Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a press briefing March 4

Ten confirmed coronavirus cases in Westchester County could lead to “dozens and dozens and dozens” more infections in the New York metro region, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a press briefing this afternoon.

The patient at the center of the outbreak is a 50-year-old New Rochelle man, an attorney who works in midtown Manhattan. He has an underlying respiratory condition and is in the intensive care unit at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.

Health officials do not know how the man contracted the virus. He had no history of international travel to an impacted region of the world within 14 days of becoming ill and no known contact with someone who did. He is the first confirmed case in New York believed to be contracted through person-to-person spread in the community. And person-to-person spread is responsible so far for nine other Westchester County infections announced by the governor this afternoon.

The man’s wife, two children, and a neighbor who drove him to a doctor’s office have all tested positive for the virus. Another friend of the attorney and that man’s family — his wife and three of his four children — have also tested positive. None of them have so far been hospitalized, health officials said.

A synagogue where the attorney attended services last week has been temporarily closed down, as have four schools, including Yeshiva University, where the man’s 20-year-old son is a student. People who attended services at Young Israel of New Rochelle on Feb. 22, or a funeral and bat mitzvah on Feb. 23 have been asked to self-quarantine until at least March 8. About 1,000 people in Westchester have self-quarantined, Cuomo said.

A local hospital where the New Rochelle man initially sought treatment has eight employees that are currently being tested.

“You see how quickly you touch hundreds of people,” Cuomo said. “It’s impossible to really contain it.”

Health officials are now tracking down and testing individuals who have had contact with all of the Westchester residents who have tested positive, Cuomo said.

“It is a function of mathematics,” the governor said, comparing the situation to the carnival game of whack-a-mole. “It’s going to be dozens and dozens and dozens. It’s going to continue to exponentially increase,” Cuomo said.

There has so far been only one confirmed case of novel coronavirus in New York unrelated to the Westchester County outbreak: a 39-year-old Manhattan woman who recently returned from travel to Iran, a country significantly impacted by the disease.

Currently 26 Suffolk residents are being monitored on voluntary home isolation, according to the Suffolk County health department. There are two people in Suffolk who are persons under investigation — being tested for coronavirus infection, a spokesperson said.
A third person under investigation tested negative Sunday. 

Anyone who has had contact with an infected individual should “self-quarantine,” the governor said.

“Self-quarantine is basically stay in your home, limit the exposure to the number of people that you might come in contact with,” Cuomo said.

The state continues to increase its capacity to test people with symptoms and as the number of tests increase, the number of confirmed cases is bound to increase, the governor said. There were likely numerous undetected infections in the community before testing was increased, he said. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today expanded its testing protocol to a wider group of symptomatic people. 

“Clinicians should use their judgment to determine if a patient has signs and symptoms compatible with COVID-19 and whether the patient should be tested,” the CDC said.

“Decisions on which patients receive testing should be based on the local epidemiology of COVID-19, as well as the clinical course of illness. Most patients with confirmed COVID-19 have developed fever and/or symptoms of acute respiratory illness (e.g., cough, difficulty breathing),” the CDC statement said. “Clinicians are strongly encouraged to test for other causes of respiratory illness, including infections such as influenza.”

Cuomo today also announced that SUNY and CUNY study abroad programs in China, Italy, Japan, Iran and South Korea were suspended, effective immediately. Students, faculty and staff currently studying or working in those countries will be flown aboard chartered flights to New York Stewart International Airport, screened by state health representatives and begin a 14-day quarantine in designated SUNY campus dorms.

The governor called on New Yorkers to remember to keep the coronavirus situation in perspective.

“We’re dealing with a coronavirus epidemic. We have a bigger problem, which is a fear pandemic,” Cuomo said. “And the anxiety here is outpacing the reality of the situation.”

The governor said people are more frightened of this illness than the facts justify.

“This is a virus that spreads much like the flu virus,” he said.

“Roughly 80% of the people who get the coronavirus will self-resolve, meaning they’ll have it, they’ll be walking around with it, they may have some symptoms, but they will self-resolve,” Cuomo said.

“Twenty percent may have a medical issue where they have to stay at home, where they may have to be hospitalized,” Cuomo said. “And the people at greatest risk are senior citizens, people with compromised immune systems or people with an underlying illness.”

The governor said people need to remember that “if you went out today and tested for the normal flu – you would find thousands of people positive with the flu. We have 15,000 people in the hospital today with the flu,” he said.

The hospitalization rate for people with seasonal influenza is less than 2%, according to data from 2010 through 2019 published by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tens of millions of Americans contract seasonal influenza each year.

The novel coronavirus first surfaced as a “pneumonia of unknown origin” detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China and was first reported to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31. The novel coronavirus outbreak in China was was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Jan. 30. There are currently 93,164 cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in 77 countries around the world, including the United States. There have been 3,199 deaths, including 11 in the United States — 10 in Washington State and one in California.

Katie Blasl contributed reporting.

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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.