Coronavirus: New York state declares emergency as cases rise

A man wears a medical mask on the AirTrain en route to John F. Kennedy Airport on March 7, 2020 in New York City. PHOTO: AFP

ALBANY, UNITED STATES (NYTIMES, AFP) - Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency on Saturday (March 7) as the number of coronavirus cases in New York rose to 89, which include a Queens driver who worked for Uber and two unexplained positive tests of patients 200 miles (320km) to the north.

Moving on multiple fronts to curb the spread of the virus, the governor said the state of emergency would allow New York's government to respond faster by lifting regulations.

The governor's announcement came as concerns about the outbreak grew in New York City, which has 12 confirmed cases, up from six that were disclosed as of Friday.

The epicenter in New York state continues to be just north of the city, in Westchester County, where there are 70 cases in total.

These cases were mostly, if not all, related to a cluster in Westchester that first came to authorities' attention after a New Rochelle resident, a 50-year-old lawyer, was confirmed as New York's second coronavirus patient.

State officials said they were testing dozens of people who may have been exposed to the lawyer, who has been hospitalised but whose condition is said to be improving.

Technicians are working around the clock at private and public laboratories, including a major site near the state Capitol.

In the United States, more than 380 cases of the virus have been confirmed, and at least 19 people have died. Despite the mounting toll of the virus, Cuomo sought to try to calm the public. "You know what's worse than the virus - the anxiety," Cuomo said, noting that most patients would suffer mild or no symptoms.

The declaration of emergency will allow the state to speed up the purchasing of supplies and the hiring of workers to assist local health departments that have been handling the monitoring of thousands of self-quarantined patients, Cuomo said.

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"Somebody has to go knock on their door, once a day," he said. "This is labour intensive."

The declaration would also allow officials to skirt purchasing regulations, if necessary.

Still, there were signs that the outbreak was spreading, including a pair of patients in Saratoga County, north of Albany - the first such confirmed cases outside of the New York City region.

A spokesman for Uber confirmed that the patient from Queens worked as a driver for the company. Uber is assisting health officials to determine whether the man exposed passengers to the illness.

In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, retirement homes and nursing facilities in the New Rochelle area are banning visits by outsiders.

"We are (being) hypercautious," Cuomo said.

He said the quarantine period of 14 days for infected people might be extended.

The governor also warned store owners against exploiting the situation by inflating their prices for virus-related products.

"We have reports of stores selling hand sanitiser for US$80 a bottle," he said.

"It's not worth it to the store owner," added Cuomo, a former New York attorney-general. "You can lose your license... It's illegal."

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