On the Coronavirus

The impact of the virus on NYC schools is unclear, but public school closures remain unlikely.

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The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, which originated from Wuhan, China in December, has expanded to over 100 countries in nearly every continent across the world. The number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 topped 100,000 this past week, and there have been over 3,000 deaths, putting the mortality rate at 3.4 percent. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a global health emergency, and said in a statement: “All countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation, and case management, contact tracing, and prevention of onward spread" of the virus.

Coronavirus’ Progression

Though the number of new COVID-19 cases in China has dropped to a six-week low, the virus has become an imminent threat in the U.S. as more cases are being confirmed each day across the nation. The coronavirus first appeared in the country when a man in his 30s from Washington state, who had traveled to Wuhan, was diagnosed with the virus in January 2020. Only a month later on February 28, 2020, a patient near Seattle became the first person to die from the coronavirus in the U.S. Shortly after, President Trump took more aggressive action against the coronavirus by issuing a “do not travel” warning to areas in Italy and South Korea most affected by the virus.

Governor Andrew Cuomo confirmed the first case of the coronavirus in New York State on March 1, 2020. According to state officials, a 39-year-old woman contracted the virus while traveling in Iran, and she has since been staying in her home in Manhattan. The next day, a second coronavirus case was confirmed in an attorney who lives in Westchester County. In the following days, at least nine people who came in contact with the Westchester attorney tested positive for the virus. The number of confirmed cases in New York has jumped at an alarming rate this past week; as of March 8, there have been 109 confirmed cases in the state, 12 of which are in New York City.

In response to the climbing number of confirmed cases, Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency on March 7. This declaration will allow the state to bypass certain regulations in order to hire more health care workers and purchase more cleaning supplies. It will also secure guidelines so that businesses will be barred from setting exploitative prices for supplies in high demand, such as hand sanitizers and cleaning wipes.

Despite the rapid spread of the virus in the state, Governor Cuomo urged the public to remain calm during a news conference in Albany. “You know what’s worse than the virus—the anxiety,” he said.

While Cuomo did not mention the number of New Yorkers who were isolating themselves at home, New York officials reported that they had asked around 4,000 people to quarantine themselves.

Past School Closings in NYC

With more and more cases plaguing New York City, talk about closing schools has resurfaced as they did in 2009, with the outbreak of swine flu. An outbreak of H1N1 influenza occurred at three high schools in Queens in April of 2009, infecting multiple students and even an assistant principal. Subsequently, the schools were closed; this was only a few of the many hundreds of schools that closed across the U.S. for swine flu. Perhaps a better example is the more localized measles outbreak in New York City last year when dozens of yeshivas were closed after unvaccinated individuals returned from celebrating Sukkot in Israel, bringing the virus with them. The outbreak was largely confined within the ultra-Orthodox community, where the anti-vaccination movement made a significant mark.

Will NYC Schools Close for Coronavirus?

Now, even as the number of cases in New York City soars, only a handful of private schools have suspended schools and others like Collegiate have only recently closed to sanitize their campus.

But despite popular pressure and the inevitable spread of the virus, Richard A. Carranza, the current New York City Schools Chancellor, is adamant about keeping public schools open. With no signs of the city’s 1.1 million public school students showing any symptoms of the virus and the fact that many public schools are also social service centers for hundreds of thousands of poor students whose parents rely on schools to take care of their children during the day, Carranza considers closing schools a last resort. His rationale is sensible; if short snow days disrupt the social flow of the city, closing schools for weeks could have unfathomably major consequences.

With officials having conflicting opinions on how to deal with the pandemic and treatment unlikely to come before next year, our best bet is to protect ourselves as individuals. The flashing headlines can’t say it enough: wash your hands and stay home if you’re sick. By maintaining personal hygiene, you are not only reducing your own risk of contracting the virus but also doing a service to those around you.

Potential Treatments

Currently, there is no conclusive treatment for the virus, with patients only receiving supportive care—that is, fluids and medicine to reduce fevers. Nine companies are researching potential vaccines or drug treatments. Most of them, including Johnson & Johnson and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, are in the preclinical stage of development, in which research is still being conducted and no testing has occurred. Researchers from these companies estimate that it may take at least six months for clinical trials to begin, and it could take another year for a successful antiviral vaccine to be cleared for the market.

Two American companies, however, are already initiating clinical trials for a potential coronavirus vaccine: Gilead Sciences and Moderna Therapeutics. Gilead Sciences announced that it is recruiting 1,000 patients for a clinical trial of Remdesivir, a nucleotide analog drug, on February 26, 2020. This means that Remdesivir disguises itself as a nucleotide, but contains an extra molecular group that can block replication when it comes in contact with a virus. Gilead developed Remdesivir in 2015 in response to the Ebola outbreak, but it was less effective than other drugs tested and did not reach the manufacturing stage. Gilead hopes that Remdesivir will be more effective on COVID-19 patients. The drug has produced successful results when used to treat severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which shares genetic similarities with the coronavirus, suggesting that it could produce similar results for the coronavirus. It would be given to patients through intravenous therapy rather than through a vaccine. Results from the trial are expected by April.

Just 42 days after COVID-19’s DNA sequence was recorded, Moderna Therapeutics introduced a potential vaccine, mRNA-1273. The mRNA-1273 vaccine differs from traditional vaccines, which typically contain a weakened or dead form of the target virus. It contains a messenger RNA sequence instead, which will direct cells to build a protein on the surface of the virus. The patient’s immune system will produce antibodies that bind to the protein and tag the virus, prompting the mRNA to break down and eliminate it. Despite the speed at which the vaccine was produced, it may take over a year for the vaccine to be cleared for general consumption. Moderna Therapeutics is currently recruiting 45 people for a 14-month trial in which participants will be given two doses of the vaccine. After this trial, another one will have to be conducted with thousands of participants in order for the vaccine to be approved and manufactured.