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Explained: Why New York has emerged the epicentre of the US’s COVID-19 outbreak

High population density, air travel from epicenter Wuhan, and a public transport system used by millions. These factors may have led to a high infection rate in New York City

By: Explained Desk |
Updated: March 27, 2020 8:53:29 am
Explained: Why New York has emerged the epicentre of US’s COVID-19 outbreak A woman walks through a lightly trafficked Times Square in New York, March 16, 2020. (AP Photo: Seth Weni)

New York City, with more than 25,000 cases of the novel coronavirus (five per cent of the world’s cases) has become the epicentre of the outbreak within the US. It makes up nearly half the country’s entire cases, which stood at 69,171 on Thursday, and has even surpassed the number of cases in the whole of South Korea, among the countries with the largest outbreaks.

On March 13, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ordered laboratories across the state of New York to test for COVID-19. This led to an increase in testing: from 1,000 tests per day to over 16,000 tests per day. Addressing a press conference, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said, “What is happening in New York is not a New York phenomenon.”

“People in New York don’t have a different immune system than other Americans. It’s (the infection) not higher in New York because we are New Yorkers,” Cuomo said, “It’s higher in New York because it started here first, because we have global travellers coming here first, because we have more density than most places…”

An exponential rise in cases

New York City reported its first COVID-19 case on March 1, which increased to 12 cases on March 7, 25 cases on March 9, 137 cases on March 13, over 2,000 cases on March 18 and more than 13,000 on March 23. However, it was only on March 22 when the city saw a jump of more than 2,000 cases from the previous day, that New Yorkers were ordered to stay home.

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The transmission of coronavirus may have been easier given the population and density of NYC. According to the US Census, New York City is the most populated city in the US, with a population of 8.4 million. The second most populated city is Los Angeles, with a population of 3.9 million — a difference of more than 4 million.

Moreover, New York City has the highest population density compared to other major cities in the US. The city has over 27,000 people per square mile.

Explained: Why New York has emerged the epicentre of US’s COVID-19 outbreak People line up outside Elmhurst Hospital Center to be tested for the coronavirus, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo: Mary Altaffer)

Public transport

It is possible that the public transport system of the city also contributed to the ease with which the infection spread. According to the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA), an average of 5.4 million use public transport everyday. The subway system in the city has a total of 472 stations.

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Air travel

According to a recent New York Times analysis, out of the thousands who flew out from China’s Wuhan, where the outbreak of COVID-19 began, into cities across the world, over 900 travelled to New York every month on an average. It was not until January end that China put Wuhan under lockdown. However, by that time many infected people would have already travelled to different parts of the world, including New York City.

According to researchers, over 85 per cent of travellers from Wuhan would have gone undetected, even though they could still be contagious.

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