North Shore communities react to coronavirus

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Sen. Chuck Schumer and Northwell Health’s Dr. Dwayne Breining tour Northwell Health’s Core Lab in Lake Success, NY on March 2. Northwell will begin testing for COVID-19 this week. (Photo courtesy of Northwell Health)

The state’s largest health system is preparing to test, towns and villages are advising residents to wash their hands, schools are urging sick students to stay home, the county legislature is holding a special hearing, and one of New York’s senators is fighting for further funding for Long Island – all in response to growing fear of the coronavirus hitting the North Shore.

THE BASICS

In total, 118 cases of the virus have been confirmed in the United States and nine of the confirmed patients have died.

The State of New York’s first two confirmed cases, a woman living in Manhattan and a man living in Westchester County, were announced recently by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. No treatment or vaccine is currently available.

The state of New York’s first two confirmed cases, a woman living in Manhattan and a man living in Westchester County, were announced recently by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. No treatment or vaccine is currently available.

The existing strain of betacoronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2 and which causes the disease COVID-19, according to the CDC, began in Wuhan in the Hubei Province of China late in 2019, and has spread to areas across Europe, Africa, Australia and the Americas. Symptoms are marked by a fever, cough and shortness of breath, and often lay dormant for up to two weeks, according to the CDC. The elderly and those with autoimmune diseases are particularly at risk.

Areas in and around the North Shore and Nassau County are now taking action should the virus hit Long Island.

NORTHWELL HEALTH TO BEGIN TESTING

Laboratories led by Northwell Health, the largest health system in the state, “will have the ability to begin testing for COVID-19 by Thursday, March 5.”

Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director of laboratory services at Northwell, said manual testing for coronavirus could begin this week, with 75-100 tests processed daily.

“Once the process is fully automated, we will have the ability to conduct tests within three-to-four hours of receiving samples at the lab, and report the results immediately,” Breining said.

Over the past six weeks, Northwell has already invested more than $5 million on coronavirus preparation, including more than $2 million for lab testing and supplies. The investment is expected to jump significantly once the health system begins to encounter and respond to cases of coronavirus.

VILLAGES AND TOWNS

The Village of East Hills issued an email to its residents from Mayor Michael Koblenz regarding the virus, advising residents to stay home from school or work if sick, avoid shaking hands and close quarters, stocking up on sanitizers and antiseptic wipes, and washing hands.

“We hope that the coronavirus will not spread further and that its impact will certainly not be felt in Nassau County,” Koblenz wrote. “However, our Board and I will be updating you on any relevant information which you and your families may need over the next few weeks.”

At a recent Great Neck Library Board of Trustees meeting, board Vice President Liman Mimi Hu said she has heard concerns about the virus from the Chinese-American community.

“I know some people are already pushing for the schools to shut down if there are some sick children,” Hu said. “The [Chinese-American] community is pretty paranoid about this.”

Library board Trustee Scott Sontag suggested an increase in hand sanitizer and Trustee Barry Smith proposed the idea of having each library branch have a sanitizing station when patrons walk inside.

At the Town of North Hempstead’s meeting on Thursday, Director of Finance Steve Pollack advised residents to cover mouths when sneezing or coughing.

“Right now, we’re in constant communication with municipalities as well as the legal department of Nassau County,” Pollack said. “So obviously we’re waiting for more information as everybody else is. I think we’re going to be doing PSAs and also installing hand sanitizers… Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough.”

Pollack also said that “right now I believe there are 83 persons under investigation in Nassau. We’re involved in communicating with them and getting more information.”

Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth thanked Pollack for making sure they had “processes in place so that we’re prepared.”

“We’re also urging employees not to come in if they’re sick,” Bosworth said.

SCHOOLS

School districts are also keeping up their communities up to date on handling the virus.

Peter Giarrizzo, the superintendent of the North Shore schools, said at a board meeting Thursday night that the district is taking precautions, among them paying extra attention to cleaning high-frequency spots, acquiring the necessary supplies, following CDC guidelines, and investigating other resources.

“This is an issue all 56 districts [in Nassau County] are juggling,” Giarrizzo said.

A letter sent to parents in the Port Washington School District and authored by Superintendent Michael Hynes sought to “assure” the community that the district remained in close contact with county, state, and federal health officials regarding health policies and any proactive action.

“In accordance with CDC recommendations, and as an additional precautionary measure, we are asking parents and families who have recently traveled to mainland China, other Asian countries, and European countries such as Spain and Italy, to please contact your child’s building principal or central administration,” Hynes wrote.

Manhasset Superintendent Vincent Butera also wrote a letter to parents, stating that the district’s Pandemic Plan, a part of the District-Wide School Safety Plan, had been updated and that all spaces in the schools had been disinfected.

“If you have specific questions about your child’s health, please be sure to communicate with your child’s physician,” Butera wrote. “Students who show any evidence of not feeling well should remain at home and students who are ill must be fever-free for at least 24 hours (without using a fever-reducing medicine) before returning to school.”

Roslyn School District Superintendent Allison Brown also sent a letter to the school community, stating that on Thursday that she and other superintendents had met with Nassau County Commissioner of Health Lawrence Eisenstein.

“The Commissioner was very forthcoming as he described what is known about the disease and the preparatory measures that are being taken to address it,” Brown wrote. “While other countries are calling for stringent measures to control the spread of the virus, including enforced social isolation and widespread closures, Dr. Eisenstein reminded us that such steps are nowhere near necessary in any part of the United States at this point. If such steps are in fact called for in the future, those decisions will be recommended on a regional basis by health authorities.”

Great Neck Public Schools District Superintendent Teresa Prendergast has sent out several letters to parents advising them that the district will comply with the County’s Department of Health and monitor any students who may be returning from China.

“Rest assured that we will continue to follow the directions we receive from State and local authorities regarding the Novel Coronavirus, and will take the precautionary measures outlined above for the safety of our school community,” Prendergast wrote. “I will continue to keep you updated on any information as I receive it.”

East Williston School District Superintendent Elaine Kanas provided parents with links to the Center for Disease Control’s website and said the district will continue to work and touch base with Eisenstein frequently.

“According to Dr. Eisenstein, the same practices that help prevent the spread of colds and flu will also work to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus,” Kanas wrote. “As such, we continue to implement our cleaning practices in accordance with the guidelines from the New York State Education Department.”

Efforts to reach the Herricks and Sewanhaka school districts for comment were unavailing.

TRANSIT AUTHORITIES

The Metropolitan Transit Authority said in a statement that it will be sanitizing its entire fleet of trains, cars and buses every 72 hours and will increase sanitization procedures at stations.

“While we understand the concerns over the coronavirus, the reality is the risk in New York remains low,” said Chief Operating Officer Mario Péloquin. “We want our more than 8 million customers and our employees to know that we are taking every precaution to ensure their safety, starting with sanitizing of the entire system. We will continue to keep the public fully informed and we thank our frontline employees for their efforts.”
MTA employees will also be disinfecting commonly touched surfaces in the authority’s hundreds of stations.

 

COUNTY AND FEDERAL

The Nassau County Legislature’s Health Committee will hold a special hearing on the virus on Monday, March 9 at 10:00 a.m. in the Legislative Chamber, committee chair and Legislator Rose Marie Walker said on Tuesday.

Members of the County’s Office of Emergency Management and Health Department will be questioned on their preparedness and resources to deal with a potential outbreak, and the public is invited to attend and ask questions.

“By giving residents an update on the state of the County’s readiness for a potential outbreak, it should ease anxiety and prevent misinformation from spreading through our community,” Walker said. “We are committed to working closely with our colleagues at the federal, state, and local levels to secure any additional resources that might be needed to be completely prepared for a possible outbreak.”

County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement that the county was “working around the clock” to ensure its residents’ health and safety.

“Nassau County has been aggressively monitoring and working with both state and federal officials to test individuals suspected of contracting the virus,” Curran said. “To date, there is still no evidence that the coronavirus has reached Nassau County.”

Curran said in a separate statement that the preparation would be costly.

“While we are still calculating the costs of COVID-19 Coronavirus, we can estimate that monitoring, preparations, staffing and other essential expenses are likely to put a strain on the County’s budget,” Curran said.  “Federal funding is crucial to assist the County in continuing to protect the wellbeing of our residents.”

At the federal level, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer’s (D-NY) office stated in a release that the senator was working to create a plan to “inject funding” into efforts for coronavirus treatment on Long Island.

“There is still a lot we are learning about the novel coronavirus, but one thing is certain: it’s going to take dollars to tackle,” Schumer said. “Across Long Island that means counties, localities and hospitals will likely spend millions of dollars, collectively, over the next few months to confront the crisis and guard public health.”

Janelle Clausen and Daniel Offner contributed to this story.

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