As we pass the two-month mark since New Rochelle’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, I revisit today the question of where our community stands, using fresh data and observations to illustrate both good news and bad. I hope that my comments will be helpful, as all of us strive to comprehend and overcome this unprecedented challenge.
The Good News
Throughout New Rochelle, the rate of new infections is now clearly on a downswing. As of this writing, there are an estimated 595 active cases of COVID-19 in our city — still too high, but the smallest number in about a month, and down more than 40% from the peak in mid-April. There are similar positive indicators from Montefiore New Rochelle, which reports a steady decline in COVID-19 patients.
Our region does not yet meet the State’s criteria to begin a phased reopening, but there is good reason to be hopeful about progress toward that goal. By every available measure, we are past the apex of the epidemic, with trend lines pointing in the right direction, as illustrated in the following chart of active cases in New Rochelle:
Almost as important, from the very beginning, our community’s response to this challenge has been impressive, even inspiring. From the tireless efforts of volunteers distributing food, to the generosity of residents supporting businesses and service agencies, to the solidarity of neighbors applauding essential workers, to the heroism of our health care providers and first responders, to the simple friend-to-friend gestures of kindness and concern that help all of us cope with a difficult new reality, New Rochelle has proven itself to be a strong and resilient city.
The Bad News
More than 2,500 residents have contracted coronavirus since the first local case on March 3rd. In every part of our city, daily life continues to be severely disrupted, economic pressures are intensifying, and — most painful of all — families are grieving loved ones. Although the State does not issue a precise count of COVID-related deaths for cities like ours, there is no doubt that scores of New Rochelleans have lost their lives, a devastating toll.
And this isn’t over. Even on the descent from the apex, Westchester still has one of the highest concentrations of COVID-19 in the entire world, and several hundred new cases are still being detected each week. Physical distancing, face coverings in public, avoiding non-essential gatherings — these and other forms of disciplined, responsible conduct remain absolutely vital to continued progress. This is no time to let down our guard.
While every part of New Rochelle has suffered, the virus has disproportionately impacted our most vulnerable residents. To see how, one must look beneath the top-line citywide statistics.
The Wykagyl neighborhood was the site of New Rochelle’s first detected outbreak of COVID-19, spurring a wave of intense focus and testing within the North End. As a consequence, back in mid-March, the 10804 and 10583 zip codes accounted for more than 85% of our confirmed cases. Since then, however, prevalence of the virus has shifted to the central and southern portions of the city, and the ratio is now reversed, with more than 90% of currently active cases in the 10801 and 10805 zip codes.
To some degree, these trends reflect patterns of detection more than of spread. What do I mean? Although the virus was first noticed in 10804, there is little doubt it was already quietly circulating throughout our city and region, like a fire spreading through the walls and ducts of a house. It took a few weeks for testing and reporting to catch up with the facts on the ground. In the meantime, the virus had a head start on mitigation measures.
But that explanation only goes so far. There are other reasons why the 10801 and 10805 zip codes are comparatively susceptible to the virus’ spread, including:
• More residents in housing that is overcrowded and/or lacking the professional management to properly clean common areas;
• More residents facing language barriers that may impede access to public health guidance;
• More residents in essential jobs, whose occupational responsibilities increase the risk of exposure;
• More residents with pre-existing health conditions that intensify vulnerability to COVID-19;
• More residents lacking documentation, which may reduce interaction with and trust of public health authorities.
• More residents in nursing homes, where a single case can spread quickly, with terrible effect.
These factors are not mutually exclusive; it seems likely that all of them are in play to one degree or another. And, to be clear, these patterns are not unique to New Rochelle. A quick look at the distribution of COVID cases around Westchester reveals that the municipalities with the highest infection rates — Yonkers, Mount Vernon, Ossining, Port Chester, White Plains — have demographic and housing characteristics similar to the most-heavily impacted neighborhoods in New Rochelle.
But it is no comfort that New Rochelle is in good company. Far from it. The fact that lower-income residents, immigrants, and communities of color are carrying the heaviest burdens everywhere should inspire outrage, humility, and determination.
Outrage — because the COVID statistics are only the most recent illustration of our society’s profound and perpetuating inequalities, posing a stark and painful challenge to America’s self-professed ideals.
Humility — because local action alone will never be sufficient to correct such complex, multi-layered problems. Achieving racial and economic justice is a nation-scale cause that requires a sustained, nation-scale strategy.
Determination — because the fact that these challenges are bigger than New Rochelle is not license to ignore them. Here in our own community, we still have both a practical and a moral obligation to do that which is within our power.
In this spirit, and to address the shifting human and geographic profile of our local outbreak, the City has worked with State and County officials to:
• Establish a new diagnostic testing center — which opened yesterday — adjacent to the Montefiore New Rochelle campus and within walking distance to the most affected neighborhoods, together with free transportation for those who need it through our CircuitNR shuttle. (We will advocate for local access to antibody testing, too, once antibody testing capacity for the region is scaled up.)
• Circulate English and Spanish public health guidelines for the residents, managers, and owners of multi-family buildings, including our municipal housing authority.
• Distribute cloth masks to not-for-profits, houses of worship, and other community agencies that serve at-risk residents.
These steps lie parallel to programs addressing food insecurity, such as the City’s NourishALL initiative, and they supplement citywide messaging that repeatedly stresses the importance of physical distancing to all residents.
In short, we are doing much, and there is much more still to be done.
All City Council Members have been fully engaged in meeting these challenges, and Council Members Martha Lopez and Yadira Ramos-Herbert, who represent the hardest-hit areas, have been especially effective in advocating for and delivering direct support to residents in greatest need of help. We are fortunate to benefit from their service at this uniquely challenging moment.
The Bottom Line
Conditions in New Rochelle are improving. The worst is behind us. And our collective sacrifices and efforts have made a positive difference, putting the goalposts of a gradual, phased reopening within sight.
But we have already lost far too much. We still have a long way to go. And this experience has exposed, yet again, deeper societal challenges of profound importance.
Optimism and realism are sometimes described as opposing perspectives, but they are not. Both will be justified and required, as we make our way through the middle stages of this crisis and plan for the recovery and renewal of our whole community.