ALBANY — Gov. Cuomo moved Wednesday to tamp down hopes about a prompt reopening of the upstate economy.
He reiterated his message from a day before, that the shutdown of New York state would end in phases, and that regions least affected by the COVID-19 pandemic would reopen first. But the reopening will happen when it’s safe to do so, not when the people in a particular region want it to happen.
“My phone is ringing. I’m talking to many local officials, they feel pressure to open,” Cuomo said at his daily briefing Wednesday. “Don’t make the decision based on political pressure. I’m not going to do that. This is a profound moment. We make a bad move, it’s going to set us back.”
Republican legislators especially have been pressing for a timeline for reopening. For example, state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, and other minority-party senators on Wednesday called for him to provide data within a week on which regions of the state qualify to restart business.
Many others hold the same sentiment — reopen New York now — and have expressed it in tones both civil and crude.
Cuomo pushed back just as firmly Wednesday.
“Frankly, this is not the time to act stupidly,” he said. “This is not going to be over any time soon.”
The governor said he knows people want to get out of their houses, go back to work, bring home a paycheck.
“I also know more people will die if we are not smart. I know that. I have to do that count every day of the number of people who passed away. We’re not going to have people lose their life because we acted imprudently.”
As he asserted primacy in the matter, Cuomo also took responsibility.
“I have no problem with them blaming me,” he said, referring to city and county-level officials. “Say to everyone, whatever they say: ‘I agree with you. It’s the governor!’ Because, by the way, it is the governor. Local officials can’t contradict state law.”
Some 15,302 New Yorkers are known to have died from COVID-19 in 40 days starting March 13 and 257,216 have been confirmed infected since March 1.
Impossible to know is how many more would have died or just been sickened had Cuomo not taken the strong steps to limit human interaction that have put much of the state’s economy into hibernation and rendered more than a million New Yorkers newly unemployed.
The rate of new infections slowed in the weeks after the restrictions began. Whether that was a direct effect might be debatable but the sequence of the timing is unmistakable.
As Cuomo spoke Wednesday, a noisy protest was underway outside the Capitol, with people demanding he reopen the economy. Without directly saying they were off-base and misguided, the governor made that point repeatedly.
He spoke of a fundamental need for people to look out for not just for themselves during this crisis but for each other and for society in general.
“We have a responsibility today to ourselves and to others,” he said. “There is a codependency and a mutuality among people in society that is more clear and distinct than we have ever seen it. You sneeze, I get sick. It is that close a connection.”
END NOT NEAR
Also Wednesday, Cuomo described a massive effort at great cost and great duration to beat back the virus.
His goal is for 40,000 New Yorkers to be tested each day for COVID and an army of trackers to be hired and trained to trace everybody who’s had contact with each confirmed patient. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will play a prominent role in the effort.
The project would seem Sisyphean at best: Testing every New Yorker at a rate of 40,000 per day seven days a week would take more than 16 months — during which period people would fly or drive in and out of New York millions of times, each time potentially introducing new infections.
Cuomo conceded that full contact tracing is impossible with so much testing. And he later told WAMC’s Alan Chartock during an interview that he knows his goal is unachievable.
“You’ll never get there, but you do the best you can and you set the bar high.”
Cuomo gave no estimate for how much all this would cost the cash-strapped state.
“Whatever it costs, it costs,” he told a reporter. “What’s the value of a life?”
(Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, estimated direct COVID-related expenditures by the state at $2.8 billion so far.)
Reporters Wednesday peppered Cuomo with a series of questions about what the state is going to do about the large and growing death toll within residential elder-care facilities — the state tally stood at 3,505 deaths Tuesday, but was actually higher, because the data are self-reported by facilities and sometimes inaccurate or delayed.
These are private operations that need to run their facilities by the rules and regulations that govern their operation, he replied, and if they can’t, they need to let the state know.
“Any nursing home that calls and says we can’t do this, we’ll make accommodations,” he said.
The exact extent of COVID-19 in nursing homes and adult care facilities has been hard for members of the public to grasp; some operators are being secretive, the state has refused to release data on grounds of privacy and individual counties have widely varied policies.
For example, there have been at least seven deaths at elder care facilities within Schenectady County but county officials but won’t say which facilities. Albany County officials have been very specific about the disease at the county-owned Shaker Place: 22 residents and 12 employees confirmed with COVID and two residents deceased. Rensselaer County officials have publicized a running tally at Diamond Hill, a privately owned facility: 17 residents and seven staff infected, four residents dead. Officials in Columbia County, another place with numerous elder-care deaths, have detailed the situation at Pine Haven Nursing Home on a regular but not daily basis.
The state publishes data on individual facilities only if five or more residents have died in one.
Cuomo said Wednesday that new regulations for nursing homes would be announced Thursday.
Also Wednesday, Cuomo announced that the state will order health insurers to provide cash flow relief to New York hospitals and ease their administrative burdens.
The Department of Financial Services will direct insurers to immediately process outstanding claims for payment, provide additional financial assistance if needed, suspend preauthorization requirements for all services at hospitals, not do retrospective reviews of hospital claims and not deny payment based on medical necessity for inpatient or emergency department treatment for COVID-19.
Many New York hospitals are in serious financial straits, laying off or furloughing staff as they suspend routine business amid the crisis and see their revenue plummet.
The Healthcare Association of New York State, and industry organization that represents most upstate hospitals, had sought these types of measures and applauded them Wednesday.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced Wednesday that $4.3 billion in federal aid would be coming to hospitals in New York, the state hardest-hit by the pandemic.
In other COVID-19 related developments Wednesday:
- Albany County reported four more resident deaths from the virus and Schenectady County one more.
- State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued a new report Wednesday on the impact from the COVID-19 crisis, and said the impact will likely be worse than he predicted in his first report, a month ago. Further, the impact will likely last longer than the current 2020-2021 budget year. He also said long-term borrowing should be used in limited amounts and only as a last resort; anticipated Medicaid savings are not being realized; and the state should build up a rainy day fund for the next crisis.
- Two more area colleges furloughed staff, effective May 1: Skidmore and Siena. Skidmore said it lost $4.5 million in room and board charges and over $2 million from canceled summer programs. Siena said it would furlough 75 people, freeze some hiring and suspend contributions to retirement plans to deal with the anticipated $8.7 million cost of reimbursing room and board charges. RPI, Saint Rose and Union College previously announced furloughs.
- Alliance for Better Health announced an effort to provide about 7,500 smart thermometers to community-based organizations across the region. The internet-connected devices, produced by Kinsa Health, will be used for both clients and employees.