New York Officials Tell U.N. Coronavirus Has Spread Throughout City

Foreign diplomats claim briefers from the mayor’s office say no specific measures are planned to protect them.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio distributes information about the Coronavirus on March 9, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio distributes information about the Coronavirus on March 9, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

New York City officials advised the U.N. diplomatic community on Saturday that the new coronavirus has spread widely through the city and could potentially linger as a threat to the health of residents until as late as September, according to four diplomatic sources.

New York City officials advised the U.N. diplomatic community on Saturday that the new coronavirus has spread widely through the city and could potentially linger as a threat to the health of residents until as late as September, according to four diplomatic sources.

“Everyone in New York should assume that they have been in contact with COVID-19,” city officials told the foreign delegates, according to a readout of a conference call with New York-based diplomats, which was reviewed by Foreign Policy.

The briefers—who were led by Penny Abeywardena, New York City commissioner in the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, and included officials from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, outlined a series of “best practices” to help foreign delegations get through the crisis, according to the account. But they offered no assurance that the city would provide special services to foreign diplomats exposed to the virus in New York, including tests, according to the account.

“There are no particular measures,” officials told the diplomats, according to the readout, which was produced by a representative of a diplomatic mission who listened in on the briefing. “If you’re sick, stay home—this is how we save New York,” they said, according to the readout.

The readout did not directly quote the briefers, who included Demetre Daskalakis, the deputy commissioner in the health department’s Division of Disease Control, and Maura Kennelly, the acting associate commissioner for external affairs at the health department. It presented an overview of the meeting in the form of paraphrased questions from the diplomats and answers from city officials.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

The briefing to the diplomatic community came on a day when the number of confirmed cases of infections in New York state rose to 613, including 269 in New York City. They included a 65-year-old man from Rockland County and an 82-year-old Brooklyn woman, who were declared the state’s first coronavirus fatalities, and two New York State Assembly members, Helene Weinstein, 67, and Charles Barron, 69. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, announced the administration was moving forward with plans to “offer telecommuting or a staggered work schedule for about 100,000 city employees,” the New York Times reported. De Blasio, however, has resisted calls for shutting down the city public school system, the largest in the country.

During the Saturday afternoon briefing, New York City medical officials emphasized that New York is “in the mitigation phase of the outbreak,” according to the readout. “This means that all individuals should assume that they have had some contact with the virus and practice the maximum-possible social distancing; most cases will be mild and medical care should only be sought in urgent, worsening, or vulnerable cases.”

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The briefers characterized the most vulnerable as the elderly, particularly those over 70 years of age, and individuals over the age of 50 with underlying health conditions, according to the account.

City officials appeared to douse expectations, raised by President Donald Trump in a televised press conference with executives of major U.S. corporations, that testing would become widely available. Asked if there would be a list of testing centers made available to foreign missions, the briefers said, “No. You will be tested if a doctor advises; calling 311 can give access to a provider if patient doesn’t have one,” according to the readout, which was shared widely with the New York-based diplomatic community.

“Testing should be reserved for the sickest (hospitalized) patients,” the account said.

The four-page readout was largely consistent with a separate written one-page account of the meeting made available to Foreign Policy by two diplomatic sources. The second account asserted that New York City officials told foreign delegates that the crisis could potentially continue through September. “New York City is trying to flatten the curve of infections,” the account reported the city officials said.

The New York City officials said that the city has changed its strategy from the early days when the virus arrived in New York, when health authorities sought to track and contain small numbers of cases. “Testing is now less important—the danger of transmission is much higher as many people have now been exposed and the majority of people will only have mild symptoms,” according to the readout.

The city’s strategy appeared inconsistent with the advice of the World Health Organization, which has urged governments to combine containment policies, such as contact tracing, with mitigation policies aimed at preventing the transmission of the virus through so-called social distancing and the prohibition of large public gatherings.

Those who exhibit symptoms associated with coronavirus—fever, dry coughs, difficulty breathing—should isolate themselves from others.

The sick should only seek a doctor’s advice if symptoms are rapidly worsening or they experience shortness of breath. Any doctor’s office, they added, has the authority to order a test if needed, according to the account.

The ill should avoid seeking emergency care “except if advised by a doctor, and if co-morbidities are present such as cancer, elderly, etc.,” according to the first account. They said that the Department of Health is no longer asking for information about infections unless they are part of a “suspected high-risk cluster.”

“Interviews with confirmed cases and contact tracing is not a good use of our resources when the virus is widespread,” according to the readout. “There will be little emphasis on tracing.”

The city’s health officials said that those infected with coronavirus remain infectious for about 72 hours after their initial fever abates, but they should remain in isolation for an additional seven days after the symptoms subside. “We are hopeful that exposure to COVID will make people immune, but too early to say definitively,” according to the account.

Diplomats said they welcome the city’s candor in describing the crisis. But they expressed some concern about the city’s commitment to address all their needs. For instance, the delegations would be responsible for disinfecting their own missions in the event of an outbreak, noting that the city lacked sufficient supplies for them.

New York officials also said that it was unlikely they would notify foreign delegations if one of their nationals tested positive, citing the importance of maintaining patient privacy. The officials said they were unable to guarantee the city would be able to observe delegations’ diplomatic immunity to travel in restricted areas, saying they “would have to balance immunities with the needs of the community.”

One senior diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the briefing was confidential, said the basic takeaway was: “It’s your responsibility not to get infected, and your responsibility to stay home if you do. Your odds of not dying are rather great—if you get close, ‘Give us a call.’”

Correction, March 15, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a readout of a New York City briefing on the coronavirus to the New York City Mayor’s Office for International Affairs. The readout was written by a representative of a foreign mission in New York and circulated widely in the U.N. diplomatic community.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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