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Tests find nearly 14% of New Yorkers have coronavirus antibodies

Governor Cuomo's office

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he’s opening an investigation of the state’s nursing homes that might have violated rules regarding how to care for COVID-19 patients.

The announcement comes as the governor said a random testing of 3,000 New Yorkers found 13.9% of them had antibodies for the coronavirus. That likely means they've been exposed to the virus and fought off an infection.  

Cuomo said the tests were conducted in 40 grocery stores in 19 counties across the state earlier in the week. 

“It means you are testing people who by definition are out of the home and not at work,” Cuomo said.  

The preliminary results show the percentage of New Yorkers who may have already had the disease varies in regions of the state. The highest number was 21.2% in New York City, which has been the epicenter of the virus. On Long Island, the figure was 16.7%; in Westchester and Rockland counties, it was 11.7%; and in the rest of state, it was 3.6%.

The governor said the lower rate in upstate supports the view that perhaps some regions of the state could reopen earlier than others. But he said he continues to worry that people from areas that are still closed up would flock to areas that reopen first.  

“You have a pent-up demand,” Cuomo said. “Where one region opens up for business, you could see people come in, literally, from the tri-state area, and overwhelm that region.”  

The state’s nursing homes are facing new scrutiny after some families have complained that they weren’t notified about the health status of their relatives in some facilities, or even told whether any residents were sick with the coronavirus.

Many nursing homes are privately owned, but they are regulated by the state. Under current rules, nursing homes are supposed to supply all staff with personal protective equipment, check the temperatures of all employees who enter the facility each day, and ban visitors.

If a resident contracts the virus, they need to be quarantined from the others. If the nursing home can’t do that safely under Centers for Disease Control guidelines, they must transfer the patient to a facility that can care for them. And families need to be notified within 24 hours if their relative tests positive for the virus, or has died from COVID-19.

Cuomo said state Attorney General Tish James will work with the state health department to investigate allegations that some of the homes aren’t following the rules. The governor said he understands that the nursing homes are in a “crisis situation” and under a lot of pressure.  

“This is a very intense situation for nursing homes; we get it,” Cuomo said. “But they still have to perform their job and do their job by the rules and regulations.” 

He said those found to be violating the rules will be fined, and in some cases could lose their operating license.  

Cuomo said the daily death toll is still “terrible,” with 438 lives lost to the disease Wednesday. But that number is lower than it’s been for much of April, and the number of new hospitalizations for the virus is also waning. The state is likely past its apex, though 15,021 are still in the hospital.  

The governor said if the numbers continue to go down, the rate of infection may be low by the summer. But he said he and health experts have concerns about a second wave of the virus next fall that could coincide with flu season, and he said the state has to be prepared. 

“That’s then problematic,” said Cuomo, who added people with symptoms will be seeking tests for both the flu and COVID-19.  

“That could be a possible overwhelming of the testing system,” he said.  

He said the health care system could again be overwhelmed if steps aren’t taken now.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.