As North Carolina and Broward County, Florida, became the latest to declare states of emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday was the first state leader to order National Guard troops into action in a bid to help contain the virus’ spread.
According to published reports, the troops will be sent to help state and local health officials and authorities deal with a concentrated outbreak of cases in New Rochelle, a suburb just north of New York City.
“This is unique in the United States of America, we haven’t seen this anywhere else. Think about it, New Rochelle has double the cases of New York City, it’s true, it’s a phenomenon,” Cuomo told reporters in making the announcement.
“It is a dramatic action, but it is the largest cluster of cases in the country,” the governor continued. “The numbers are going up unabated, and we do need a special public health strategy for New Rochelle.”
New Rochelle is at the center of an outbreak of 108 cases in Westchester County, out of 173 statewide as of Tuesday. New York City has 36 cases, while its population is more than 100 times that of New Rochelle.
Cuomo said that troops will assist in cleaning surfaces and delivering food to a “containment area” consisting of a one-mile radius around a point near a synagogue that is connected to some of the existing virus cases.
As of this writing, there were a total of 971 known cases of the virus in the United States, most of them concentrated on the West and East coasts. Thirty people have died so far from virus-related illnesses, and 15 have recovered, according to this real-time tracking website.
New York state officials, along with a private healthcare system, are establishing a testing facility in the New Rochelle area. Schools in the zone will shutter for two weeks — the incubation period for the virus — beginning Friday. And state and local officials are currently working to see if “large congregate facilities or gathering places” will also need to be shuttered. (Related: Coronavirus containment no longer possible in the USA, says former FDA head.)
The governor’s actions differ substantially from comments he made just a few days ago when he was urging state residents not to panic over the outbreak after he declared a state of emergency.
“It sounds more alarming than it is,” he said, calling the declaration “an administrative action” meant to allow the state to “move a little faster governmentally” to address the issue, Fox News reported.
At that point, New York had confirmed 89 cases of Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19).
“I don’t want people to stay calm [sic] and therefore I’m telling them what I need to tell them to keep them calm,” he insisted. “If they know the facts, they will be calm.”
He also noted that, as more people were tested, he expected the number of infections to rise.
“Yes, we’re testing aggressively, yes you’ll see the number of people who test positive going up. Yes, a large number of people will be infected, is my guess by the end of the day. But remember what we’re really trying to do here is avoid the massive disruption of closing everything down for two weeks the way China did, the way Italy is doing, and we’re trying to protect the vulnerable populations for whom this coronavirus could really be dangerous: senior citizens, immune-compromised,” Cuomo added.
Critics of Cuomo’s deployment of the National Guard to a ‘containment area’ will lead to wider containment declarations and further additions of troops to man them. They worry such actions could lead to China-style quarantines that also carry with them penalties for ‘violations,’ especially if the outbreak worsens.