Yesterday, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New York climbed to 142, with 7 new ones in New York City, Governor Cuomo announced that the state would produce 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per week, to be made available for free where needed. With every such news alert, the feeling of uncertainty in the air has been heightening. But we’re no strangers to these emergencies. Here’s a look back at recent infectious disease outbreaks in New York City, and how the government, the public, and the media responded to them.
The first known case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was in Asia in 2002. Over the next few months, the viral respiratory illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. No drugs were effective against the sickness, which presented as serious pneumonia, and health care workers were especially hard-hit.
The victims: By May 2003, there were 42 suspected cases of SARS statewide, including 20 in New York City. A foreign tourist who traveled to the city was involuntarily detained in a hospital because he had symptoms of cough, fever, and a shortness of breath. The NYC Department of Health refused to release the names and locations of people who may have contracted SARS as a way to protect the privacy of patients and avoid unnecessary anxiety, despite some demands from the public.
The response: President George W. Bush issued an executive order allowing forceful quarantine of infected Americans. Some hospitals in New York resurrected emergency plans designed to deal with bioterror attacks. Senator Charles Schumer urged New Yorkers not to panic and especially not to avoid areas of New York with high concentrations of Asian-Americans, such as Lower Manhattan Chinatown and Flushing, Queens.
The panic: Rumors and news coverage caused a tremendous drop in business and tourism in Chinatown, including restaurants, jewelry stores, and beauty salons.
2009: Swine flu caused by H1N1
First detected in a 10-year-old boy in Southern California in April 2009, the new strain of swine flu, H1N1, spread quickly in the US and across the world. The US declared a health emergency on April 27. The WHO officially declared a pandemic on June 11. The same month, all 50 states in the US had reported cases of H1N1 infection. The influenza spurred the launch of a vaccination campaign and by late December, H1N1 vaccination had been opened up to all. WHO announced the end of the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic in August 2010. There had been an estimated death toll of 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide during the first year the virus circulated.
The victims: Whereas seasonal influenza typically hits those above 65 hardest, people under that age were particularly vulnerable during this pandemic. This is because elderly people had immunity derived from a flu strain that circulated in the middle of the 20th century. By early July, the number of deaths from H1N1 among New York City residents represented a large portion of the total number of deaths reported nationwide, totalling 47 cases.
The response: New York set up a toll-free, 24/7 hotline and ensured communications between county health departments, hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, schools and other offices. There were a series of town-hall-style meetings throughout the state. In spring 2009, 57 New York City schools were closed for 5 to 7 days. On December 11, New York had received more than 5.5 million doses of the vaccine, available to all residents.
The panic: Drug stores sold out of surgical masks, despite a Times q&a informing the public that “face masks aren’t particularly effective against the spread of flu.” Schools closed. Sports games were canceled. Healthy New Yorkers, or the “worried well,” in the words of some health officials, crowded hospital emergency rooms.
The sensationalism: A report released by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology presented a “plausible scenario” that H1N1 could infect 30% to 50% of the US population, lead to 1.8 million hospitalizations, and cause 30,000 to 90,000 deaths. A Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) article later pointed out that the report clearly states multiple times that the scenario layed out was “a possibility, not a prediction.” Yet the headlines from the New York Post and Daily News sensationalized the numbers.
Found mainly in Africa, Ebola is a rare and deadly disease that is transmissible through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.
The victims: Four people have been diagnosed with Ebola in the US. In October 2014, the fourth, a physician named Craig Spencer who had returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea, was the first in the city to test positive for the virus.
The response: After demonstrating symptoms, Dr. Spencer was rushed to Bellevue Hospital. The FDNY sealed off his fifth-floor apartment and the NYPD froze his block. City health department workers went door-to-door to inform neighbors about the disease. All people returning from West Africa who had previous contact with Ebola patients had to go through mandatory 21-day quarantine. Later in November, the White House announced almost $15 million in possible Ebola funding for New York. Other agencies such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Health and Human Services (HHS) also requested up to $10 million to support New York’s response to Ebola.
The panic: A poll showed that two thirds of Americans were concerned about a widespread Ebola epidemic after the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient in the US. After Dr. Spencer was infected in New York, people gathered around his building taking photos, expressing concern, and saying that they were shocked that Ebola had “come to their backyard, to their doorstep.” CNN reported.
The sensationalism: “Initially, when the first case of Ebola was reported, you saw the media, especially the tabloids, go full throttle,” said David Uberti, a reporter at CJR who’s been writing about Ebola media coverage. Think front cover photos of hazmat suits and masked police officers.
The epidemic caused by the Zika virus in Brazil is a serious concern for people planning a pregnancy or pregnant women and their partners, because it can cause serious birth defects.
The victims: Between the spring of 2016 and 2017, 402 pregnant women in New York City were infected with the virus and 32 infants were infected, half of which had related birth defects. A Times article in 2017 reported that a quarter of US babies with Zika-related birth defects were born in New York.
The response: From 2013 to August 2016, New York City invested $21 million to enhance mosquito surveillance and control, adding 51 new positions in the government to address the needs and stepping up measures on Zika testing, water cleaning, and protection-kit distribution. It launched a six-step Zika action plan that included an awareness campaign dubbed “Fight Back NYC.”
The panic: New Yorkers canceled trips to Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. There was fear in the air about mosquito bites, pregnancy, and sexual activity.
New York experienced a measles outbreak from April to September 2019.
The victims: Seventy three percent of the nation’s 1,282 cases were linked to New York. The outbreak was largely concentrated in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County. Both had low vaccination rates and widespread anti-vaccination literature.
The response: The city spent more than $6 million and dedicated over 500 staffers to response efforts, which included community events and dissemination of information about vaccines. Rockland County banned unvaccinated children in public spaces. New York City schools blocked unvaccinated students from attending class, to the fury of some parents. Calling the measle outbreak in New York a public health emergency, Gov. Cuomo signed a bill to end religious exemptions for immunizations despite angry opposition.
The panic: Anti-Semitism surged amid the measles outbreak, with bus drivers refusing to stop for Jews and a group of teenagers reportedly screaming at a rabbi and his family, “Hitler should have killed you all with the measles.” Both pro and anti-vaccine groups held rallies, symposiums, and other community events around the city, sometimes clashing with one another.
The sensationalism: During the outbreak, Facebook decided to limit the spread of anti-vaccine hoaxes and groups. Instagram blocked hashtags like #vaccinescauseautism and #vaccinesarepoison, and YouTube barred anti-vaccine videos from earning revenue.
New York confirmed its first case of coronavirus infection on March 1.
The victims: The first confirmed victim of novel coronavirus was a 39-year-old health care worker who had recently returned from Iran. She and her husband are both in home isolation. The second was a 50-year-old attorney from Westchester County. His wife, two children, and a neighbor have all tested positive for the virus. As of now, New York has had 140 confirmed cases and nearly 2,200 people in the city are under quarantine.
The response: New York developed its own tests for the Covid-19 virus at the end of February. Gov. Cuomo made Covid-19 testing free for all NY residents two days after the first case of infection was confirmed. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) increased the frequency and intensity of sanitizing high-touch surfaces and started broadcasting instructions for preventing the disease through loudspeakers in major subway stations.
The panic: When coronavirus was largely spreading in Wuhan, China, New Yorkers who looked Chinese or were wearing masks were physically and verbally assaulted. In early February, CVS and Walgreens were running low on face masks. Stores around the city are seeing a shortage of sanitizing products. New York shoppers are also panic-stocking water, ice and other supplies. A New York fertility clinic reported that demands from women wanting to harvest and freeze their eggs had risen because they were uncertain about the impact of a possible coronavirus infection would have on their bodies. Today, Governor Cuomo announced a proposed bill that, if passed, will provide paid sick leave for New Yorkers who are required to stay home because of a coronavirus quarantine.