One of the first US virus hot spots is under siege again

Written By: Sarah Maslin Nir ©️ 2020 The New York Times The New York Times
New York Published: Dec 05, 2020, 11.39 PM(IST)

Coronavirus in New York Photograph:( Reuters )

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As the virus rages across Westchester County, it has returned to New Rochelle, a city hit so hard during the outbreak’s earliest days that it was for a time the epicenter of the pandemic in the region.

There are lines again at Glen Island Park, the drive-thru coronavirus testing center that state officials set up when the coronavirus was discovered in New Rochelle in March.

Nurses at the local hospital went on a two-day strike this past week over fears that their working conditions made them vulnerable to infection as hospitalization rates climb.

And at the synagogue where the first case here was detected nine months ago, a sign on the door now turns people who live in coronavirus hot zones away. Prayers for them are virtual.

As the virus rages across Westchester County, it has returned to New Rochelle, a city hit so hard during the outbreak’s earliest days that it was for a time the epicenter of the pandemic in the region. In early March, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s first so-called containment zone in this New York City suburb, New Rochelle’s fate proclaimed an unnerving message: The virus is here.

Now it is back.

On Friday, officials added 11,271 cases statewide as the daily positive test rate climbed above 5%. In New Rochelle, which added 73 cases Friday, the surge comes with a profound sense of defeat. The city of 80,000 about 20 miles north of Manhattan on Interstate 95 had at one point emerged as a model of how to beat the disease.

That the coronavirus could reemerge in a city and county scarred by loss and intimately familiar with the disease is not only a testament to the virus’s intractability. Local leaders and health experts fear it is also a bellwether for the rest of the country: If the disease can roar back into Westchester, the home of New Rochelle, a city that met the virus first and knows it with cruel intimacy, it can happen anywhere.

Some residents have returned to the extreme measures that helped them survive the first wave, cloistering themselves in their homes. Others said they had watched with dismay as their neighbors let down their guard.

“It’s crazy that it’s back at the scene of the crime,” said Josh Berkowitz, the owner of Eden Wok, a kosher Chinese restaurant on North Avenue, just down the road from the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue.

A congregant there had the city’s first detected case of the virus.

“It just shows we are so powerless,” Berkowitz said.

The seven-day average test positivity rate in Westchester has climbed to about 5%, far higher in some areas: In Peekskill and Ossining, the rate among those who have been tested is about 10%. In November, the state designated Port Chester, on the Connecticut border, as an “orange zone,” shutting down in-person schooling and closing certain businesses.

“The first time through we didn’t really realize how severe it would get, so we were learning as we went along,” said George Latimer, the Westchester County executive. “There was a sense that we took the best shot that COVID could give us, but we survived it, and things got better — but the virus isn’t done with us.”

Parts of New Rochelle, as well as parts of Yonkers, Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, have been labeled yellow zones, requiring measures like weekly coronavirus testing for 20% of the student population, among other steps. As of Friday, there were 5,968 active cases countywide — more than double the number two weeks ago — and over 290 people were hospitalized; numbers on par with what they were in May.

Controlling the spread, which is dispersed across the region, is particularly problematic in Westchester. During the virus’s recent resurgence, about 70% of infections have been tied to private gatherings, according to the state’s contact-tracing efforts.

“When the virus is contained to one geographic area, or one source of spread that is easily controllable, it is easier to ‘close the valve,’ either geographically or by industry,” said Gareth Rhodes, the state’s deputy superintendent of financial services and a member of Cuomo’s coronavirus task force.

Now, with six cluster zones scattered across the county, he said, the virus “is geographically more dispersed than just one area, and the ability to conduct enforcement of gatherings in private homes is much more limited.”

There are other striking differences from the pandemic’s earliest days: Where the initial outbreak was first detected among a middle-class community connected to a local synagogue, the disease is now afflicting the predominantly blue-collar workers in the denser pockets of Westchester’s towns. And as hospitals fill up again, doctors in the area have learned new treatment strategies, like delaying the use of ventilators.

“The situation we are facing right now is undoubtedly grave and challenging, but it doesn’t have the same intense anxiety that I think we felt in the spring when all of this was painfully unfamiliar,” said Noam Bramson, New Rochelle’s mayor. “This is now a more familiar enemy.”

On Tuesday, nurses at Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital staged a walkout over contract negotiations that began before the pandemic hit, but they also cited risks they had been subjected to by the outbreak.

“This place was the epicenter, the beginning of COVID,” Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, the president of the union representing the nurses, the New York State Nurses Association, told ABC News. “We have nurses who’ve died. We have people who’ve died, who’ve worked here for lack of PPE, for improper care, improper staffing and training. That’s what this strike is about.”

On Thursday, officials in Port Chester held an emergency meeting on how to fight the virus. Spanish and English language ads with clergy members and other local leaders highlighting the severity of the rise will be broadcast on local stations. Mobile testing units are being deployed. Giant electronic billboards flashing reminders to wear masks and social distance will be set up.

On Friday in Tarrytown, the annual party for the lighting of the village’s Christmas trees was moved online in an effort to comply with the yellow-zone restriction limiting outdoor gatherings to no more than 25 people. Similar holiday plans are in place in Sleepy Hollow, but also in areas that have not achieved that status but where numbers are creeping up, like Dobbs Ferry and Irvington.

Some county residents are taking matters into their own hands — as best as they can.

In New Rochelle, Dr. Michael Wechsler, 80, said that in recent weeks he had returned to the hermetic way he was forced to live at the height of the outbreak and had once again stopped going to the grocery store.

Wechsler, a urologist, blamed the rise in cases on a relaxed attitude toward the virus, even here, where National Guard troops rolled in to scrub public buildings in March, and fleets of health workers in head-to-toe protective equipment fanned out across neighbourhoods.

“People tend to repress something bad,” he said. “It’s a coping mechanism.”

In Port Chester, Ana Ponce, 79, put a surgical mask under the carrot nose of the inflatable snowman in her front yard as a message to her neighbourhood: Mask up.

“It makes me sad and it makes me worry,” Ponce said Thursday, referring to Port Chester’s 241 active cases.

By Friday, the total number of active cases in the village rose to 270.

Ponce said she was also frustrated by what she considered the lax approach that many local residents were taking to wearing masks and following social-distancing guidelines.

“A lot of people,” she said, “don’t have the sensibility to understand that they are hurting themselves and are hurting other people.”

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