'A whole city underground': Video shows New York's heartbreaking virus problem

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·5-min read

Just about a month after New York recorded its first coronavirus fatality, the state has reached an unwanted milestone as its COVID-19 death toll surpassed 10,000 overnight.

While the rate of coronavirus hospitalisations has slowed significantly in recent days, signalling the worst is behind the iconic city, there is concern for a particularly vulnerable group.

A video taken by an employee of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has shown how many of the city’s homeless have sought refuge in the subway system while the city is in lockdown.

Speaking to CBS, train operator Yann Hicks, who filmed a video which showed a large number of rough sleepers residing in the train carts on Sunday morning, local time, said he was concerned about having to work in such conditions.

“The virus is going back and forth, back and forth in dirty trains with people, homeless, and everybody with no masks on. There’s a problem here,” he told the network.

A train workers says many rough sleepers seeking refuge on the quiet trains don't have access to masks, gloves or hand sanitiser. Source: CBS
A train workers says many rough sleepers seeking refuge on the quiet trains don't have access to masks, gloves or hand sanitiser. Source: CBS

He’s concerned the virus could be festering on the subway network without the proper cleaning, a potential problem which could lead to a spike in new cases as the city looks to ease lockdown restrictions.

“You look at the videos of Times Square. It’s empty outside. You look at the videos all over the place, it’s empty because everybody’s underground. There’s a whole city of people underground,” Mr Hicks said.

At least 343 homeless people in New York City have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a city official during a the press conference with mayor Bill de Blasio on the weekend. But given the low levels of testing in the community, it’s likely much higher.

In San Francisco, another city with a strong homeless population, 70 people tested positive after an outbreak at a single homeless shelter last week.

Still from a video filmed by a NYC train worker. Source: CBS
Still from a video filmed by a NYC train worker. Source: CBS

Rough sleepers a coronavirus ‘time bomb’

New York is grappling with how best to deal with stopping the spread of coronavirus among those living on the street.

More than 300 non violent inmates from New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison have been released in recent weeks to control the outbreak in the jail. Many of the former prisoners have reportedly ended up in homeless shelters or rough sleeping.

Speaking to The New York Times this week, a staff lawyer for advocacy group Legal Aid Society, said the outdoor safety net for those living on the street was falling apart, calling the situation a “time bomb” as the pandemic continues to grip the city.

Homeless individuals take shelter at a subway station during the Coronavirus outbreak on April 13, 2020 in New York City. Source: Getty
Homeless individuals take shelter at a subway station during the Coronavirus outbreak on April 13, 2020 in New York City. Source: Getty

With public bathrooms closed, a number of shelters and soup kitchens having to close their doors, and a lack of pedestrians to donate spare change, many homeless people have been forced into unusual methods of shelter, such as the subway system.

“When all of those systems simultaneously break down, you’re going to get this influx into congregate situations,” Joshua Goldfein told the Times. “It’s a time bomb.”

In an in depth interview with the ABC’s Planet America program last month, prominent New York doctor Dyan Hes described the streets of New York as “like a zombie apocalypse” during the height of the outbreak.

“There are so many homeless people now who got kicked out of psychiatric hospitals when they closed, and have been living on the street and in shelters but now because of the coronavirus they don’t want to stay in the shelters,” she told the program.

“So they’re all over the streets. We walked home ... and I’m literally not exaggerating that every other street, we had to cross the street because there was a deranged homeless person throwing something, screaming, urinating on a wall, hunched up in a ball doing drugs, in a telephone booth doing drugs.”

Thousands of homeless to be housed in hotels

On Saturday, local time, mayor de Blasio announced funding to house 6,000 homeless people in hotels to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The numbers will include people who have tested positive for COVID-19, or are showing symptoms, as well as those from shelters where it has been “difficult to achieve social distancing”, he said.

Felix Guzman, 52, of New York, wears protective gloves and a mask as he hands out gloves and sanitising wipes to people who are homeless. Source: AP
Felix Guzman, 52, of New York, wears protective gloves and a mask as he hands out gloves and sanitising wipes to people who are homeless. Source: AP

Speaking at a press conference in which he revealed the latest coronavirus statistics, New York governor Andrew Cuomo lamented reaching the unfortunate milestone of 10,000 coronavirus deaths.

Mr Cuomo revealed that another 671 people died statewide from coronavirus overnight, bringing the state’s total death toll to 10,056 on Monday morning, local time – accounting for about half of all US fatalities.

“The terrible news is as terrible as it gets,” Mr Cuomo said, referring to the tally surpassing the 10,000 mark – nearly half the country’s total.

While the number of daily deaths was less than previous days at 671 – the first time in a week it has been below 700 – the governor noted people were still dying at a “horrific level of pain and grief and sorrow”.

“This virus is very good at what it does. It is a killer,” he said.

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