ALBANY – One day after the first confirmed case of coronavirus in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had a piece of advice for the state:
“It’s deep breath time," he said.
Twelve hours later, both houses of the state Legislature agreed to pass a what became a controversial bill Monday night that Cuomo requested to appropriate $40 million in state funds to pay for equipment and staff hiring for prevention and response efforts to the spreading virus. The legislation also extends until April 2021 the authority for Cuomo to spend state money in emergency situations.
The measure passed the Senate easily Monday night but the Assembly went past midnight debating a bill that, besides the $40 million, gives major new powers to the governor. Some Democratic lawmakers, as well as Republicans, blasted the idea of giving the Democratic lawmaker such supreme powers.
The measure states that the governor can use executive orders to issue “any directive,'' including suspension of certain laws, during a state disaster emergency – which governors declare – that could involve anything from a disease outbreak to a fire, hurricane or terrorist attack. Critics during floor debates said the Legislature was, once again, ceding too much authority to the executive branch to act unilaterally in any of an assortment of unknown ways in the future.
The bill was pushed quickly through by use of a message of necessity, a route governors take on an assortment of matters that bypasses the legal, three-day aging period for legislation in order to give the public a chance to read and comment on the ideas.
The governor's comments on CNN came as the state is also looking to impose new cleaning protocols at schools and other facilities across the state, though Cuomo repeatedly cautioned that New Yorkers should not be overly concerned about the virus and that far worse epidemics have hit the state previously.
The Manhattan woman infected with the novel coronavirus is a health care worker traveling back from Iran who took precautions to keep from possibly spreading the virus, Cuomo said. He said the woman traveled with her husband last Tuesday to New York, but believes she became contagious after arriving back at her Manhattan home. He confirmed that she is in isolation in her Manhattan home.
“Either coincidentally or purposely, she took precautions that actually turned out to be very advantageous,’’ Cuomo said of the woman’s actions in traveling back to New York and remaining “virtually isolated” upon arriving and “isolated once again” presently. She did not take public transportation in New York, but Cuomo said he expects “community spread” of the virus at some point in such a densely populated area as the five boroughs.
“She knew to take precautions herself, which was fortunate," he told CBS. He did not say what precautions the woman might have taken on her plane from Iran to New York, but he said a process is underway to identify other passengers.
Cuomo also said tests on two other people in New York are pending. The health care worker's positive test for the virus was made public Sunday night. She did not have symptoms when she was traveling, Cuomo said. He did not say when she was tested or when she traveled.
“New York is the gateway to the world, so that’s not shocking," Cuomo said about expected cases that will be on the rise in New York. He said the key task of government now is to contain the virus from becoming an epidemic in the state.
Over the weekend, New York was given permission by the federal government to do its own testing for the virus at the state health department lab in Albany. The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday issued an emergency order permitting testing to be conducted in labs across the United States.
On Monday, Cuomo administration officials said the infected woman was tested Sunday morning. The specimens were transported to the Wadsworth Center, the state health department's main lab located minutes from the state Capitol; results came back early Sunday evening and Cuomo announced the results.
At an event later with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and state and city health officials and New York City hospital executives, Cuomo said the virus-infected woman returned from a business trip to Iran last Tuesday.
“We don’t believe she was contagious when she was on the plane” or in a private car from the airport to her Manhattan home. She was also with her husband, who is also a health care worker and who officials believe will test positive for the virus; both are in isolation at home.
Cuomo and de Blasio sought to promote a "stay calm" theme.
“It wasn’t a question of if, but when," Cuomo said of the virus coming to New York. Officials stressed that New Yorkers should not be afraid to shop in stores or take public transit.
"Once you know the reality, it is reassuring. And we should relax," Cuomo says of virus concerns. He noted that 80% of positive virus cases get "self-resolved" and that the mortality rate of coronavirus is estimated at 1.4%, compared to a 0.6% rate for the seasonal flu.
Cuomo said the state is working with private labs and hospitals across the state so that the capacity for testing the virus will reach 1,000 per day within a week; the current system can handle a couple of hundred tests per day. He also said new cleaning protocols – a bleach-based approach – are being developed for schools and other big institutions in the state.
"We have gone through this before," Cuomo said of virus outbreaks. He recalled the 2009 swine flu period, in which more than 100 schools in New York were temporarily shuttered. And the Ebola virus was "much more frightening,'' he said.
The Democratic governor also said he has no complaints with how the Trump administration has handled the response to the virus but that he expects Washington to help New York State with the costs associated with its own response.