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Cuomo Pleads with CDC to Allow Coronavirus Testing in Private Labs to Better Monitor, Contain Spread

Governor Andrew Cuomo tours Northwell Labs with Dr. Dwayne Breining, the Executive Director, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, the state’s Health Commissioner, and Northwell Health’s CEO Michael J. Dowling © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, News-Photos-Features.com

Update: After tour of Northwell Labs, Governor Cuomo announced FDA approval for Northwell to test novel coronavirus: “After days of advocating the FDA and the federal government to expand testing capacity for the novel coronavirus in New York State and working with Northwell and Wadsworth to expedite the process, we just received word that Northwell Laboratories has been authorized to test under Wadsworth’s emergency use authorization. Manual testing of 75 to 80 samples per day will begin at Northwell immediately, but we still need automated testing approved so we can perform thousands per day.

“While this approval is a good first step, the FDA must increase the testing capacity for the State and private labs, because the more tests we run, the more positive people we will find and the better we can control and contain the virus. It’s one thing for the federal government not to have the testing capacity in place themselves – that was bad enough – but there’s no excuse for them not to be authorizing existing labs to do the work.” 

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo took the Center for Disease Control and federal government to task for failing to authorize private laboratories to test for the coronavirus, and for failing to authorize automated testing which could increase exponentially the number of people tested.

Testing is critical to finding people infected with the coronavirus in order to contain the spread of the infection, he said during a tour of Northwell Health Laboratories on Long Island, where as many as 1000 tests could be done a day using state-of-the-art automated testing devices which can analyze as many as 120 samples at one time.

Northwell’s laboratory is the most sophisticated lab in New York State and one of the most advanced in the nation. But  as yet, CDC  has not authorized private labs to do the tests, and has not authorized the automated testing systems that Northwell has, Cuomo said.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, flanked by Dr. Howard A. Zucker, the state’s Health Commissioner, and Northwell Health’s CEO Michael J. Dowling at Northwell Health Laboratories on Long Island, urged CDC to allow private labs to test for coronavirus using automated systems to better monitor and contain the spread of COVID-19 © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

“CDC has not authorized the use of this lab, which is just outrageous and ludicrous,” the Governor scolded. “CDC, wake up, let the state’s test. Let private labs test. Let’s increase as quickly as possible our testing capacity so we identify the positive people so we can isolate them and we’re successful in our containment.”

The state is “continuing to test people and are working with hospitals and local governments to give them the resources they need to contain the spread of this virus,” Governor Cuomo said. “We mobilized quickly but the federal government has been slow off the mark and they continue to be slow. That’s unacceptable – we need them to approve these private labs today so we can stay ahead of this evolving situation. Worse than the virus right now is the fear pandemic – and getting these additional facilities online will ensure we have more facts that will help keep people calm.”

The Northwell Lab on Long Island would be the first private lab in the state to handle coronavirus testing.

“This is an extraordinary facility,” the Governor said, flanked by his state Health Commissioner Howard A. Zucker, and Northwell Health CEO Michael J. Dowling.

“We are trying to contain spread of virus and to do that, we are testing as many as possible, to  find the positives and isolate them.” If the spread of infection is not contained, he warned, more disastrous measures, such as China and Italy have been forced to undertake – massive quarantines of millions of people – “would be very disruptive to society and the economy.”

Cuomo said that the level of fear surrounding coronavirus (the disease associated with the virus is COVID-19) is unwarranted. “There is more fear, anxiety than facts would justify. This isn’t Ebola, or SARS. This is a virus we have a lot of information on. Johns Hopkins has been tracking 100,000 cases and what happens.”

Most people who become infected will experience mild symptoms like a cold or flu and can recover at home. But for vulnerable populations – the elderly, people who have medical conditions – the disease is dangerous and can be deadly.

The best “weapon” against the disease is to reduce situations that create density.

Cuomo said he is speaking with business leaders across the state to encourage them to offer liberal sick leave so that people who are sick, who feel symptoms, stay home but are still paid; he also is encouraging businesses as well as state and local government offices,  to stagger workers in shifts if possible; and to allow work-at-home where feasible.

Individuals also have a role in keeping themselves safe, he said – wash hands frequently, don’t shake hands, just as in any flu season. He advises people who take mass transit to let a train pass if the cars are too packed, and to move to less crowded cars.  “Reduce density, proximity.”

The single best thing government can do is to test. “The more positives we identify, the more we can isolate to stop the spread.”

The Governor confirmed 16 additional cases of novel coronavirus in New York State since his last update yesterday, bringing the statewide total to 105 confirmed cases on Sunday morning. Of the new cases, 12 are in Westchester County, one in New York City in the Bronx, one in Nassau, one in Suffolk, and one in Ulster.

Of the 105 total individuals in New York State who tested positive for the virus, 82 are in Westchester; 12 are in New York City; five are in Nassau; one in Suffolk; two in Rockland; one in Ulster and two in Saratoga counties.

Cuomo criticized the CDC for being unprepared, even as the outbreak became clear in China by December (“It is delusional not to expect people to come from China”), and only recently allowing states to do their own testing. New York has the Wadsworth lab, but now is asking the CDC to authorize the state to utilize private labs, like Northwell Laboratories.

Technicians at the $60 million Northwell Laboratory on Long Island, the most sophisticated private lab in the state and one of the most advanced in the country. © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

“Not to be using this laboratory, not to be using the other private labs around the state makes no sense whatsoever. Not to be using automated testing, which means rather than a person manually handling a test tube and a test, the machines we saw that handle 120 samples at a time place them in a machine, the machine runs the test. Of course you should be using that technology. And it’s one thing for the CDC not to have the testing capacity in place themselves, but that was bad enough. For the CDC not to be authorizing existing labs to do the work, there’s no excuse for that.” 

Cuomo also criticized the federal government for creating unnecessary confusion, which fuels fear. “The President of the United States says anyone who wants a test can have a test. Vice President of the United States says we don’t have the testing capacity. People say, how can you say both things? You can’t say both things. We don’t have the testing capacity that we need. Not everyone who wants a test can have a test.

“We have to prioritize the people who get the tests to fit our capacity, right. You can’t ask more people to come in and get tested until you know you have the capacity to test them. The number of people coming in for a test must equal the number of tests you can perform. That’s why in New York we have a standard protocol that’s in place all across the state, prioritizing who can get tested to fit our testing capacity. 

A state of the art machine like this at Northwell Labs, Long Island, automates the analysis of 120 test samples at one time, vastly increasing the capacity to test individuals suspected of carrying the coronavirus © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

“Once we increase our testing capacity and we can perform more tests, then we can change the prioritization of those people coming in for the tests. We have a statewide protocol because we don’t want people shopping tests. I don’t want someone from Nassau driving to Suffolk, driving to Manhattan, driving to Westchester because you have different rules on who can get a test. Everyone, everywhere in this state has the same rules, doesn’t matter where you go. Hopefully, the CDC acts responsibly and acts quickly and we raise the capacity, we bring a great facility like this online with the automated testing. We can then get testing per day to about 1000 tests. And then we can calibrate the prioritization to the capacity.”

The $60 million Northwell Laboratory on Long Island, is the most sophisticated private lab in the state and one of the most advanced in the country. © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

 The Governor also addressed price gouging, which is happening across the state and the nation, “symptomatic of fear.”

“It’s unethical, exploitative of fear and illegal,” he said. “To make a few extra bucks on hand sanitizer, they would jeopardize their license to do business. There is an increased penalty for price gouging.” He said that consumers can call a hot line, that state police  are investigating and the state Attorney General has the power to prosecute.

The state’s Division of Consumer Protection has created an online consumer complaint form, where New Yorkers can report suspected price gouging or concerns about improper delivery of quantity. (Consumers who wish to file a complaint can visit https://www.dos.ny.gov/consumerprotection/.)

Also, travel insurance companies and travel agents will offer New York residents and businesses the ability to purchase coverage when making travel plans that would allow them to cancel a trip for any reason, including for reasons related to COVID-19.

The Department of Financial Services issued guidance allowing travel agents and travel insurers to offer this type of coverage after DFS received consumer complaints that such polices were not available in New York State. This new action is designed to provide reassurance to New York businesses and residents who are seeking to make plans that may involve travel to locations that are not currently under travel advisories due to COVID-19.

Six global and national insurance companies have agreed to offer “cancel for any reason” coverage to travelers, including: Allianz, Nationwide, Starr Indemnity, Berkshire, Crum & Forster, and Zurich.

DFS also directed New York State travel insurance issuers to proactively reach out to individuals and businesses who bought their policies to let them know what is covered. (Read a copy of the DFS Insurance Guidance Letter)

Yesterday, the Governor announced that he declared a state of emergency to help New York more quickly and effectively contain the spread of the virus. The state of emergency declaration allows, among other things:

Expedited procurement of cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and other essential resources

Allowing qualified professionals other than doctors and nurses to conduct testing

Expedited procurement of testing supplies and equipment

Expedited personnel onboarding

Expedited leasing of lab space

Allowing EMS personnel to transport patients to quarantine locations other than just hospitals

Providing clear basis for price gouging and enforcement investigation   

 “We do not want to have to do massive close downs, massive quarantines, and we don’t want members of the vulnerable population getting sick. That is why we are doing what we are doing,” Cuomo said.

“So in sum, CDC let’s move, authorize the State to authorize private labs, get this most sophisticated lab in the State, one of the most sophisticated labs in the country, get this lab to work. Why you wouldn’t makes absolutely no sense.

“And to New Yorkers, we understand the facts. Keep this in perspective. We don’t want a lot of people getting this virus. We don’t want to take more drastic measures. But, if you get the virus, you will get sick, you will recover, you most likely won’t even go to the hospital. And the only the people who we really have to worry about are the vulnerable populations – senior citizens, people with compromised immune systems.

“So keep it all in perspective. I know there’s a whole frenzy about it, the facts do not justify the frenzy, period. The biggest problem we have in this situation is fear, not the virus. The virus we can handle. It’s the fear. And the fear is just unwarranted.”

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Do-Nothing-But-Harm Congress Needs to Set Aside Anti-Abortion Fanatacism and Fund Zika Prevention

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl), a rabid opponent of abortion rights who has said that birth defects should not warrant an exemption, has told Congress to set aside ideology on Zika funding – because of the harm to Florida’s tourism industry and his reelection campaign © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl), a rabid opponent of abortion rights who has said that birth defects should not warrant an exemption, has told Congress to set aside ideology on Zika funding – because of the harm to Florida’s tourism industry and his reelection campaign © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Zika is a small label from a tiny source that has world-shattering implications for families, for communities, for society and the economy.

It is also shorthand for everything that has been so absolutely wrong with the Republican-controlled Congress. It is no longer sufficient to describe it as “Do Nothing.” It is more appropriate to describe how their dysfunction, inaction, their idolatry to ideology has become destructive. Rather than a government with “limited power,” the right-wing ideology has intruded into our personal lives in such devastating.

Rather than treat Zika – a neurotropic virus that grows in target brain cells, literally destroying the fetal brain as it develops –  as the public health crisis that it is, the Right Wingers who control Congress have wrapped it up with abortion as an excuse to derail a vote.

The party that purports to hold a lock on family values? Pregnancy is stressful enough, but instead of being excited and happy at a pregnancy, a woman would be consumed by anxiety, and even hatred for the fetus and the baby that emerges.

When Zika first came to the world’s attention in Brazil, I was thinking that Americans were luckier than the hapless Brazilian women, who were being told to defer child-bearing for four years, because while abortion is illegal in that Catholic country, it is a Constitutionally protected right here in the US – except that the Right Wingers have found ways to throw up so many obstacles to a woman’s reproductive freedom, even declaring that a mother is a mere “vessel” to incubate the fetus, rather than a person with the same rights of self-determination as men.

Meanwhile, there are now approximately 18,000 confirmed case of the Zika Virus in the United States and territories, including 1,751 pregnant women infected, and that number is rising daily.

Earlier this year, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan Zika funding measure by a vote of 89-8. Even Marco Rubio, now running for reelection to the Senate he demeaned during his run for the Presidency, who has said that birth defects should not be an “exemption” for an abortion, told his colleagues that Zika warranted setting ideology aside, but that was because of the harm it was having to Florida’s tourism industry.

But then Republicans changed course, packing the bill full of partisan political riders — like demanding a ban on funding to Planned Parenthood, undermining key provisions of the Clean Water Act, even allowing Confederate flags in cemeteries— and shut Democrats out of the debate.

Now, the money that had been available to the CDC, $292 million “ is out the door already and there are things we wish we could do but can’t because we don’t have the resources,” Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said on “The Takeaway” on NPR. “The decisions made today, or not made, will have implications for decades to come.”

There is so much that is not known about Zika – funding is needed for research for a vaccine, to diagnose, on better ways to control its spread, to understand the impacts of development for infants that do not manifest microcephaly immediately (Hearing loss? Learning disability?) and whether there are latent impacts that could impact even adults (a connection to Alzheimer’s has been raised).

“We need the dollars and the legal authorities so that when there is an emergency, we can treat it as emergency.

“If get in early, can avoid problems – with an earthquake or flood you are providing assistance and picking up the pieces. But with an epidemic, if we can get there early enough, we can do the equivalent of stopping an earthquake…

“The long delay in providing additional supplemental funding makes it difficult to have robust response, and makes it more important to have an infectious disease rapid response fund so we can spend money quickly and effectively. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate are on board with creating such a fund,” he said.

“Zika will be around for years to come, so it is important to invest now in better ways to stop it. The sooner we get the funding, we can embark on those projects,” he said.

The failure to act on Zika is part and parcel of the right wingers’ continued assault on abortion rights –– essentially a woman’s right to choose, to control her own body and her own destiny, a family’s right to protect itself and create the best environment for its children. They have gone so far as to block the use of an abortion pill that is safer and easier to use than surgical procedure, and even preventing doctors from using a safer regimen of the medication.

This is not about “life” – as we now see in Texas where their anti-woman, anti-choice ideological crusade has resulted in closure of dozens of Planned Parenthood clinics, with the result that the rate of maternal mortality has exploded.

“From 2000 to the end of 2010, Texas’s estimated maternal mortality rate hovered between 17.7 and 18.6 per 100,000 births. But after 2010, that rate had leaped to 33 deaths per 100,000, and in 2014 it was 35.8. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 600 women died for reasons related to their pregnancies.

“No other state saw a comparable increase,” writes Molly Redden in The Guardian. Those rates put Texas on par with the Third World, where having a baby is the most dangerous thing a woman can do.

This is further proof that the right-wingers who control Congress do not care about “life” they care about control. This is about modern-day enslavement of women. They see a woman as a vessel, a vassal, not as a free person with the rights to make their own life’s choices. While they say they want individuals to be able to care for themselves, producing a generation born with microcephaly means they and their families will have to be dependent upon the state.

This cavalier attitude to life – particularly children – is also manifest in Congress’ failure to act on lead in the drinking water in Flint and other urban areas, likely impairing their normal brain development, contributing to learning and behavioral problems and lowering their IQ’s—and poor and minority children are unfairly at the greatest risk of lead poisoning. Half a million kids in the US already have elevated levels of lead in their blood and millions more are at risk.

The consequences for local school budgets – just as one example – to have to accommodate the special needs of children impacted by lead and now Zika-caused microcephaly – is mindboggling, making the challenge for school districts to keep Mylan’s overpriced Epipens on hand seem like small potatoes.

The Republican controlled Congress’ refusal to come to consensus and treat Zika as the public health emergency it is – no different than a terror attack – but instead, to hamstring it with poison pills that make it unpalatable to pass is not like the Do-Nothing-But-Harm Congress hasn’t been doing mischief since its return from a 7-week vacation. This includes three bills designed to overturn Dodd-Frank protections of the financial system, a bill to neuter Obamacare, a possible impeachment of the IRS Commissioner, and a yet a new investigation, investigating the FBI investigators into Hillary Clinton’s emails (is that the 9th or 10th Congressional investigation?).

But let’s look at what the Do-Nothing-But-Harm Congress has done nothing about: gun violence prevention (No Fly, No Buy), the Flint water crisis, confirming Merritt Garland to the Supreme Court,  and they are even dragging feet about adopting a Continuing Resolution in order to avoid yet another Republican government shutdown.

Congress needs to fund Zika programs and create an infectious disease emergency response fund, which, apparently is actually supported (at least with lip service) by Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.

After his meeting with Congressional leaders on Monday, Obama expressed confidence there would be no government shut down and there would be funding for Zika.

Ah, President Obama, ever the optimist. We’ll see.