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Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres Experiences COVID-19 Firsthand

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, has issued this plea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: I am asking health care professionals across the country - if you don't have a health care crisis in your community, please come help us in New York now.

MARTIN: Governor Cuomo is asking for an additional 1 million health care workers. He made that request yesterday after 253 people in New York State died in a 24-hour period because of the coronavirus. And the governor said the worst is still yet to come. Some relief came yesterday when the Navy hospital ship, USNS Comfort, sailed past the Statue of Liberty and docked along the Hudson River. It was an image that was both unsettling and reassuring. Will the extra help be anywhere near enough? New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres is with us this morning. His district in the Bronx is part of the poorest congressional district in the country. Mr. Torres, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.

RITCHIE TORRES: It's an honor to be here.

MARTIN: What are you hearing from the doctors and nurses in your community right now? I mean, are they getting the equipment they need - the protective gear?

TORRES: Look, what I've largely heard is anxiety among health - front-line health care providers who have been deprived of adequate personal protective equipment. You know, without PPE, much of the workforce is in danger of becoming infected. You know, we could have far more patients and far fewer providers to serve those patients. So the lack of equipment is the No. 1 priority. And it's the equivalent of sending soldiers to the battlefield without ammunition.

MARTIN: So you're saying they still don't have the gear that they need?

TORRES: It's still lacking. You know, in New York City, we only have a week worth of supplies, you know, and except for the most extreme procedures like intubation, there are health care providers that continue to reuse masks or have to be conservative in how they use equipment because the shortages remain critical.

MARTIN: We mentioned...

TORRES: Those are the complaints that have been relayed to me.

MARTIN: Yeah. I mentioned the Comfort that is now there - the Navy ship. There are also field hospitals that are being set up around New York. We've seen pictures of them in Central Park, the Javits Center. Is that going to help you, your constituents there in the Bronx?

TORRES: It will make a difference. Look, we have a simple, stark choice - either act aggressively to slow the spread of the virus and build as much surge capacity as we can in the health care system or else the sheer number of cases is going to crush the hospital system in New York City. You know, the Army Corps of Engineers has committed to building four more temporary hospitals, one in each burrow, including in the Bronx, a thousand-bed facility in the Bronx. But, you know, we have a Herculean challenge ahead of us. The city of New York has to triple hospital capacity in a matter of weeks.

MARTIN: On top of that, I mean, the Bronx already has a population that is food insecure I guess is a way to put it. I mean, there are people who...

TORRES: Exactly, right.

MARTIN: ...Even before this, didn't have access to steady nutrition. And now, I'm sure people are being laid off. I mean, what's your urgent concern for that population?

TORRES: Well, just like the surge in COVID-19 cases is threatening to overwhelm the health care system, the surge in food insecurity, poverty and unemployment threatens to destabilize the city's network of food banks. The food banks, the food pantries are facing the nightmare scenario of more clients, less staff to feed those clients and higher prices for food. The cost of chicken, eggs, produce have risen by 180%...

MARTIN: Yeah.

TORRES: ...Some of it caused by price gouging and some of it caused by intense competition. A not-for-profit food bank is in no position to compete with corporate behemoths like Walmart and Amazon. And so one-third of the city's food banks have shuttered. And the rest of the system is in danger of collapsing unless there's an infusion of emergency aid from the local and state government.

MARTIN: Just in seconds remaining, you yourself tested positive for COVID-19 a couple weeks ago. You've been quarantining at home. You are young. You're just 32 years old. What is your message to younger people who think that this isn't going to affect them?

TORRES: My message is, you know, during our current emergency, social distancing has become the highest civic and moral duty of every American, especially millennials. We're all capable of contracting the disease, spreading the disease and we're all in this together.

MARTIN: New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, we appreciate it. Thank you.

TORRES: Of course. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.