NYS making hand sanitizer, as Port Authority head comes down with coronavirus

Mar 10, 2020

The head of the state’s Port Authority has tested positive for coronavirus, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health officials are releasing a plan for possible school closures if a child is found to have the illness. Meanwhile, the state is manufacturing its own hand sanitizer to deal with the shortage of the disinfectant product.

Cuomo, in what has become a daily briefing on the spread of the illness, said Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has tested positive for the virus. Cotton is in quarantine at his home, where he is recovering.

Cuomo said Cotton had been overseeing arrivals at the busy John F. Kennedy International Airport in recent weeks and may have contracted the virus there.

“He’s been at the airports, obviously, when many people were coming back with the virus,” said Cuomo, who added Cotton’s senior staff is also being tested and will be on quarantine.

Dr. Howard Zucker, the state's health commissioner released the latest numbers on the illness at the briefing and said he’s working with the state education department to devise a plan for potential school closures if a student comes down with the virus.

Zucker said the plan is for the affected school to close for 24 hours to do a cleaning and assessment of the situation, and then decide whether to reopen the school or keep it closed for longer.

“You have a positive case, you want someone to go there and clean the environment,” said Zucker.

He added that the health department will work with state education officials to investigate where the child caught the virus.

“Let’s try to get a little bit more information,” Zucker said. “That’s the purpose.”

The health department is also working with the federal Centers for Disease Control about a longer closure of public schools in New Rochelle, Westchester County, where there is a cluster of cases. Cuomo said the region is a “significant hot spot” for the virus.

The governor said while the illness so far has not been severe in children, the strategy is to contain the spread wherever possible so that vulnerable populations, like the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions, are not exposed.

“The image in my mind is, 9-year-old Johnny goes and kisses his grandmother, and now there’s an issue,” he said.

Cuomo said he is concerned for his 88-year-old mother, Matilda Cuomo, and he has urged her to keep away from public gatherings.

The state has recommended that nursing homes in New Rochelle suspend access to visitors and said that other nursing homes around the state should consider limiting visitors.

Cuomo said for now, there are no plans to suspend the legislative session or limit crowds at the Capitol, where hundreds often come during session days to lobby and hold demonstrations. He said the strategy is to impose restrictions where there are multiple cases of the illness and urge caution, including hand-washing and social distancing, everywhere else.

The governor also announced a practical solution to the hand sanitizer shortage.

Credit Office of the Governor

Prisoners at the Great Meadows correctional facility will be manufacturing 100,000 gallons of a hand disinfectant solution each week. Cuomo, trying to add a light note to grim circumstances, demonstrated the use of the product, saying it is better than what’s on the market, with a 75% alcohol content.

“It comes in a variety of sizes, it has a very nice floral bouquet,” Cuomo quipped.

The hand sanitizer, which costs the state $6 a gallon to make, will be distributed for free to schools, local governments and health care facilities that need it.

Cuomo also said he’s sending an expedited bill to the Legislature that would guarantee paid sick leave to New Yorkers who are placed on quarantine because of the coronavirus.

The governor already included a paid sick leave measure in his state budget proposal. He said now he’s updating the legislation to guarantee workers in New York get paid leave when they are quarantined at home because of the coronavirus.

“If government is ordering a quarantine, even a voluntary quarantine, that places a personal hardship on a person,” Cuomo said. “That person should get paid.”

Cuomo said a “significant” number of people are now being quarantined, and he said it’s in the interest of the business community that workers who are sick or may be carriers of the virus stay home and “stop the spread.”

The governor said his staff is looking at whether the measure could be retroactive to cover those already quarantined.

A spokesman for the state Assembly, Michael Whyland, said lawmakers there are working on a bill with the governor and the state Senate that could be approved in the coming weeks.