New Rochelle, Once a Coronavirus Hot Spot, May Now Offer Hope

“Everybody talks about flattening the curve, and I think that’s exactly what we were able to do,” a health official said.

Credit…Kevin Hagen for The New York Times

Sharon OttermanSarah Maslin Nir

Two weeks ago, an unexpected cluster of coronavirus cases in New Rochelle, N.Y., seemed an unnerving sign that an outbreak that had devastated China and Italy was taking hold in the New York region and could spread rapidly.

The state took drastic measures that stirred a backlash, including creating a containment zone. But now, the latest data indicates that the measures may be starting to work.

The outbreak, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo once said was advancing “unabated” in New Rochelle, has appeared to slow: Over the last four days, only 38 new cases were reported to the county.

“Everybody talks about flattening the curve, and I think that’s exactly what we were able to do in New Rochelle,” said Dr. Sherlita Amler, the Westchester County health commissioner. “We know we can’t stop every single case, but our goal was to reduce the number of cases, and I do think the measures were successful in doing that.”

State and local health officials cautioned that it was too early to declare victory, but the results seemed to show how tough social distancing measures, first adopted here and then imposed around the country, combined with an aggressive testing philosophy, can have an impact on curbing the coronavirus.

The experience in New Rochelle, a small city just north of New York City, has converted early skeptics, including some residents who had chafed at the restrictions.

“In the beginning, it felt like house arrest,” said Samuel Heilman, a New Rochelle resident whose family was among those ordered to self-quarantine on March 3. The families had all attended the same synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle, as a lawyer who was the first person diagnosed with the coronavirus in the community.

“In effect, it felt like we were being punished,” Mr. Heilman said. “But the punishment turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This is really a case of perspective.”

Although aggressive testing and confinement orders have shown promise in New Rochelle and elsewhere, including in South Korea, it may be too late to employ similar strategies in places like New York City, where the number of positive cases has overwhelmed the city’s ability to offer tests broadly or to trace the contacts of those infected.

The lawyer at the center of the New Rochelle cluster, Lawrence Garbuz, 50, fell ill on about Feb. 27, and was confirmed on March 2 to have the coronavirus. Health officials began to trace his contacts and soon found more infections.

State and Westchester County health officials ordered the closure of the synagogue, and on March 3 ordered quarantines for the more than 100 families that were exposed to Mr. Garbuz at a funeral and a bat mitzvah in late February. As more synagogue members became infected, those who came in contact with them were also quarantined.

State and local health investigators also used contact-tracing techniques to track down people who were exposed to Mr. Garbuz, including workers at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville, N.Y., where Mr. Garbuz was initially hospitalized.

The containment zone in New Rochelle began on March 12; it was a one-mile radius, with Young Israel at its epicenter, that was to last for 14 days. The order did not close streets or prevent people from leaving, but it banned gatherings of over 500 and closed schools, houses of worships and other large gathering spaces within the zone.

Members of the New York State National Guard were called in to deliver meals to people stuck in their homes, and to deep-clean communal buildings.

An incident command center was established on Huguenot Street, from where health care workers would fan out across the city in groups of three, dressed head to toe in protective gear to test quarantined residents in their homes.

The state partnered with Northwell Health to open a drive-through testing center on March 13 on Glen Island, a 105-acre park connected by drawbridge to the mainland in New Rochelle.

But even as the city of 80,000 emerged as the face of the New York epidemic, the reaction from residents and even its leaders was at first uneven.

Amy Paulin, a state assemblywoman who represents the area, initially pushed back against the governor’s quarantine measures. Now she says the governor did a “phenomenal job.”

“He proved me wrong, and he was absolutely right,” she said.

Other residents begged for the stringent measures in the containment zone to be expanded to the entire city. Groups of teachers at schools outside the zone that remained open — even though some students lived within the zone — gathered outside City Hall on North Avenue in the days after the announcement to demand their schools be shut, too.

On March 12, Laura Feijóo, the schools superintendent who initially resisted measures to close the entire district, relented, ordering all schools shut. (A little over a week later, on March 21, she disclosed that she had contracted Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.)

“Even though it’s leapfrogged continents and oceans, our leaders thought that they somehow could contain it in a one-mile circle?” said Calvin Heyward, 57, a sixth-grade math teacher at Isaac E. Young Middle School in New Rochelle, just outside the containment area.

Since March 13, Mr. Heyward said, he has been in and out of the emergency room with complications from the coronavirus, for which his partner also has tested positive.

On Wednesday, the order declaring the containment area was lifted; but by then its requirements had been rendered moot by an encompassing stay-at-home statewide order that the governor enacted last week.

“The discouraging way to look at this is to say, the containment zone that was established in New Rochelle, and which looked like a forceful and necessary action when it was initiated, became obsolete within a week,” said Noam Bramson, the mayor of New Rochelle.

“The positive way to look at it,” he added, “is to say that at least preliminarily, those early actions have been effective.”

Westchester County has adopted an aggressive testing philosophy: More than 29,000 of the county’s less than one million residents have been tested, according to the county Department of Health, with 7,187 positive for Covid-19 as of Friday. Statewide, about 138,000 people have been tested.

In New York City, with a population over eight times the size of Westchester County, just under 58,000 people had been tested as of Friday, according to the state.

The rate of hospitalization for cases in Westchester was hovering at around 1 percent. Of the more than 6,400 people hospitalized statewide, 73 were in Westchester, according to county health officials.

Of the 12 deaths in the county, none are from New Rochelle, although several patients are in critical condition, according to the mayor. There were 284 cases in the city as of Friday, according to data reported to him by the state.

“The way I heard someone say it?” said George Latimer, the Westchester County executive. “About New Rochelle, we aren’t the worst, we are just the first.”

A new issue has emerged in the city, perhaps one that will be faced by thousands of people who test positive for the virus: New York State rules require anyone outside of New York City to receive two consecutive negative coronavirus tests before they can leave quarantine — a challenge when tests are in short supply.

On Friday, a group of quarantined residents sent a letter to Dr. Amler, the health commissioner, objecting to what they called their “illegal open-ended isolation orders.”

Dr. Amler said that as of Friday, there would be no change to the county’s policy.

There have been other consequences: Several nurses who worked swabbing throats and noses at the drive-through testing center have recently been instructed to isolate themselves after a colleague tested positive for the virus, according to a person familiar with the order.

There also have been accommodations that have bound the community closer. Quarantined synagogue members prayed together over Zoom, a video calling app. Local restaurants delivered get-well packages.

“Everyone around here has taken this very seriously. We’ve all risen to the occasion,” said Susan Alcott, 81, as she walked her German shepherd mix on a trail in Ward Acres Park on Friday. “I believe it will pay off because I’ve read the numbers are starting to go down here.”

Nancy Hyland, 48, said that a few days ago she drove from her home in New Rochelle to a park in nearby Larchmont and was shocked to find it packed.

“We turned around and left,” she said. “You definitely wouldn’t see that behavior in New Rochelle.”

Rebecca Liebson contributed reporting from New Rochelle and Azi Paybarah contributed from New York.

  • Updated March 24, 2020

    • How does coronavirus spread?

      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • What makes this outbreak so different?

      Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • What if somebody in my family gets sick?

      If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      No. Unless you’re already infected, or caring for someone who is, a face mask is not recommended. And stockpiling them will make it harder for nurses and other workers to access the resources they need to help on the front lines.

    • Should I stock up on groceries?

      Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • Should I pull my money from the markets?

      That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.

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