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NY taps tech giants to help rebuild post-COVID-19

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A trio of billionaires will help New York reimagine its economy, health care system, and education strategy as the state begins to distance itself from COVID-19, a disease that has disproportionately affected low-income communities and people of color.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt would lead a new commission to examine how technology can improve the lives of New Yorkers.

“Let’s look at what we just went through,” Cuomo said. “Let’s anticipate a future through that lens, and tell us how we can incorporate those lessons.”

Schmidt, joining Cuomo’s daily briefing via video conference, said his work would focus on how an expansion of broadband and remote communication could change how New Yorkers access health care services and educational opportunities, including primary school.

“We can take this terrible disaster and accelerate all those in ways that will make things much, much better,” Schmidt said. “The solutions that we come up with have to help people the most in need.”

Schmidt said any strategy developed by the commission would reflect the realities of different communities in New York, which have a range of technological capabilities dependent on geography and demographics.

He’s the third industry leader to be recruited by the state in recent days to help its strategy of keeping COVID-19 at bay, and rebuilding society in its aftermath.

Bill Gates, a co-founder of Microsoft, is leading the state’s efforts to reimagine education while students continue remote learning until June, at the earliest. The anticipated result of those efforts is unclear, as of now, but Cuomo questioned the “old model” of learning this week.

“Why, with all the technology you have?” Cuomo said.

That sparked frustration from education advocates, including New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers union that’s often an influential player in policy.

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta suggested that, rather than reimagine education, Cuomo should fix the problems that already exist in New York’s schools. Those solutions likely won’t happen; education aid was kept flat this year due to a projected $13 billion revenue gap.

“If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” Pallotta said.

Neither Schmidt nor Gates have an anticipated deadline by which they’re expected to recommend technological changes that could benefit the state's education and health care systems. Schools are closed through June, with some districts anticipating summer school.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the third billionaire selected to help the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, though his role has less to do with technology and more with containing the spread of the disease over the next several months.

Bloomberg’s been tasked with building a so-called “army” of contact tracers, which are employed to interview patients diagnosed with COVID-19 and contact anyone they might have infected. The state anticipates having thousands of those tracers in the coming weeks.

That’s not expected to be an easy task; the state is requiring regions to have at least 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents before their economy starts to reopen.

As of Monday, no region of the state had enough contact tracers to begin opening businesses later this month. That’s when the statewide lockdown order is scheduled to expire, though some regions aren’t expected to begin reopening for weeks, or months, after that deadline.

Most regions of the state have, at least, seen the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 decline in a way that would, eventually, allow them to reopen.

As of Tuesday, there were 421 fewer people hospitalized with COVID-19 in New York, bringing the statewide total to 9,179 — the lowest in several weeks. The number of patients intubated dropped to 2,533 Tuesday.

An additional 232 people died from the disease Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 19,877.