Now that the coronavirus has arrived in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is warning residents to brace themselves for a smell with an overpowering, yet familiar, bouquet — bleach.
City workers, as part of the concerted effort to keep the virus from spreading, will be swabbing public places and conveyances with bleach and other antiviral treatments, the governor said Monday.
“When you get on a bus or when a child goes to school, it’s not bad cologne or perfume,” Cuomo said. “It is bleach.”
Cuomo’s warning came after the city health department reported the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in New York City, a 39-year-old Manhattan woman who recently returned from Iran with her husband.
“She did not take any public transportation, as she was a health care worker she was very aware of this situation and the potential for this situation,” Cuomo said. “We don't believe that she was contagious when she was on the plane or when she took a private car from the airport to her residence.”
While New York City may have lucked out with this victim, Cuomo said it’s only a matter of time before it gets hit hard by the virus that has already infected more than 80,000 people in 37 countries and caused nearly 3,000 deaths.
“It’s not a question of if but when, “ Cuomo told reporters at a briefing attended by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “This is New York. We are a gateway to the world.”
De Blasio said there are more than 1,200 hospital beds at the ready should they be needed.
“Don’t hesitate to get to a doctor or a health care facility,” he said. “We all know a lot of people, particularly New Yorkers, tend to shrug things off. If you have the symptoms … get to health care right away.”
Meanwhile, the state will be stepping up its testing capabilities and the city will have its own testing system in place by Friday, officials said.
In addition to “instituting new cleaning protocols in our schools, on public transportation,” Cuomo said he is seeking $40 million from the state Legislature for additional staff and equipment and to boost coronavirus testing.
“Our challenge now is to test as many people as we can,” Cuomo said. “You are not going to eliminate the spread, but you can limit the spread.”
To that end, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who heads the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, has urged cities across the country to prepare “social distancing measures” like canceling large public gatherings, dividing classrooms into smaller groups or giving students some days off, postponing face-to-face meetings and conferences, and arranging for people to work from home.
But that is a challenging proposition in a place like New York City where 9 million people live cheek by jowl and rely on the subway and buses to get around.
“Chances of spread would be far less if, for example, you lived in a rural environment with less crowding,” Dr. Michael Augenbraun, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, said. “It’s one of the reasons people are entertaining the idea of ‘social distancing’ as a strategy. Remove the crowding element and reduce the risk of spread.”
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the oft-criticized agency that runs the New York City subways and suburban rails, said it has no plans to reduce service.
"As the governor said today during his press conference, 'people should go about their normal lives,'" Meredith Daniels said in an email to NBC News. "There is one case in New York state and it involves a health worker. So, we don't believe there is any reason customers should not use public transportation. We have contingency plans in place for everything regarding weather, health issues, etc. We are doing extra cleaning out of an abundance of caution."
Luckily, New York City had time to prepare for the coronavirus, said Dr. Vanessa Raabe, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at NYU Langone Health.
"At this point, there’s no evidence that people have to change their daily routine, except that if they are sick, they should stay home,” she said.
But, Raabe added, “We expect to have more cases.”
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So, New Yorkers should plan for the worst.
“Start thinking about what your plans would be if you have a sick child or your child has to stay home for a few weeks with schools closed,” she said. “Do you need medications? Do you have some food at hand? That doesn’t mean you have to stockpile. It's just that many New Yorkers eat out a lot and may not have much at home."
Above all, “the message to New Yorkers is not to panic.”
Easier said than done. In the Greenwich Village neighborhood, nervous New Yorkers were turning disposable masks into the hottest new fashion accessory.
They are on backorder at the Village Apothecary after they sold out over the weekend along with the store’s supply of hand sanitizer, store manager Alex Chavez said.
“Currently, our masks and hand sanitizers are on backorder and we don’t know when they’ll arrive,” Chavez said. “Everybody is stocking up and we’re seeing a lot of people wearing them on the streets.”
Chavez said they experienced a similar run on masks back in 2014 when the city was menaced by the Ebola virus, “only this is worse.”
“For some reason, people are really panicking,” he said. “Now that the first case has been reported in New York City, people have been coming in not just for masks and hand sanitizer, they’re asking for their medications in advance, in case it gets really bad and they can’t come out.”
The big chains are also reporting a run on masks and hand sanitizer.
"This has been a heavy cold and flu season even before the coronavirus, and Rite Aid is doing our best to manage inventory across our stores," store spokesman Chris Savarese said.