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Why New York suffered when other cities were spared by COVID-19

Drew Armstrong, Henry Goldman and Keshia Clukey, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

NEW YORK -- As of this week, at least 21,000 New Yorkers are dead from COVID-19, with a few dozen added to the city's count every day. More than 3,000 have perished in nursing homes, many more in hospitals. Some died at home. The most brutal toll came among those who were old, poor and in the outer boroughs.

The city's deaths are 10 times those of Los Angeles County's. They've surpassed the 16,000 lives lost in Italy's hard-hit Lombardy region. In the U.K., eight times as populous as New York City, about 37,500 have died. With New York's outbreak eclipsing others around the world, it's logical to look for somebody to blame. The mayor, the governor, the president -- a human foil for a microscopic villain. But that would be a simplistic approach to accounting for a new virus hitting a dense city, full of people who'd never faced a pandemic threat, enjoying a decadelong stretch of prosperity.

"There's blame to go all around," said Jeffrey Shaman, director of the climate and health program at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "We haven't been confronted with an infectious-disease threat like this for 100 years."

There are glimmers of optimism emerging. The virus' spread is slowing, and New York is moving toward the early stages of reopening by mid-June, Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a Tuesday news briefing.

But a crucial question remains for America's financial and cultural epicenter: What went so wrong? Bloomberg reviewed past comments by those involved in the pandemic response, and asked the question of disease experts, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and de Blasio.

Here's what they said about the major factors that led to New York's outbreak.

 

1. Close the Front Door, Leave the Back Open

Outbreaks can't start without a spark. The U.S. shut down most travel from China on Feb. 2, when there were at least 14,000 cases there. But it left open travel from most of Europe until March 13. During that time, Italy went from two known infections to more than 15,000.

In the week ended March 13, 274,000 people arrived at New York-area airports from Europe, and another 174,000 came from the U.K. and Ireland, according to U. S. Customs and Border Protection's New York field office.

"We closed the front door with the China ban, which was right," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on April 24. "But we left the back door open."

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