The head of New York state’s Port Authority has tested positive for coronavirus, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s health officials are releasing a plan for possible school closures if a child is found to have the illness. Meanwhile, the state is manufacturing its own hand sanitizer, to deal with the shortage of the disinfectant product.
Cuomo, in what has become a daily briefing on the spread of the illness, said Monday that Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has tested positive for the virus. Cotton is in quarantine at his home, where he is recovering. Cuomo says Cotton had been overseeing arrivals at the busy John F. Kennedy International Airport in recent weeks, and may have contracted the virus there.
“He’s been at the airports, obviously, when many people were coming back with the virus,” said Cuomo who said Cotton’s senior staff is also being tested and will be on quarantine.
New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, also at the briefing, released the latest numbers on the illness, and says he’s working with the state education department, or SED, to devise a plan for potential school closures, if a student comes down with the virus. Zucker says the plan is for the affected school to close for 24 hours to do a cleaning and assessment of the situation, and then decide whether to reopen the school or keep it closed for longer.
“You have a positive case, you want someone to go in there and clean the environment,” said Zucker, who said the health department will work with state education officials to investigate where the child caught the virus.
“Let’s try to get a little bit more information,” Zucker said. “That’s the purpose.”
The health department is also working with the federal Centers for Disease Control about a longer closure of public schools in New Rochelle, in Westchester County, where there is a cluster of cases. Cuomo says the region is a “significant hot spot” for the virus.
The governor says while the illness so far has not been severe in children, the strategy is to contain the spread wherever possible so that the vulnerable populations like the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions are not exposed.
“The image in my mind is, 9-year-old Johnny goes and kisses his grandmother, and now there’s an issue,” he said.
The governor says he is concerned for his own mother, Matilda Cuomo, who is 88, and he has urged her to keep away from public gatherings.
The state has recommend that nursing homes in New Rochelle suspend access to visitors, and says that other nursing homes around the state consider limiting visitors.
Cuomo says for now, there are no plans to suspend the legislative session or limit crowds at the Capitol, where hundreds often come during session days to lobby and hold demonstrations. He says the strategy is to impose restrictions where there are multiple cases of the illness, and urge caution, including handwashing and social distancing, everywhere else.
The governor also announced a practical solution to the hand sanitizer shortage. Prisoners at the Great Meadows Correctional Facility will be manufacturing 100,000 gallons of a hand disinfectant solution each week. Cuomo, trying to add a light note to grim circumstances, demonstrated the use of the product, saying it is better than what’s on the market, with a 75% alcohol content.
“It comes in a variety of sizes, it has a very nice floral bouquet,” Cuomo quipped.
The hand sanitizer, which costs the state $6 a gallon to make, will be distributed for free to schools, local governments and health care facilities that need it.
Cuomo says he’s sending an expedited bill to the legislature that would guarantee paid sick leave to New Yorkers who are placed on quarantine because of the corona virus.
The governor already included a paid sick leave measure in his state budget proposal. He says now he’s updating the legislation to guarantee workers in New York get paid leave when they are quarantined at home because of the coronavirus.
“I think it’s especially important that if government is ordering a quarantine, even a voluntary quarantine, that places a personal hardship on a person,” Cuomo said. “That person should get paid.”
Cuomo says a “significant” number of people are now being quarantined, and he says it’s in the interest of the business community that workers who are sick or may be carriers of the virus stay home and “stop the spread."
The governor says his staff is looking at whether the measure could be retroactive, to cover those already quarantined.
A spokesman for the state Assembly, Michael Whyland, says lawmakers there are working on a bill with the governor and the state Senate that could be approved in the coming weeks.