New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner of Health for New York City Dr. Oxiris Barbot speaking at a press conference at City Hall. (Photo: Jonathan Greig)

By Jonathan Greig

The spread of COVID-19 across New York state has dominated headlines and shocked millions as the death toll continues to rise steadily. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency on March 12 and days later said people should prepare for the prospect of a “shelter in place” order that would effectively quarantine the city’s 8.6 million residents. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has since said the state will not allow any quarantines or “shelter in place” orders but has urged people to stay home and stay at least six feet away from most people. 

On Sunday March 8, there were only 105 cases of coronavirus across New York state. In just 10 days, the number has skyrocketed to at least 2,382 and 20 people have been killed by the virus, with 10 in New York City alone. The number of infected in New York City is expected to grow beyond 1,000 on Wednesday, according to de Blasio.

In a city wide address on Tuesday, De Blasio said it wouldn’t be long before the city and state hit more than 10,000 cases and Cuomo noted that the situation is proving to be far worse than expected. The number of cases balloons significantly every day, yet Cuomo said experts told him the peak of the outbreak would be 45 days from now on May 1. 

Cuomo told The New York Times that the state has an estimated 53,000 hospital beds and just 3,000 intensive care beds. To fill the potential need coming, the state would need to come up with more than 100,000 beds and at least 37,000 intensive care beds.

“The scarcity portends a greater failing and a worse situation than what we are seeing in Italy, where lives ‎are being lost because the country doesn’t have the health care capacity. States cannot build more hospitals, acquire ventilators or modify facilities quickly enough,” Cuomo said in an Op-Ed on March 15. 

“At this point, our best hope is to utilize the Army Corps of Engineers to leverage its expertise, equipment and people power to retrofit and equip existing facilities — like military bases or college dormitories — to serve as temporary medical centers.”

Of the 3,000 intensive care beds currently available, more than 80 percent of them are already taken. Students from New York University were told on Wednesday that they have to vacate their dorm rooms because they will be used as makeshift hospitals

COVID-19 and immigration

Haitian-American District Leader for the 42nd Assembly District Josue Pierre urged Haitians across New York to stay calm and avoid fear-induced panic. 

“Everyone needs to take reasonable precautions and prevent panic but people need to be well informed. For a large portion of the Haitian community where English is a second language, health guidelines need to be relayed both in English and in Creyole. The information can be given in Haitian Creole and French if they want it,” Pierre said.

For the Haitian community in New York, the city has released dozens of notifications in Haitian Creole and the federal government has reiterated that regardless of immigration status, people should seek medical attention if they feel their life is in danger. 

Despite changing immigration rules just two weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security released an advisory last week saying someone’s immigration status will not be affected by any attempts to seek medical help. 

“USCIS encourages all those, including aliens, with symptoms that resemble Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) (fever, cough, shortness of breath) to seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services.  Such treatment or preventive services will not negatively affect any alien as part of a future Public Charge analysis. The Public Charge rule does not restrict access to testing, screening, or treatment of communicable diseases, including COVID-19. In addition, the rule does not restrict access to vaccines for children or adults to prevent vaccine-preventable diseases,” the statement said.

In reference to the “public charge” rule changes in February, the statement said immigration officials will not consider testing, treatment or preventative care (including vaccines, if a vaccine becomes available) related to COVID-19 as part of a public charge inadmissibility determination, nor as related to the public benefit condition applicable to anyone seeking an extension of stay or change of status, even if such treatment is provided or paid for by one or more public benefits, as defined in the rule like federally funded Medicaid.

At a press conference, Commissioner of Health for New York City Dr. Oxiris Barbot said no hospital will ever ask about immigration status. 

“If people are uninsured, we work with them to get them insured. That shouldn’t be a reason not to access care. Since the beginning of this outbreak, we have been reaching out to different communities to ensure that we are putting out things on our website but we are making ourselves available to answer questions,” Dr. Barbot said. 

Because most people are staying home, restaurants across the country are struggling to survive and millions have already lost their jobs, especially those in the hotel, airline and cruise industry.

Haitian-American Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus, who represents the 46th Assembly District covering parts of Brooklyn, called for the state to provide every New Yorker with $1,000 each month in emergency universal basic income and said struggling restaurants should provide food to those who are elderly or have limited mobility.

“Business as usual is a public health risk. But it is a risk that people will take if they don’t have a way to feed their families,” she said. “There are restaurants sitting idle and hungry people who need to stay home. This is how we can support our communities. This is a win-win. These are people who need care. Out of sight does not mean out of mind.”

Haitian Nurses and Coronavirus

Nursing homes across the country have had to face the brunt of coronavirus-related devastation, with dozens of elderly people becoming infected and dying from the disease in alarming numbers.

In New York state and particularly in New York City, thousands of Haitians and Haitian-Americans work in nursing homes or as at-home nurse aides, caring for many of the state’s elderly and infirm. 

Kelynne Edmond, a Haitian-American nurse and president of the Haitian American Nurses Association, said nursing homes are very susceptible to coronavirus because they don’t always meet the standard of basic infection control practices in terms of using the right cleaning agents that kill some of these infectious diseases. Many nursing homes already deal with staffing shortages, forcing the nurses available to work longer hours than usual.

There is also a dire lack of basic practical personal protection equipment, which could leave nurses exposed to the virus themselves as they try to protect patients. 

Bonnie Castillo, the executive director for National Nurses United, has come out and expressed concern about the same issue, telling ABC that anger is increasing amongst most nurses “because they know that there’s no reason for this,” 

“They love taking care of crises; that’s what they do. But to not have the protections that they need in order to do it is becoming increasingly frustrating,” said Castillo, who is head of the country’s largest union for registered nurses.

These nurses also are in a particularly difficult situation because if they do not show up to work, they do not get paid, forcing many to go into work when sick themselves. 

“This morning when I showed up at a facility with my nursing students, I met with the executive director and it was in the best interest of the patients and the students that we suspend our clinical rotations, which is significant because these students need clinical hours,” Edmond said.

“Nurses are infamous for taking care of everyone else. But they really don’t take time out to care for themselves, particularly our Haitian nurses. You have these women and nurses who hold one, two or three jobs, all to make ends meet. At the same time, that same nurse is not taking care of herself and therefore becomes susceptible to illness. All of this plays a role.”

Edmond added that most nursing homes have vetting all visitors to nursing homes by checking their temperatures. If your temperature is 101 or higher, you are not allowed to enter the nursing home. 

Coronavirus best practices

Both Edmond and New York City officials have urged people to wash their hands, use hand sanitizer and stay home if you feel sick. If you feel like you have the virus, call your doctor and speak through your symptoms. It is key that you do not go to the ER first, because hospital resources are already being strained and you may infect healthcare workers in the process. 

It is still difficult to access coronavirus tests, so the city is urging everyone to simply stay home if they feel sick and only seek medical attention if they feel their life is in peril. 

“There is no treatment, so when we say that people will get the appropriate treatment, it means that if they are sick enough where they can’t eat or they can’t drink and they need to be in the hospital to receive intravenous fluids so they don’t become dehydrated, they will get that. If their pneumonia because of COVID-19 is severe enough that they have difficulty breathing and they need oxygen, they will receive it,” Dr. Barbot said.

“Wash your hands frequently, with soap and water, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer, cough into your sleeve, not your hand. If you’re sick, don’t go to work. We want people to stay home for 48 hours, if you’re not feeling better, people generally start feeling shortness of breath. We want people to talk to doctors and notify them of symptoms. When you are sick, we are asking businesses to help workers stay home.”

Dr. Raul Perea-Henze, New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Health & Human Services, was honest about how far the virus will spread but said people should try to keep their lives normal while still following the city’s guidelines for safety. 

“80% to 90% of all of us could be touched [by the virus] and we are going to be OK. We may have mild symptoms. We need to protect those most at risk and those are our seniors and people who have preexisting conditions,” Dr. Perea-Henze said.

“Only 1% of the population that has been affected worldwide right now is in serious condition. The average age [of death from the virus] in China is 81 years old. We don’t have that many cases but it’s ok to try to live a normal life with the precautions that we need to address the virus’ spread.”

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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