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COVID what's next: What went wrong during first spike and how Northeast is preparing for another

First in a series. COVID-19 killed tens of thousands in the Northeast, caused massive unemployment and wrecked the economy. Today, the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group begins its series that examines what the government got wrong in its response to the virus, what policies eventually worked — and how the states are planning if the coronavirus spikes in the fall.  

In the first days of March, Dr. Jeffrey Shaman watched from his New York City home as political leaders debated how best to control the first cases of the coronavirus.

It soon led to screaming at the television.

Shaman, an infectious disease expert at Columbia University, said he thought city schools should have been closed right then, in the first week of March, or at least by the second week of the month.

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"It was definitely too slow," he told the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group. "I live in New York City, and I could not believe the schools were still open."

Schools in New York were ultimately closed March 16, when the state had 950 COVID-19 cases and nine deaths.

New York and New Jersey have gone on to have the most coronavirus deaths in the nation, nearly 32,600 (including 4,600 probable deaths in New York City) and 15,825, respectively, as of earlier in the week.

That was followed by 8,500 in Massachusetts; 8,400 in California; 7,600 in Illinois and 7,100 in Pennsylvania. Maryland had about 3,500 deaths, while Delaware had 580, according to federal data.

Infection rates in the Northeast have fallen to record lows in recent weeks even as they have soared to record highs in more than 30 other states, mostly in the South and West.

Now the question is: How well prepared are Northeast states for another spike of COVID-19?

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it's "almost inevitable" the state will grapple with what he called a second wave or, at least, an extension of the first wave.

"I feel like we’re standing on a beach, and we’re looking out into the sea, and we see the second wave building in the distance," Cuomo said on July 17. 

"So, I want all New Yorkers to be on high alert." 

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Nowhere in the country is a region more aware of the virus' impact than the Northeast.

And that experience — with thousands of deaths, overwhelmed hospitals and a shuttered economy — is working to inform how officials respond to an anticipated second wave.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is joined by video by Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Delaware Gov. John Carney at his daily coronavirus briefing; May 3, 2020.

The states have been working together to try to thwart a spike, but at the same time making independent decisions on when to open or close certain industries.

"We see the second wave in the distance," Cuomo continued. "It will have an effect on New York. How bad? We don’t know. But we cannot stop the virus at our borders. We’re trying everything we can."

What did the states do wrong and how can it improve?

Shaman's early warnings about the need for a quick shutdown were not heeded. New York didn't close to nonessential workers until March 22, when the state had 114 deaths and more than 15,000 cases.

Shaman co-authored a study in May that said New York could have saved as many as 17,000 lives if it instituted its stay-at-home order two weeks earlier.

Jeffrey Shaman is a professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University and co-authored a study on New York's response to the coronavirus pandemic in May 2020.

"We didn’t pick up and learn quickly from seeing what was happening in China," Shaman said.

"We didn’t follow the leads of South Korea and Vietnam and Taiwan to control it, and we dithered and doubted the evidence and worried about the economic repercussions of it, which I can understand." 

He added, "It’s an uncertain time and it’s difficult, but this is one of the few instances where leadership really matters."

Cuomo has put the blame squarely on the federal government, saying it let more than 3 million Europeans travel to the U.S., mainly the Northeast, at least six weeks before the pandemic became apparent.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report July 17 noted that by the time travel restrictions from Europe were put in place March 13, "importation and community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 had already occurred in NYC."

A faster shutdown may also have saved more lives among the most vulnerable population, those in nursing homes and extended care facilities.

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About 43% of New Jersey's deaths have occurred in nursing homes, while nearly 6,300 deaths in New York, or 25% of the total, have been in the facilities.

Nursing home deaths have made up nearly 70% of COVID-19 deaths in Pennsylvania.

The nursing home deaths have drawn heavy scrutiny over whether states should have better insulated residents from COVID cases, but New York has insisted the problem was due to staff spreading the infection through the homes.

Andover Subacute and Rehab Center was over whelmed with 17 bodies at their morgue that could only hold 4 bodies in Andover Township, N.J.

New York Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, is among those calling for an independent investigation of nursing home deaths.

He said in a July 6 statement that blaming staff "when the state knowingly created COVID hotspots by forcing homes to accept COVID-positive patients is a slap in the face to those who lost a loved one."

What Northeast states learned from the pandemic

New York's daily death toll hit as high as 800 in early April, but now daily deaths are in the single digits and there have been a few days without any deaths reported.

The Northeast is trying to keep it that way, with New York, New Jersey and Connecticut requiring a 14-day quarantine for visitors from states with high infection rates and mandating they fill out questionnaires when they enter New York.

And the states' phased reopening has been largely successful compared to states in the South and West that now are shutting down businesses after a broad reopening last month.

"The only way we can keep our positivity rate and our RT, or rate of transmission low, is by taking the precautions that we have across the past four months," Gov. Phil Murphy said July 17.

The pandemic, in many ways, has laid bare fundamental flaws in American society.

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Watching the coronavirus spread like wildfire through low-income communities plagued by overcrowded housing underscored the systemic racism fueling disparate health outcomes for generations of Black and Hispanic people.

Stories of nurses and doctors being infected with COVID-19 and dying as hospitals struggled to secure protective masks and gowns exposed gaping holes in emergency preparedness plans and government stockpile systems.

And in the face of new surges across the country, renewed fears of shortages of personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies further revealed the faults in a medical supply chain over-reliant on Chinese imports.

In this April 10, 2020 file photo a woman wearing a face mask walks along the Jersey City waterfront with the New York City skyline in the background.

Yet efforts in the Northeast to shore up regional manufacturing of basic medical goods and COVID-19 testing infrastructure show promise against a second wave.

New public health responses targeting ZIP codes hit hardest by COVID-19 deaths also offered a glimmer of hope that key resources, including contact tracing, testing and medical care, would better reach communities of color.

Meanwhile, politically charged debates over reopening plans and mask wearing in public, which New York mandated April 15 to help turn the tide in its coronavirus outbreak, endangered the entire undertaking nationally, experts said.

“We are seeing unnecessary tens of thousands of deaths and illnesses and disruption because people do not want to believe the evidence,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, an Infectious Diseases Society of America and Mayo Clinic expert.

“They make it into a political or cultural or economic or faith-based issue, and it’s not,” he said. “The virus knows nothing of those areas. The virus knows one thing: Find the next susceptible person and infect them.”

How coronavirus first spread in the Northeast

In Delaware, state health officials saw a significant outbreak in April in small towns in Sussex County, particularly among Hispanics and Haitian immigrant communities.

Many of those residents work in the county’s largest industry — chicken processing plants — where to complete their jobs, workers must stand close together, not adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Many of the low-income workers can't afford to lose a paycheck, leading to hesitation about whether they should get tested — even if they had been exposed to the virus.

Language barriers led to challenges when the residents tried to access emergency resources and learn what safety precautions they needed to take.

Delaware nursing homes were also devastated in the early weeks of the pandemic, particularly because it was difficult for facilities to obtain protective equipment for employees, and they have been historically understaffed.

Because of limited testing in Delaware at the time, only residents with symptoms could receive a COVID-19 test. 

Gov. John Carney speaks to the media during a briefing on the status of the coronavirus pandemic in Delaware on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, at the Carvel State Office Building in Wilmington.

Deaths in long-term care facilities have contributed to more than 60% of the cumulative number of COVID-19 deaths in Delaware. It has led to Gov. John Carney requiring all long-term care employees to be tested on a weekly basis. 

"One of the biggest problems across the country and every state in America from the beginning of this COVID crisis was the lack of availability of testing," Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said June 10. 

"It was the most serious obstacle to safely reopening the economy."

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While Delaware has seen a decrease in the number of daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the Rehoboth-Dewey Beach ZIP code saw a spike in cases in late June. Many of these cases involved young people and residents.

In late June, Carney announced that he was pausing Delaware's plans to reopen its economy. Not long after, he mandated that, in eastern Sussex County, customers will no longer be able to sit or stand at a bar.  

Instead, beachgoers will have to sit at a table and be served.

“Too many Delawareans and visitors are not following basic public health precautions," Carney said on June 25.

"We’ve heard and seen concerns especially in our beach communities, in restaurants, in gyms, and at sporting events. Now’s not the time to let up." 

Protecting hospitals for a future spike

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Pennsylvania in March, Gov. Tom Wolf scrambled to prevent his biggest fear — overwhelmed hospitals that had no beds for patients.

Pennsylvania never ran out of hospital beds or lifesaving ventilators, even when the virus peaked in April.

Gov. Tom Wolf gives an update on Pennsylvania's efforts to mitigate the effects of the new coronavirus.

But businesses opened in defiance of state orders. Republican lawmakers tried to end the emergency powers of Wolf, a Democrat.

 Millions lost jobs. Businesses struggled to survive. Without a bailout, the restaurant industry could end up a shadow of its former self, especially now that the governor has ordered them to either cut back to 25% of their dine-in capacity or close again. 

Prisons thinned their populations through early releases and furloughs.

But inmate advocates and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel agree that state prison populations need to be reduced more, especially at sites that are old and poorly designed for infection control. 

And now, as administrators, parents and politicians argue about whether to send children back to school, Pennsylvania is seeing a surge of fresh cases.

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This pandemic steered Pennsylvania toward a recession. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the Paycheck Protection Program helped, but they have an expiration date, and right now “this virus doesn’t,” Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said.

So even as the state crawls out from economic lockdown, high unemployment and the lingering public health crisis slow the process, leaving economists to agree on one thing: Pennsylvania won't recover from this disaster for years.

"Ultimately, what’s going to work is not enforcement," Wolf said May 26. "What’s going to work is each and every individual Pennsylvanian, each and every business owner doing everything they can to protect their employees and their customers and protect each other from this disease."

What states will do in the coming months

Many experts and health officials attributed the most glaring missteps to the lack of federal government leadership.

The criticism spanned from the CDC distributing faulty test kits to states, which delayed the pandemic response in January and February, to mixed messages coming from the Trump administration regarding the threat posed by current spikes in COVID-19 cases.

“We don’t really have a clear national policy on this, and that’s been pretty evident,” said Dr. Michael Mendoza, health commissioner of Monroe County in upstate New York.

In the absence of a universal plan, some states ignored, or shunned, lessons learned in the Northeast, threatening to undo the communal sacrifices that helped reduce infections in New York and New Jersey.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses the state's coronavirus reopening process during his daily briefing May 29, 2020 at Iona College in New Rochelle.

“When our messages and our data became politicized and distorted…that’s when it became very difficult for us,” Mendoza said.

Amid the chaotic early weeks of the pandemic this spring, the politically fueled confusion proved especially harmful due to limited scientific understanding at the time of how the coronavirus stealthily spread before symptoms appeared in many people.

As intensive care units filled up, state officials scrambled to boost hospital bed capacity. Fears that hospitals would run out of lifesaving breathing machines ignited interstate competition over ventilators, as opposed to a coordinated national response.

Ultimately, the flawed preparedness plan and scattershot emergency response helped delay the revelations unfolding today, such as the prospect that all Americans wearing face coverings in public could dramatically decrease the virus’ spread in four to six weeks.

In dissecting the myriad of pandemic-related failures, Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic evoked findings of the 9/11 Commission report that delved into the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“We believe the fundamental problem was one of imaginability, though we had been warned many times and many ways, we failed to imagine it was possible and therefore failed to prepare,” he said, recounting the report.

“I think that singular statement is precisely applicable to the pandemic,” Poland said, adding, “I hope that one thing that has happened is that our deniability has been stripped away and our imaginability enlivened.”

Northeast states continue to limit reopening

New York and New Jersey have reopened many businesses but have kept some closed.

New Jersey has not allowed the resumption of indoor dining, while New York has outside New York City.

Malls, casinos and amusement parks have remained shuttered in New York, but New Jersey and Pennsylvania have opened them with safety precautions.

Customers dine outside PhoBar, Monday, June 22, 2020, in New York. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says he is delaying the planned resumption of indoor dining at restaurants in the city out of fear it would ignite a a spike in coronavirus infections.

And New York tightened restrictions on outdoor dining, requiring alcohol purchases to be accompanied by food to cut down on large drinking scenes.

It's a process that Northeast governors continue to evaluate based on daily monitoring of the rates of infection. The concern is that the rapid spread of disease in the bulk of the country will eventually cause a spike in states that have been successful in tamping down the virus.

"This second wave is just going to be other states infecting us again for a second time," Cuomo said on July 16 on MSNBC. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrives wearing a face mask for his daily briefing about the the state's coronavirus reopening process May 29, 2020 at Iona College in New Rochelle.

The control of the situation is a long way from early March.

When the first coronavirus case hit New Jersey, the state’s chief executive was out of commission.

Murphy underwent surgery to remove a tumor on his kidney March 4 and ceded authority to Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver. That night, health officials announced a 32-year-old Fort Lee man had the state's first positive coronavirus diagnosis.

The days, weeks and months that followed were often chaotic, with Murphy and other officials handing down often-confusing sets of rules intended to contain the outbreak as the virus ripped through the state.

Murphy has won praise from voters, with polls showing wide approval for his handling of the crisis.

"There's no vaccine yet," Murphy warned July 17.

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during his Friday, June 26, 2020, press conference at War Memorial in Trenton, NJ, on the state's response to the coronavirus.

"All we've got is social distancing, wearing a face covering whenever you are out in public, and certainly whenever you're indoors, washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds." 

Republican lawmakers in New Jersey allege Murphy cut state lawmakers out when he crafted coronavirus-related orders, unfairly allowed big-box retailers to remain open while forcing smaller stores to close.

He limited outdoor gatherings, then showed up at Black Lives Matters rallies where protesters were not socially distanced. Those rallies, however, were not shown to result in spikes of COVID-19 cases.

Jasmyne Mena, 23 organizer of a Black Lives Matter march and rally in Rutherford, and her boyfriend Noel Lazo, center, lead the march to demand justice for the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans up Union Ave. on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Much like the other states that were hit hard early in the outbreak, New Jersey did not have enough test kits, supplies, lab capacity or manpower to test people early.

But like other Northeast states, Murphy’s strategy began to look smarter in July.

States like California, Texas and Florida, which reopened sooner than New Jersey, began to see virus cases surge and their governors hastily reclosed businesses they had allowed to reopen.

Now Murphy hopes to not join those states in having to change course.

"We should all take pride in the fact we want to get this exactly as right as we can," he said.

Joseph Spector is the New York state editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany