Virus cases soar; Cuomo pleas for more medical gear

Associated PressGov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a media conference alongside the National Guard at the Jacob Javits Center, which will house a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, on Monday in New York City.

ALBANY — More than 600 New Yorkers are now being treated in hospital intensive care units after testing positive for the COVID-19 virus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.

Cuomo said the acceleration of statewide testing availability has contributed to a new surge in the number of known infections. As of Monday morning, the state had 20,909 confirmed cases. The total was pushed up by nearly 6,000 new cases in just one day.

The hospitalization rate in New York for those who have tested positive is at 13 percent, with 2,635 people being admitted to hospitals.

A total of 157 New Yorkers have died from the virus infection in the last two weeks. New York is the nation's epicenter for the outbreak

Cuomo signed an executive order requiring all New York hospitals to increase their state-approved capacity by 50 percent, noting his administration will waive rules limiting the number of beds the facilities can have.

Patients, regardless of which part of the state they are from, will be transported to the hospitals with space to accommodate the growing number of patients, the governor said.

"There is no upstate/downstate here," he said. "It is one state."

Construction crews were slated to begin setting up makeshift hospitals this week at SUNY's Stony Brook and Old Westbury campuses. The Army Corps of Engineers is also assisting as the state seeks to convert parts of the Javits convention center in Manhattan into hospital wings where hundreds of patients can get care.

Meanwhile, state officials have fielded some 30,000 responses from health care workers who have agreed to assist in the push to expand the state's health care capacity.

Cuomo acknowledged he expects he could face political consequences for the measures he has advanced to counter the spread of the virus, including an order that temporarily prevents all "non-essential" businesses from opening their doors to the public.

"Frankly, I don't even care about that," he said, noting his priority is to counter the spread of the virus, not his political future.

"I have no second thoughts on actions that I have taken," he said, adding: "I take total responsibility for shutting down the economy." At the same time, he acknowledged: "We have to start to plan the pivot back to economic functionality. You can't stop the economy forever."

But there was no immediate end in sight to the extraordinary measures aimed at curbing the spread of the contagion, with "non-essential" businesses across the state expected to remained closed at least in the short term.

"Life is going to be quieter for a matter of months," Cuomo said.

The quiet front now includes the world of high school athletics. The latest scheduled events canceled as a result of the pandemic were winter high school sports tournaments for hockey, basketball and bowling.

That call was made Monday by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.

"Our association’s focus is to benefit students through participation in interscholastic athletics and unfortunately this rapidly developing situation has prevented our association from providing a quality championship experience, the association's director, Robert Zayas, said in a statement.

He said while students would be left disappointed, "at this time they deserve honesty from the leadership of our association."

While the shutdowns of restaurants and bars has caused a spike in applications for unemployment benefits, several grocery chains and distribution centers announced they are hiring workers. Among them were Price Chopper, Walmart, ShopRite and Tops.

Consumers got a small measure of relief as gasoline prices edged downward. The American Automobile Association, linking the trend to a decline in crude oil prices, said the average price for a gallon of gasoline in Lockport was $2.41 Monday, a drop of 8 cents in a week and 21 cents below the price a year ago.

In Albany, Cuomo called on members of the millennial generation to practice social distancing, pointing out younger people can become infected and spread it to senior citizens and those coping with medical issues that impede their immune systems' ability to fight off the virus.

He also reiterated his plea for President Donald Trump to use his powers under the Defense Production Act, a statute normally invoked during time of war, to order private companies to produce ventilators, masks, hospital gowns and other gear needed by the health care system.

"Can I say that we’ll have enough equipment for next week? The week after?" Cuomo said. "I can't say. That’s out of our control, and that's where we’ll need the federal government.”

The equipment concerns are shared by the New York State Nurses Association, which represents more than 40,000 nurses. Carl Ginsburg, spokesman for the group, said registered nurses are reporting the supplies of personal protective equipment are insufficient.

"Should a surge of COVID-19 occur in the next two to three weeks, that shortage will result in serious health risks for nurses and will undercut care for patients," Ginsburg said.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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