File photo: Denise Civiletti

Local hospitals, schools and government officials are preparing for the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak in New York after the first case in the state was confirmed in Manhattan yesterday.

The 39-year-old woman, who returned from Iran on a commercial airliner Tuesday, has mild respiratory symptoms that do not require hospitalization, according to officials. She is currently self-isolated with her husband in her home.

Though health officials don’t believe she was contagious on her flight, they are contacting all of the flight’s passengers as a precaution.

“There is no doubt that there will be more cases where we find people who test positive,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo in a press briefing with NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio this morning. “We said early on, it wasn’t a case of if, but when,” Cuomo said.

In addition to the case in Manhattan, about two dozen other coronavirus cases have been reported in the United States so far. Six people have died from the virus, all in Washington State.

There are currently no confirmed cases or patients under investigation in Suffolk County, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. The department is currently monitoring 25 individuals under voluntary home isolation, who recently returned from mainland China, according to a spokesperson.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, flanked by State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, left, and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. Courtesy photo

Though Cuomo said this morning that “no one should be surprised” when the number of confirmed cases start to increase, he emphasized that the reality of the virus is “reassuring.”

Health officials believe that 80% of the people who become infected will recover on their own. The remaining 20% may require hospitalization and even intensive care. The virus is thought to have a 1.6% mortality rate, higher than seasonal influenza, which has a .06% mortality rate, but far less deadly than SARS or MERS.

“Our challenge now is to test as many people as you can,” Cuomo said. “You’re not going to eliminate the spread, but you can contain the spread.”

Hospitals and laboratories across the country were permitted Saturday to begin using their own labs to test for the coronavirus. Testing had previously been limited to people returning to the U.S. from regions where the virus is already rampant, as well as cases analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The ability of local labs to test for the virus, Cuomo said, will likely result in a rise of new reported cases. But it is also crucial to detecting cases of the virus early, before they can spread.

“We now can have results in hours instead of days,” he said this morning.

Northwell Health, Peconic Bay Medical Center’s hospital system, will begin testing at its Lake Success labs on Thursday, a Northwell spokesperson said this morning.

New York City labs will be able to start testing on Friday, de Blasio said.

How local officials are preparing

Local and state officials are preparing for the possibility of many more confirmed cases in the community.

The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person, through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughts or sneezes. It may be possible to become infected by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching one’s own mouth or nose, according to the CDC.

People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic, though some spread might be possible before people show symptoms, according to the CDC.

The state health department has issued advisories and guidance to hospitals and health care providers, EMS practitioners, school administrators and colleges.

The Riverhead Central School District said it is following the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create an emergency plan in the event of a local outbreak of the virus.

“The district is abiding by all of the guidance issued by the CDC, New York State Department of Health, the Suffolk County Department of Health and the New York State Education Department,” a district spokesperson said in a statement today.

“Our custodial department has been and will continue to be diligent in its disinfecting routine in all buildings for the duration of this health concern. Special attention is being given to areas of frequent contact such as door handles, handrails and desktops,” the district said.

RCSD representatives will attend a special meeting regarding the coronavirus tomorrow with Suffolk County officials, including representatives from the County Executive’s Office, the Department of Health, the Suffolk County Police Department, and fire, rescue and emergency services, according to the statement.

Walgreens has been sold out of protective masks since January. Supplies are backordered. Photo: Peter Blasl

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said the police department is prepared to handle an outbreak and is following precautionary protocols to protect first responders from infection.

“Last week we issued an advisory to all the officers,” Hegermiller said in an interview this morning.“All the cars have personal protective equipment kits, which include face masks and gloves,” he said. If people report illness, police personnel are instructed to ask if they have a fever or cough and have been outside the U.S. within the last 21 days, the chief said.

In the event that the virus spreads through the ranks of local police, existing backup plans are in place for support by departments around the region, as well as by state police and, if necessary, the national guard.

“Officers and EMS know what to do,” Hegermiller said. “We have the correct equipment and established procedures,” he said.

Riverhead Ambulance is taking extra precautions, such as reminding personnel of the importance of wearing proper protective gear and hand-washing to prevent the spread of germs, according to Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps Assistant Chief Mike Caron.

“We understand the seriousness of the situation and we are doing everything possible to protect ourselves and the public we serve,” Caron said today.

“If flu-like symptoms are discovered during the 911 call, that information is being relayed to the ambulance crews prior to arrival to allow them to don the correct protective equipment. You may see EMTs wearing surgical masks and it is nothing to be worried about, it is simply a precaution to prevent the spread of any possible pathogens,” Caron said.

“We are also in constant communication with Suffolk County Department of Health, Suffolk County EMS and Suffolk County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services who are providing continuous updates about the recent outbreak,” Caron said.

Area hospitals say they are well equipped to handle an outbreak.

Northwell Health, which operates Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, said its clinical protocols are designed to quickly identify potential infectious patients as they enter the health system’s facilities, isolate them as appropriate and prevent transmission of infections — including protecting front-line caregivers.

“If the worse-case scenario develops and the New York area does experience a large number of coronavirus cases, Northwell and its hospitals have plans in place to handle a surge in patient volume,” .

A spokesperson for Stony Brook Medicine, which operates Eastern Long Island Hospital and Southampton hospital in addition to Stony Brook Hospital, said the health system is monitoring COVID-19 very closely.

“We’re taking proactive and prudent measures to ensure the health and safety of the Stony Brook Medicine community. We have been implementing the CDC containment strategy guidelines for detecting, tracking and isolating cases of COVID-19,” Stony Brook Medicine said in a statement.

“In addition to the clinical protocols and screening process in place to quickly identify potentially infectious patients in the emergency department and outpatient areas, our teams utilize key infection prevention and control measures and staff wear recommended personal protective equipment. Stony Brook Medicine is utilizing the Hospital Incident Command Structure to streamline, focus and coordinate the wide-ranging activities required to maximally respond to the evolving situation within our community.”

The Nassau-Suffolk Hospital Council said Friday Long Island’s hospitals are all well-prepared for COVID-19.

“Hospitals learned many lessons about containing an infectious disease during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. With one confirmed Ebola case in New York State and only a handful of other cases noted in the United States, the CDC, state health departments, and local county health departments lost no time in preparing for more widespread disease occurrence,” the council said. “This positioned them well to deal with the current coronavirus and other novel and emerging infectious diseases.”

The governor struck the same chord in this morning’s press briefing.

“This is not our first rodeo,” Cuomo said, noting that New York has dealt with other outbreaks of contagious illnesses, including Ebola, avian flu, swine flu, seasonal flu and measles.

Officials reiterate that there is no reason for the public to panic and sought to allay anxieties.

But fears of a widespread outbreak have led panicked consumers to buy surgical masks at drug stores and online — swiftly causing shortages, including here in Riverhead. Masks have long been sold out at CVS, Walgreens and Barth’s pharmacies in Riverhead. Supplies are back-ordered and shelves can’t readily be restocked. Supplies of hand sanitizer gels have also been wiped out.

Surgical masks are unnecessary and not even effective to prevent infection, according to the U.S. surgeon general.

“Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” Surgeon General Jerome Adams, said in a tweet Saturday. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

Health officials urge people to take these simple steps to prevent the spread of this or any other virus:

  • Keep hands clean by washing with soap and water.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.
  • Avoid contact of your face with unwashed hands.
  • If you have a fever, stay home until you are fever free for at least 24 hours and follow up with your primary care physician.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.