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Mayor Bill De Blasio Describes New York City's Response To Coronavirus

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Like many parts of the U.S., the biggest city in America is scrambling to deal with the coronavirus, deciding whether to cancel public events, close schools and keep people at home. New York City has confirmed more than 30 cases of the coronavirus in the city, but Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press conference today that test results from private labs are coming in quickly, so that number may already be outdated. And Mayor de Blasio joins us now.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BILL DE BLASIO: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: Today the states of New York and New Jersey have both declared emergencies. New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo created a containment area in New Rochelle, a suburb on the doorstep of New York City. Tell us about the steps you're taking to contain the spread of coronavirus in New York when there are states of emergency all around you.

DE BLASIO: Sure. We - look. We are - we have the biggest public health capacity of any city in America, and we have been employing it now for weeks and weeks in anticipation of this. I am very, very concerned, like every other mayor in America, but I do want to put in perspectives - you know, as of now, 36 cases against the backdrop of a city of 8.6 million people. So we do expect a substantial increase in number of cases, but we also know that this is a disease that - for the vast majority of people who get it, it will have a minor impact on them. And that's what we're trying to adjust for - you know, getting information out to people, getting folks tested who really need to be tested and, obviously, focusing on the folks who are most vulnerable. And we see this all over the world. It's older folks with pre-existing major health care conditions.

SHAPIRO: So to that question of getting folks tested who need to be, last week, your office told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that New York City did not have enough test kits. The head of your city council's health committee said it's fair to say we have no idea how many new Yorkers have been infected. Is that still true?

DE BLASIO: I would say two answers to that. One is, as recently as last week, we did not have enough testing capacity. And now we have much greater capacity to the tune of hundreds of tests a day. But we do need the FDA to approve automated testing, which would allow us to do thousands a day with very quick results, so we're better off than we were last week with more to do. In terms of folks out there who have - of course, there's going to be some people out there who have it who are not detected. But we're doing so much to do outreach and information, and more and more people are coming forward. I think we're going to be in a situation where we will know about the vast majority of cases and be able to act on them.

SHAPIRO: I just wonder, if you don't have enough tests and you are working with a snapshot that is out-of-date in terms of the number of cases, how can you have confidence in the kinds of decisions you're making - for example, the decision not to cancel the St. Patrick's Day parade next week?

DE BLASIO: Right now, again, I want to just make sure we're speaking the same language. We have the ability right now to do hundreds in a single day, and we do not have more requests for testing than we have capacity. That's...

SHAPIRO: OK.

DE BLASIO: ...Something different from just a few days ago. When we get the approval from the FDA - we need that right away - we'll be at the point where we can do thousands in a day, and we're nowhere near that level of demand right now. Again, the concern is very real. Are there people out there that we've not yet identified? Of course. Are there some people - and this is an interesting point - younger folks who go through the entire course of the disease, do not have any remarkable experience about it...

SHAPIRO: Right.

DE BLASIO: ...And it resolves, and they never even knew they had it?

SHAPIRO: So...

DE BLASIO: But in terms of the potential spread, based on the information we have, including from our own cases here in New York City, it still appears to spread under particular conditions.

SHAPIRO: Right.

DE BLASIO: It is not an airborne disease, and we have not seen the kind of indicators that - for example, big outdoor public events are the kind of venue where it would spread. That's why we have not yet made a decision to cancel anything like that.

SHAPIRO: Such a big part of the city's economy is based on public gatherings, whether we're talking about stadium shows, sports arenas, Times Square, Broadway. And these events bring together people from all over the world. At what point do they become too great of a risk?

DE BLASIO: It's a fine question, but I would say modified or affected by the fact that the various travel restrictions are very real in terms of the ability to help us identify if anyone does have the disease. I think it's obviously self-evident fewer and fewer people are traveling every day. That's affecting the equation to begin with, so I think - compared to, say, you know, three weeks ago, I think we have a much stronger position because travel is just organically reducing all the time. My central concern is not folks from outside. I already have community spread here in the city. So...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DE BLASIO: The original cases were from travel. The cases now are not from travel by and large.

SHAPIRO: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, thank you for joining us today.

DE BLASIO: Absolutely; thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.