ALBANY — New York will create more COVID-19 testing sites and ramp up testing for essential workers, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Saturday, as the state reported a drop-off in new positive cases and virus-related deaths.
The state saw 437 COVID-19 deaths and added 10,553 new cases Friday, bringing the daily totals back down to early April levels, Cuomo said.
Grocery store workers, transit workers, teachers and other employees deemed essential during the pandemic shutdown will now be eligible for diagnostic testing under the state’s expanded testing criteria, Cuomo said during his daily coronavirus press briefing Saturday at the Capitol.
The governor acknowledged the frustration over strict testing requirements and limited testing capacity, which until recently, prevented all but symptomatic medical personnel and first responders from being tested. Under the new testing criteria, Cuomo said diagnostic and antibody testing will become more widely available to frontline workers.
“As we develop testing capacity, the more we will open eligibility,” Cuomo said.
The number of collection sites has not kept pace with the increased number of laboratories processing the tests — a problem the governor said he is taking steps to remedy.
“We have boosted the lab capacity to an extent that we need more collection sites now,” he said. “We are going to authorize all the independent pharmacists in the state to be collection sites for testing.”
Cuomo plans to sign an executive order allowing independent pharmacies to conduct both diagnostic and antibody testing.
Greene County’s Kelly’s Pharmacy has already submitted paperwork to the state Department of Health seeking approval to conduct COVID-19 testing, owner Martin Kelly said. The independent pharmacy has locations in West Coxsackie and Greenville.
Kelly wants to help the community by increasing the availability of testing, he said, but would only do so with sufficient protective equipment and training from the state. Testing for coronavirus is an “entirely different” procedure than the finger prick or swab tests Kelly is trained to administer, he added.
“I guess I better figure out how to put a 6-inch swab up someone’s sinus cavity, because they never taught me that,” Kelly said.
The state is conducting about 20,000 tests a day and is working with the federal government to increase access to testing supplies and ramp up capacity to 40,000 tests a day in the coming weeks, Cuomo said. The governor previously called on officials in Washington D.C. to fix the supply chain bottleneck preventing the delivery of kits and chemical reagents.
The state will dramatically increase testing on first responders, health care workers and essential workers such as paramedics, police officers, EMTs and firefighters. Providing testing to those groups is a way of acknowledging the sacrifices frontline workers have made during the crisis, the governor said.
“Saying thank you is a good start, but even better than saying thank you, actions speak louder than words,” Cuomo said.
Officials provided an update on the COVID-19 infection and death rates in nursing homes around the state, which have recorded nearly 4,000 deaths since the virus outbreak began. Cuomo cited his record of investigating nursing homes during his four-year term serving as the New York’s attorney general in the mid 2000s and called such facilities “highly regulated and investigated.”
State Attorney General Letita James partnered with the health department to investigate nursing home violations of the state’s executive orders requiring timely communication with family members about COVID-19 test results and deaths, Cuomo announced Thursday.
“This crisis overwhelmed the nursing homes,” he said. “When I say no one is to blame, look, you had a virus that preys on vulnerable people, the concentration of vulnerable people is in a nursing home.”
State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker defended the state’s oversight of nursing home practices.
“We continue to reach out to nursing homes and we have done investigations,” Zucker said.
Representatives of the state Department of Health performed an inspection of Pine Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Friday. The Philmont facility has seen the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the Twin Counties region, with 29 residents testing positive for the virus and 12 deaths, as of Saturday.
Cuomo called any discussion of reopening the state premature, but noted any plan to reopen business would take a phased approach. The reopening schedules could vary by region, officials said.
New York will coordinate reopening with seven surrounding states and officials will be sensitive to areas on regional borders. If one region opened earlier than others, it could trigger a flood of visitors and cause a spike in new cases, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa said.
“The major goal is to not undermine each other’s success,” DeRosa said, who added the state does not yet have a timeline for reopening.
Four hard-hit public hospitals in New York City will begin increased antibody testing to determine how widespread COVID-19 infections are among first responders and medical workers. The governor did not say when widespread antibody testing will be made available.
As the state marked its 56th day of the COVID-19 crisis Saturday, Cuomo urged New Yorkers to keep a sense of perspective. Shutting down the state has saved 100,000 lives, by some expert estimates, the governor said.
“I believe everything we did was worth it,” he added.