means the county’s “army” must number between 400 and 450 investigators, the county executive said. He said Monday afternoon that the county would launch a dashboard on its website to show progress on meeting the seven metrics the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have set before a region can beginning easing stay-at-home restrictions.

According to the dashboard, the county’s current number of tracers was 230 people.
The CDC crafted a list of seven metrics a region must meet before reopening. Metrics Suffolk has met include a 14-day decline in hospitalizations, and the ability to test 30 out of every 1,000 residents. The county is conducting an average of 2,000 tests for coronavirus per day, and, by Monday, the percentage of positive results was down to 10 percent. The county had been averaging a positive percentage around 30 for several weeks.

Mr. Bellone said the county has met two more metrics related to hospital capacity. Both general beds and intensive care beds must not exceed 70 percent of the region’s total capacity. While the county has met those metrics, there’s a caveat: bed capacity should include those used for patients undergoing elective or other medical procedures. The county hasn’t opened hospitals to include those yet. Still, Mr. Bellone said he was confident the metric was met nonetheless.

Still not reached are standards for the number of new deaths and new hospital admissions due tot he virus. There must be a 14-day decline in hospital deaths, and the CDC recommends no more than two new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents in a day. Progress is being made, Mr. Bellone said Tuesday, taking note of a hospitalization decline that set the number — 575 — as the first time below 600 since March.

The dashboard, as well as a link to a similar state dashboard, which offers regional progress, can be found at suffolkcountyny.gov. Overall, the Long Island region has met five of seven metrics, according to the state map. As a region, it continues to lag in metrics related to new deaths and new hospitalizations.

While Long Island may not be ready for a full reopening when Governor Andrew Cuomo’s NY PAUSE executive order expires on Friday, May 15, some low-risk businesses and activities will be permitted statewide starting Friday. Every region can resume landscaping and gardening and low-risk recreational activities like tennis, and drive-in movie theaters may operate.

Reopenings will be managed locally, Governor Andrew Cuomo said Monday, delivering his daily COVID-19 briefing from Rochester. Local officials will ensure testing and tracing is in place, monitor infection rates with hospitals, ensure businesses are complying and communicate with other local governments, Mr. Cuomo said. A “regional control room” will monitor the progress and have a “circuit breaker” in place should the infection rate increase, he added.

Phase one of reopening includes construction, manufacturing, curbside-pickup retail, agriculture, forestry and fishing.

A book detailing New York State’s criteria and plan for reopening can be downloaded at governor.ny.gov/sites/governor.ny.gov/files/atoms/files/NYForwardReopeningGuide.pdf.
In the last week, county officials tested police and first responders for antibodies to assess their prior exposure to the coronavirus. Over 1,700 people were tested, in the Suffolk County Police Department, Sheriff’s office and East End law enforcement agencies. Of those, 1,115 results received by Sunday revealed 65 positives, under 6 percent. The statewide positive percentage in law enforcement is 12.3 percent, Mr. Bellone reported Sunday.

With statistics at half the statewide total, he said, “That’s a great number.” It’s a reflection of measures taken to implement safety precautions for officers and first responders “right from the start” of the COVID-19 crisis, Mr. Bellone said.

Next up, health department officials will dig deeper into the information to determine if there are specific clusters of cases. In the interim, County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said Sunday there hasn’t been a positive case among sworn officers in 10 days. “That’s pretty remarkable,” she observed.

Testing for law enforcement, firefighters, EMS personnel, and first responders will continue three times per week, at County Police headquarters, the police academy, and in Riverhead.

As New York looks to begin reopening, on Sunday Governor Cuomo stressed once more that the state — and other states — are in dire need of federal funding with New York anticipating a $61 billion state deficit as a result of the virus outbreak, with state agencies like the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority also facing significant financial losses.

“The economic impact is beyond what any state can deal with,” said Mr. Cuomo, adding that without federal assistance the state will be forced to reduce school, local government and hospital aid by 20 percent. New York State, he said, needs approximately $35 billion to compensate for losses related to the virus after beginning the year with a robust economy.

On May 7, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin announced his sponsorship, along with Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, of a bipartisan proposal to provide local counties, towns, cities and villages with direct local funding to be used for essential services and to offset lost revenues and increased costs from the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

About 70 percent of the funding would go toward Community Development Block Grants, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The remaining 30 percent would be sent to states to portion out to all non-entitlement communities based on population. Non-entitlement communities are counties with populations of less than 200,000.

“In light of historic, enhanced budgetary shortfalls caused by this ongoing outbreak, we must ensure our local governments have the direct funding they need to recover fiscally. This bipartisan proposal helps deliver vital funding to counties, towns, cities and villages of all sizes so that we can ensure our communities emerge on the other side of this outbreak stronger than ever,” Mr. Zeldin said in a release announcing the measure.

In other fiscal news, this week Governor Cuomo proposed The Americans First Law to be considered, requiring all corporate bailout packages come with a requirement that those employers rehire the same number of employees they had pre-pandemic, or risk having to return federal loans.

As of Wednesday morning, the county’s interactive map depicted 41,511 confirmed cases of COVID-19 countywide, with 916 in Southampton Town and 265 in the Town of East Hampton. As of 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, 1,654 people had died from COVID-19 to date in Suffolk County.

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