14% of New Yorkers tested for antibodies have had COVID

Sample is too small to be meaningful but state will add data to track virus
Samples are taken Monday in Albany for COVID-19 antibody testing.
Samples are taken Monday in Albany for COVID-19 antibody testing.

ALBANY — Nearly 14 percent of the first sample of New Yorkers checked for COVID-19 antibodies early this week tested positive.

State health officials tested 3,000 people in 40 locations in 19 counties, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced at his daily briefing Thursday. That’s a tiny fraction of the 19.5 million people living in the state, too small for conclusions to be drawn.

But it’s a starting point in what the state hopes will be extensive rounds of testing for COVID antibodies, the proteins produced by the body’s immune system to fight off infection.

With enough antibody data, experts can determine how much of the population has been exposed to the virus and how deadly it is. Extrapolating from the 3,000 antibody tests, health officials estimate a death rate in New York of roughly 1 in 200 patients, or 0.5 percent — well less than initially feared.

The seasonal flu has a death rate around 0.1 percent of patients.

Cuomo offered two caveats: 3,000 tests isn’t enough to draw conclusions, and the death toll doesn’t include those who died at home, or those who may have died undiagnosed before the first confirmed COVID-19 death in New York on March 13.

“We’re going to continue this testing on a rolling basis,” Cuomo said. “We’ll have a larger and larger sample, but I want to see snapshots of that is happening with that rate. Is it going up? It is flat? Is it going down? It can really give us data to make decisions.”

Among those decisions will be which regions of the state’s economy to reopen, and at what time.

The positive antibody results were heavily weighted toward downstate, where the pandemic has hit hardest. In New York City, 21.2 percent of those tested showed antibodies to the virus. Just 3.9 percent of those tested upstate were positive for antibodies.

Cuomo has said he will likely reopen the economy in upstate regions first, but not immediately and not based on the desires of residents or their local leaders.

Asked by a reporter Thursday who would coordinate the reopening in the Capital Region — he’s named his current and former lieutenant governors to guide reopening of their native regions in western New York — Cuomo said he’d do it.

“I consider myself an adequate Capital District representative,” said Cuomo, a longtime presence in Albany as governor, law student and son of a governor.

Asked when the reopening would happen, Cuomo said he didn’t know — the numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths would guide him. “You tell me when the numbers change, I’ll tell you when we start the conversation.”

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, who is part of President Trump’s bipartisan task force on reopening the economy, has advocated for a prompt reopening the upstate economy, particularly in her sprawling North Country district, which has been affected only lightly so far in the pandemic.

During a conference call Thursday with reporters, she was not critical of the governor’s deliberate pace, and said she saw progress in such things as the reopening of golf courses and resumption of some elective surgeries in hospitals.

“I think we’re making headway,” she said. “I don’t think it’s all or nothing.”

The official statewide COVID-19 death toll stood at 15,740 on Thursday morning, 438 more than a day earlier. The dead included two people in Warren County and one each in Albany and Rensselaer Counties.

The number of COVID-19 patients newly admitted to hospitals held steady around 1,300 for a third straight day but they once again were outnumbered by patients being discharged after recovery, reducing the net hospital census for the tenth day in a row.

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