Monthly Archives: May 2020

Sunday, May 24 update

NYS update: New York State campgrounds will be open again starting this week, per the governor’s order. This is one of the few things Cuomo announced today that might have an actual impact on (some) ordinary New Yorkers. The reopening of training camps for sports franchises, not so much, since ordinary people still can’t go to the games. We were once again exhorted to “think big” about moving New York forward. Because “too many small businesses have closed,” we apparently need the help of Big Giant Heads.

I got into a brief Twitter conversation about the makeup of the “regional control rooms.” There has been some grumbling about how CNY’s “regional control” group won’t talk to the media. I’m not real convinced these people do anything much more than Zoom about daily stats and try to figure out workarounds for whatever bright ideas Cuomo has each day. Josh thinks the makeup of the “control room” is terrible and I asked why.

I think the chaos predated the regional control room group appointments, however, and I’m still not convinced these people actually do anything meaningful as a group. However, I’d take a bunch of county executives and county managers, and mayors (and ex-mayors) any day over the “blue ribbon panels” that Cuomo has rounded up. My question: Who in the CNY community has the requisite authority to create a critical mass of public assent for self-designed solutions? At the end of the day you still have to convince duly elected leaders to carry out the solutions.

Onondaga County update: There will be no briefings until Tuesday, and no updates at all on Monday, as the health department is taking a much-deserved day off. Saturday’s briefing was rather upbeat. Community spread is still being watched, but does not appear to be a concern — though exhortations to maintain social distancing remained stronger than usual; the asymptomatic-positive percentage is now up to 53% of new cases on a 3-day average. Although three more residents died in hospitals on Saturday (including a 102-year-old woman whose father died in the 1918 pandemic), the “real” hospitalization number is down dramatically to 28, with 17 of those in critical condition. This figure excludes a whopping 51 “parked” nursing home residents — those who are not sick enough to be hospitalized, but can’t be released by the hospitals.

The good news about the nursing home parking issue is that CE McMahon talked to Cuomo himself about it, as part of a conference call between the governor and the CEs of the large counties. So, the state has been definitively made aware of how this issue is skewing the hospitalization metrics, and will be allowing local officials to handle this by working out suitable alternative arrangements. Unfortunately, it seems that Onondaga County doesn’t quite have this logistically worked out yet with a COVID-designated nursing facility, but they expect to have this figured out soon. (We might hear Cuomo mentioning this in one of his briefings next week – that is, if he cares to mention anything nursing home-related ever again, which he may not…)

McMahon also highlighted the reopening of Oneida Shores and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo; apparently the zoo is the first one in the state to reopen, and other zoos are asking ours for guidance. Supposedly, all has been going well with the social distancing measures. (In any case, we won’t really know until the end of this coming week if anything has gone horribly wrong.)

The social distancing freeze is continuing to melt. I was out and about today (Sunday) and ran into some people on a forest trail. I reached for my mask, and carried it in my hand to show that I came in peace. We both shrugged it off and just stayed ten feet apart as we passed. As time goes by, people are losing their fear of encountering others, particularly outside — which could backfire, depending on how much we don’t know about the virus. But I think the smarter people are avoiding indoor gatherings, and the smartest ones are also avoiding big-box stores.

A programming note: I will probably doing less of the “daily updates” after the coming week and hopefully revisiting distinct topics. One of the reasons why I started doing the updates was to create a chronology of actions taken in Onondaga County during the pandemic, for future reference. As the county moves through the reopening phases, and toward answering the bigger questions (how to turn schools and colleges back on, for example), it will be more worthwhile focusing on the big picture.

Friday, May 22 update

NYS update: “Imagine if you were in a real war,” said Cuomo today, after pointing out that Memorial Day got its start in Waterloo. However, a better analogy to the COVID crisis is not being “at war,” but rather being under an occupation. This is something that mainland Americans have never experienced in the last 150 years, so it’s unsurprising that we don’t know how to act, and don’t understand how occupations work. People in France could probably still tell you what it meant for innocent people when undisciplined partisans ran around acting invincible. If you weren’t caught and summarily shot yourself, the Nazis would just select other people at random and shoot them as an example. This is how the virus behaves toward a population that refuses to wear masks. You, the freedom lover, may or may not get shot, but someone else almost certainly will.

Speaking of assholes, Cuomo was definitely acting like one toward the press today, not sure what was up with that (I mean, why this has suddenly returned, not that he hasn’t been known to do that). Maybe he was acting porky because he was feeling boxed in; at last word tonight, there will be a new executive order making all gatherings of 10 okay, whatever their purpose. This is thought to be because the ACLU complained about the first amendment.

Maybe he will be even testier tomorrow, since he got dinged at the very end of the press conference when he was asked about this allegation that the state has been outsourcing the overwhelmed Department of Labor’s unemployment claims processing to non-New York workers. “Who says we’ve outsourced?” Cuomo wondered, looking around blankly, until Robert Mujica jumped in and explained that, uh yeah, we actually kinda did, although the number of non-New York workers involved was very small.

Onondaga County update: There were no new hospital deaths today, and a lower community spread number (12), but the percent of asymptomatic positives over the last 3 days is now at 53%. Dr. Gupta was on hand today to answer a few questions, a sign that this percentage may be making the county officials nervous. (However, perhaps this may not be as dangerous a situation as supposed; a new South Korean study finds that many recovered patients who still test positive are only shedding dead virus. Perhaps some of our asymptomatic positive cases had mild cases of COVID in the past.)

The county passed an unwelcome milestone today when it was announced that one city of Syracuse policeman and one firefighter have tested positive for COVID. This is said to have occurred in the past week. Up until now, there were no confirmed infections among these groups. In the county briefing, the subject of cops, enforcement and personal safety came up again. There is a recurring line of questioning at least once a week about how serious (or not) the police are about breaking up gatherings, which is admittedly relevant going into the Memorial Day weekend. It’s a delicate subject that of involves first responders’ personal safety, but — as we have seen in Lewis County — one wonders how closely first responders’ bosses want to enforce certain policies. (I’m not saying this is a problem in Onondaga County, but we’ve seen this elsewhere in the state and nation.)

However, the hot topic of the day was how the county planned to deal with another incoming Trump-bomb — the silly and dangerous threat to order all churches open, no matter what governors say. The CE happened to be in a good position to answer this one because he had already floated a 25% capacity plan for churches in Phase 2. (With Trump around, all you have to do is wait a day, and anything you propose will seem reasonable once he stops speaking.) McMahon usually has very little to say about Trump and it seems clear that chaos in Albany and chaos in Washington are just two parallel shitstorms that New York’s county governments have to deal with daily at this point. He sounded distinctly unenthusiastic about Trump’s proclamation, as anyone with any degree of sanity would, which fortunately includes church leaders in Syracuse.

As for Washington… well, it doesn’t inspire confidence that the City of Syracuse tweeted this today:

Also worth noting from today’s county briefing is that the county plans to do (voluntary) testing of inmates at the Justice Center and Jamesville next week. Testing in the Town of Lafayette will also happen next week. Speaking of that general vicinity, the Onondaga Nation released a statement today after weeks of quiet.

As of May 22, 2020, there have been no positive COVID-19 cases reported on the Onondaga Nation. But the Onondaga Nation Chiefs, Clan Mothers, and Faithkeepers want to continue to remind everyone that this a very contagious virus.

Thursday, May 21 update

NYS update: I’m going to make a shameful confession: I don’t always watch Cuomo’s briefings lately — but when I do, I find that Youtube’s 2x playback speed, in combination with captioning, makes it much more of a breeze. Today, the governor announced that summer school would not be held in school buildings (only virtually) and provided a list of beaches that would be open for Memorial Day Weekend and — whoa, wait a second, stop, hit the reverse button. Why is Robert Mujica, state budget director, answering a question about summer camps?

Come to think of it, I have never been able to figure out why Cuomo’s associates occasionally pipe up spontaneously to answer random questions, as if they have contractual screentime. If we must have screentime for these guys, what I really would like to see is Howard Zucker having his feet held to the fire by the Albany press corps about the extreme incompetence of his health department’s handling of data reporting and nursing home orders. It is time that the press stop trying to get answers out of Cuomo, and turn their attention toward the people who seem to be actually running the day-to-day show.

Cuomo’s opponent last time around, who has so far not been openly critical of the governor’s response, now seems to be losing patience.

In other news, Rochester is in danger of losing its “Third City” status to Yonkers, according to recent data. (However, this data was gathered before the COVID outbreak, so all bets may be off if people start fleeing downstate.) Meanwhile, it appears New Yorkers all over the state are ignoring the 2020 Census in great numbers. Soon there will be nothing left of us in the official record except the scent of New York Clean on the cold dawn wind.

Even sadder, the pandemic has effectively caused New York State to ignore itself. A study of point-to-point Thruway traffic over the past few weeks finds that personal auto use on the highway has fallen off a cliff:

Canandaigua to Kingston has never been a terribly popular journey — only 16 folks took it in 2019 but it completely fell off the dataset in 2020, with 0 drivers taking it. The number of cars going from Rome to the three exits near Schenectady plummeted from 2,253 to 336. Only 70 went from Batavia to Amsterdam, down from 298. Social distancing, in other words, has not only led to a suspension in the connections between people, but to the connections between the communities that make up New York.

Onondaga County update: After announcing an additional hospital death, CE McMahon’s briefing included some now serious complaining about the nursing-home asymptomatic patients distorting the county’s hospitalization number, which officially stands now at 82 — about 40 of which are not sick people. The “real” hospitalization number — people who medically belong there — stands at 42. Going forward, it seems he will deliver this split statistic regularly, since the state doesn’t appear to be interested in the ongoing repercussions of their nursing home policies.

He also revealed an eye-opening and somewhat alarming new statistic: 44% of those tested COVID-positive in the last three days were asymptomatic. (It wasn’t clear to me if this was an Onondaga County or Central New York regional figure.) This is perhaps the reason behind the suddenly stronger warnings for everyone to keep their masks on. (The community-spread number of new cases was 20.) He also pointed out that because of the increased testing, we have probably reached a point where “new cases” is no longer a revealing metric, but percent-positive (now 6.4%) should be more descriptive of the community situation.

I’m surprised that more people who lean toward opening faster, haven’t framed it in the way McMahon did today-

Society cannot just shut down for a year. That’s not how things work. You have to find balance… We need to do things and make policies that make the public safe, but at the same time, public health isn’t just COVID-19. You have to find that balance in dealing with addiction, with mental health — there’s no way to pay for public health response if your economy is shut down for a year.

Good point, but I wasn’t enthused at how McMahon mentioned Georgia as a hopeful example of a reopening going well. It’s wayyyy too soon to say that states that reopened early “haven’t been a disaster.”

The Onondaga County wastewater testing project seems to have fallen off the radar, so I was glad to see this status update. It seems that getting the testing process off the ground (er, out of the toilet) is going well, and apparently they were able to detect COVID-19 in our wastewater.

Wednesday, May 20 update

NYS update: As time wears on, it was predictable that up in the North Country, there would be some trouble. And it’s fairly big trouble when people openly disobey a county order and have a large outdoor gathering, the local sheriff is defiant, and someone gets killed.

An ATV event held over the weekend at the Stuck in the Muck Off-road Park that resulted in a fatal UTV accident in the parking lot Saturday night has county officials on edge. The event flouted stay-at-home and anti-gathering laws still in effect as the north country begins its phased reopening with ongoing concerns over a COVID-19 surge, social distancing was not respected, masks were not worn and the campgrounds were open. While the event organizer insists he had permission, county officials insist no permission was given…

The Sheriff’s office was contacted about the event. However, it is not clear if the “cops” who showed up in the day were from his office. In April, when over 50 ATV riders took to Tug Hill on the day the Snirt Poker Run was meant to be held, Sheriff Carpinelli had said the only tickets his department could have issued would have been for normal law-breaking like disorderly conduct, traffic infractions and drunken driving. The sheriff said he believes all of the laws instated via executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo are “unconstitutional.” He could not be reached for comment about the ATV event.

Meanwhile, local police in Massena who appeared to be trying to do the right thing by informally talking to a local church that held an outdoor service, have been threatened with a civil rights lawsuit by the church. Everyone is trying to be civil, but hackles have been raised.

Onondaga County update: The biggest local news came late in the day today when SU released its reopening plan. Unlike Ithaca College, they’re planning on reopening on schedule in August, but are having a truncated semester that ends at Thanksgiving. It appears that class sizes will be reduced, making Friday and weekend classes necessary, with online versions of each course running concurrently to the real-world ones. It’s interesting, but I wonder how faculty, adjuncts and TAs will deal with extra classroom hours, even if the hours don’t represent additional courseloads.

Today’s county briefing focused in on the “asymptomatic nursing-home patient” issue, which is now openly acknowledged to be a real problem. And yes, it’s a problem when fully half of your state-tallied COVID hospitalizations (39 out of 78) are patients who no longer need (or never needed) hospital treatment. As CE McMahon rightly points out, this is turning “hospitalization” into a useless metric. This problem is beginning to also become apparent in Rochester and Buffalo, and I predict Cuomo’s briefing tomorrow will deal with it in some form.

New cases in Onondaga are high (61 new cases), but because of expanded testing, the positive rate has fallen to 6.6%, the lowest ever registered. Community spread was up significantly, to 22. The local reporters seem nervous about these new numbers, and want to talk to Dr. Gupta, who is busy. (No, she really is; she’s doing a webinar with NYSAC tomorrow on contact tracing.)

Plans were announced for the reopening of Oneida Shores (wading only), the libraries (curbside pickup) and the zoo (by reservation, no indoor exhibits, temperature checks). I wonder how widespread the phenomenon of reserving slots at attractions will become, and how persistent it might be — unfortunately, such a strategy of admission has its abuses as well as its uses. I wonder if suddenly now everyone who’s anyone will be clamoring for an elusive zoo ticket. As for churches, McMahon was yesterday suggesting 25% capacity at churches yesterday (for Phase 2), a rare divergence from what the state has mandated; but as usual, this isn’t a hill he’s going to die on and state guidance will be carried out.

Despite his usual positivity in his numbers explanations, though, McMahon seemed to me to be a little more forceful than usual on asking the public to maintain social distancing and wear masks, and he conceded that the community spread number bears watching. It was also mentioned that a county employee had tested asymptomatically positive, which led to a discussion of how manfully Cuomo had stood up for his nasal swab (“He took it pretty well, but I question if they went far enough up the nostril”).

McMahon usually studiously avoids any hint of criticism of the governor or state health department, but today I couldn’t help noticing just the faintest whiff of snark. Maybe this week there’s just a wee bit of political blood in the water.

In the Governor’s briefing, he was imploring local officials to test in minority communities and underserved communities. We’re very proud in Onondaga County that we’ve been doing that since day one. No need to implore us — we’ve been doing it, and leading.

Tuesday, May 19 update

NYS update: There is almost a sense that the emergency of the pandemic is beginning to dissolve like a bad dream that is not quite over, but you’ve started to realize that it is a dream state, even though you’re not out of it. (Or a nightmare, obviously.) This would be in line with the national experience of the 1918 pandemic. Once the worst waves hit, most people forgot about it quickly.

Likewise, the “carefully” planned statewide metrics are also collapsing, shredding apart like a box of face masks left out in the rain. It’s not so much that the citizenry is running wild as reopening starts, but that the government’s response has been so problematic, and everyone is fatigued, and the still-shuttered regions are kicking holes in the reopening requirements that seemed so impressive just a week ago. (First Buffalo, then Albany, and now Long Island.)

But the half-life of the nursing home crisis is not going to be so short. The Post-Standard ran a withering piece this morning on the state health department’s interactions with nursing homes over the past month. This agency is very good at projecting authority without taking responsibility — or even possessing the competence to back it up.

The state’s clunky fact-gathering behind the scenes contrasted with the calm, data-driven style that is on display every morning during the governor’s news conferences…

A question about in-facility deaths was added to the daily survey April 16. But it failed to ask for retroactive data. Instead, it asked operators to the number of deaths “since your last report.’’ In other words, since the previous day. The next morning, April 17, the nursing homes got another email notice. “URGENT RESPONSE REQUIRED,’’ it said. The health department needed answers to two additional questions, including: “What is the total number of residents who have died in your nursing home of Covid-19?” The email was sent at 7:03 a.m. The deadline to respond was 8:45 a.m.

Maybe the daily Cuomo show was all about style (or “substance as style”) in the beginning, and it was what we needed to focus. But if the show has become just a daily parade of slides about metrics that we all can’t or perhaps even shouldn’t maintain, coupled with defensive denials about the nursing home scandal (I think you can call it that now), maybe it’s time for the governor to make this a weekly show instead of a daily one.

Meanwhile, Buffalo has reopened, but they somehow seem to still be a little behind:

As the Erie County Department of Health moves forward with the additional antibody testing, they didn’t realize how many people were interested in getting one of those tests. 2 On Your Side asked the health department about the jammed phone lines and general availability of those antibody tests. The Erie County Department of Health officially started its antibody testing program on Tuesday. It is distinct from the antigen diagnostic test we heard about originally. This is actually a blood draw because it will look to see if your immune system in your body was exposed to COVID-19. 

Ummm… haven’t they heard that antibody tests really aren’t of very much use in determining whether or not you actually have immunity? (There’s a reason why so many of the antibody tests are available — nobody wants them. Except, apparently, in WNY, where it’s still mid-April.)

Onondaga County update: The county health department has begun to move forward with mobile community testing, focusing on communities on the north side of Syracuse that they would like to take a better look at (including immigrant neighborhoods). This is not necessarily because they are seeing a jump in cases, but because there is a suspicion that the language barrier has kept people from seeking out tests. There are also plans to test in the town of Lafayette. (I’m assuming that they are hoping that people on the Onondaga Nation will come to be tested.)

The high hospitalization number locally is supposedly due to the ongoing asymptomatic nursing-home patient backlog. I guess my flipping out over this last week was justified, because the state’s reversal on nursing home and hospital COVID policy is in fact interfering with what seemed to be a pretty good homegrown plan to deal with the problem. Now CE McMahon would like to talk to the state about changing more metrics, since it’s all the rage (he wants these asymptomatics taken off the region’s hospitalization total). However, the 19 patients in critical condition — highest number in about a month — doesn’t seem related to this issue.

The daily community spread new case number was 17 today, which is higher than the last few days, but probably doesn’t bring the seven-day running average up very much. Reportedly, the Saturday Regional Market was a social-distancing shitshow, so Dr. Gupta and the county health department went out to review the arrangements. (While the market was still going on, which is pretty impressive mobilization.) Hopefully the state Ag and Markets department, which oversees the Regional Market, will be more competent and responsive than the state DOH.