New York’s “patient zero,” at least as far as state health officials are concerned, was a Manhattan health care worker who had recently returned from Iran. She was followed by a New Rochelle lawyer who works in Manhattan. Then it was the rest of his family, including a daughter — who attends SAR High School in North Riverdale — and her older brother, a Yeshiva University student in Washington Heights.
And, suddenly, a disease that may have seemed a bit far-off when it was attacking parts of China, was hitting far closer to home.
This is just part of the local chapter filling the larger etiology of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Although it’s infected and killed far fewer people than the traditional flus already circulating the world, this coronavirus is causing many to lock themselves away and stay away from nearly everyone in the hope every good deed can stave off the spread of the feared virus.
SAR promptly closed both campuses on March 3, with plans to hopefully re-open March 16, after the Jewish holiday of Purim. But then its fellow elite schools shut down — Horace Mann High School, Riverdale Country School, Ethical Culture Fieldston School — and when in-person classes might resume at any of these non-public schools is a mystery even administrators aren’t sure about.
Manhattan College decided to play it safe as well, canceling in-person classes and ordering students living on campus to depart by the end of the week. When the College of Mount Saint Vincent joined them later that evening, however, it was already too late. A pair of students was suspected to have contracted the virus that causes COVID-19, and one of them — a grad student — tested positive.
The Mount immediately shut down its campus Tuesday, ordering everyone who can to leave their dorms by that evening.
That same day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent the National Guard to New Rochelle, creating a “containment zone” there as coronavirus cases topped 100.
“We have moved from a containment strategy to more of a mitigation strategy,” said Dr. Howard Zucker, the state’s commissioner of health, in a news conference this week. “When you’re dealing with mitigation, you have to deal with the issues of social distancing, and how people gather together, and try to minimize that.”
Starting March 12, schools and other gathering places in New Rochelle closed, and the National Guard is assisting in cleaning as well as delivering food.
Just eight miles due west from New Rochelle is the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. The medical director of the Palisade Avenue assisted living facility, Dr. Zachary Palace, is concerned. So is Hebrew Home’s chief executive, Dan Reingold. But no one is panicking just yet.
“I would just say that from the moment that coronavirus was on the map, we’ve been closely following the CDC website as well as getting guidance from the experts,” Palace said. That includes, among other things, frequent hand washing.
Hebrew Home staffers not only were washing their own hands well, Palace said, but keeping patients’ hands clean as well, in the hopes of preventing the virus from spreading if it were to make its way inside the facility’s campus.
“This is really part and parcel of what we do as health care practitioners, as geriatricians,” Palace said. “Good infection control practices don’t just reduce the risk of coronavirus infection, but really reduce any kind of infection being transmitted.”
Seasonal colds and the flu, as well as the quite unpleasant norovirus, are common in nursing homes and independent living facilities, Reingold said.
“Our staff are trained, we are way more prepared than an apartment building, or a mall, or even airports,” he said. “This is what we do.”
Media coverage and political divisiveness have created a “frenzy of anxiety,” Reingold said, while simply providing people facts and a level of control is the best way to keep patients and their families calm.
“What can people control?” Reingold asked. “Wash your hands, don’t touch your face. And if you don’t feel well, don’t go out and expose people. That’s what you can do.”
Older adults are among people most at risk for serious complications from the virus, as are people with underlying conditions including heart and lung disease, and those with weakened immune systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Soon after the community’s first real exposure to the coronavirus last week, a sign outside the Spuyten Duyvil library announced its weekly Lego Club — where children can build their own Lego structures — would be canceled until further notice.
Schools continued to be hit hard. Manhattan College closed this week with The Mount not far behind after getting its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Classes at both schools were scheduled to continue online even after spring break.
Horace Mann also has at least one student suspected of having the coronavirus, according to The Wall Street Journal. Whether that student tested positive or not was not revealed by presstime Tuesday.
Schools aren’t the only ones canceling classes and events, though. Riverdale Temple called off its Purim carnival that had been scheduled for March 8.
“We have the religious school on Sunday, but we had it outside,” Rabbi Thomas Gardner said. “The weather was nice. We had a short class.”
A Monday evening dinner also was canceled, but services were planned to continue as usual Monday afternoon.
“Mostly, as per the recommendations, we’re not closing unless we have a reason to close,” Gardner said. The rabbi added that no students from SAR attend the Sunday religious school.
“I would just say that nobody should panic, and we should follow the directives of the CDC and the Department of Health,” Gardner said.
The response from elected officials, however, varied significantly. State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi has provided daily updates to her constituents about the spread of the coronavirus, how to possibly avoid it, and what to do if you suspect you may have been exposed.
But Councilman Andrew Cohen and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz had more pressing matters — like asking the city’s transportation department to suspend alternate-side parking rules within the boundaries of Community Board 8 to “provide relief to constituents who have been instructed to self-quarantine based on their association with schools or synagogues in the area over concerns of possible exposure to the coronavirus.”
In a release, Cohen said the office was “closely monitoring developments in two new COVID-19 cases in the Bronx and several confirmed cases in Riverdale last week,” which he added had left several area residents in either mandatory or voluntary quarantine.
“There are a meaningful number of people who have connections with SAR who could have also had other contact in the community,” Cohen told The Riverdale Press. “I am not clear on how many of them have been tested, but we are trying to get that information.”
But Cohen does warn that all of this will get far worse before it gets better.
“I do believe that as the test becomes more widely available,” the councilman said, “it’s going to be determined that we have more people with it.”