Category Archives: COVID-19

Thursday, Oct. 1: That ticking sound

Uptick is the word of the moment in New York State. Now that we seem to actually be entering the much-discussed “second wave” of the virus — which is actually the “third wave” because “we” (the rest of the U.S.) already had the second wave during the summer — this is a good time to catch up.

Yesterday, I tuned in to the Oneida County briefing by their CE Anthony Picente, last seen on this blog banging his shoe the night of the Phase Two Crisis. Unlike Onondaga, which is still getting two short Q&A sessions a week, Oneida County doesn’t hold televised briefings very often. So when this one was suddenly announced I wondered what was going on. Was it a general response to the rising warnings from Albany about Downstate, or was there a horrible new outbreak?

I actually wonder if this briefing had numerous prompts and that one of them may have been the “Dark Days” news special recently aired in the Syracuse market about the virus response. The special — which I thought could have easily filled an hour instead of the half hour it got — interviewed a few of the key people at Upstate and in Onondaga County about how the virus response developed from March to summertime. It may have been a filler program, but I thought it actually was important to get out there: if this story is going to go on and on for the foreseeable future, maybe a recap of Chapter One was the right thing to do. We’re not going to get through this unless we pause to tell ourselves our own story.

Indeed, CE Picente started off his briefing with an extended pep talk and congratulation to the community for its compliance with health orders, before getting down to what he seems to like to go on TV for: giving a specific someone a stern buttkicking. He called out a pastor/youth coach from a local church (a church not identified by him, but identified by a Utica OD reporter during the Q&A as a local Baptist church). This pastor, by continuing activities while symptomatic with what turned out to be COVID, managed to spread the disease to nine other people, including children. A colorful graphic was produced showing the impact that Patient Zero had on the citizens of Holland Patent. Patient Zero was not cooperative with contact tracers and it seems the church has lawyered up, and Picente commented that the county would also be looking into legal options. (“Did the church members talk about God protecting them from the virus?” one member of the Utica media wanted to know. They did not; no money quotes today.)

The good news is that the previously reported case of the errant church in Horseheads, whose members attended an (illegal) wedding reception in Oneida County and spread cases through six counties, has not produced any cases specifically in Oneida. Still, Picente was frustrated with “the lack of respect and lack of responsibility” and warned that community instincts about the virus were showing signs of growing dull: “People are drawing the wrong conclusions from our successes.”

While the U.S. at large is suffering from structural arrogance in almost every area, not just in virus (non)response, this warning can be applied to CNY in more ways than one. To put it in terms that hopefully any pastor can understand (and hopefully county executives as well), there’s always “the arrow that flieth by day” to be concerned about. What’s the challenge for the reasonably successful Upstate regions, and the quite successful ones like CNY, during the fall and winter?

I personally think the challenge has to do with the exponential increase in testing activity and innovation that has surrounded the return of students to colleges and schools. There is a daylight danger here in losing sight of the forest for the trees. The one thing that August and September have demonstrated is that our system of K-12 schooling really sucks even in the best of times. There haven’t been any wildfire outbreaks of virus in the schools — and here in CNY, there aren’t going to be, because there will just be this herky-jerky stopping and starting of virtual and classroom learning when even one person tests positive. The numbers here will always look good. If we’re just waiting for a vaccine to show up, maybe this can go on for a while, but it can’t go on indefinitely. The way we run our grade schools — a patchwork of local school systems scattered over highly unequal and inequal districts — is actually very brittle. Is it time to start “going long” on structural problems, and not just separating out data down to the atomic level?

Is it possible that we’ve done well because so far the virus has thrown situations at us that we do well at? Logistics, data, inter-stakeholder communication and dealmaking — these are things that Onondaga’s CE appears to be good at. The ability to inspire a broader vision, however, might be the challenge of the fall and winter, and may require different talents to come to the fore. (Incidentally, Picente strikes me as a much more effective public speaker than McMahon, though he seemed out of his element explaining the well-done chart he brought with him; rather the opposite of McMahon, it seems to me…)

CEs Picente and McMahon can point to the low positive numbers and new proactive testing strategies, and the health departments can point to efficient contact tracing efforts, but there’s no dashboard for how ordinary kids and their families are doing with all this. McMahon continues to give briefings every Monday and Thursday but they now tend to be 25 minutes or less and no one is really asking any new questions. One of the questions could definitely be: “Given the new upticks in the rest of the state, are we looking at the possibility of phase rollbacks — and if not, what local measures could be taken within your authority?”

Right at the moment, CNY hasn’t got any noticeable large outbreaks of unknown origin… but maybe this one is a local manifestation of what’s happening statewide.

F-M superintendent Craig Tice said how the four teachers and three staff members contracted the virus has been puzzling. Of the seven who tested positive, three met with each other and another two met together at school in small staff meetings, he said. He said they wore masks and social distanced. All seven did not meet together at once, and one didn’t appear to cross paths with any of the others he said.

Albany and New York City are ballpits of self-important infighting officials that are never going to handle this crisis with 100% or even 75% effectiveness. Places like Chemung and Steuben counties have limited health infrastructure resources to deal with big problems that their officials well recognize. But Onondaga County hasn’t got any of these excuses to fall back on (excepting being broke, which is true of every government in New York, so that’s not an excuse either).

Thursday, July 30 update: In Old America

In other nations across the world that have passed a certain age — where there are ruined castles and temples dotting the landscape, and other monuments of mighty kings and despots are stacked on each other as just part of the historical scenery — there has also been more than one apocalypse. People take this for granted. Tourists come to take pictures of it. There is no big project going on in these countries any more. Any ones that used to hold sway, have been wiped away by (mostly) war and conquest, migrations and treaties. Now there are just ordinary people pursuing an ordinary existence according to whatever native culture they have practiced for a very long time. We envy them because they seem somehow more relaxed and in touch with the timeless essentials of life.

The ruins of the Great Wall of China, the Appian Way and other Roman roads, the monument fields of Burma dotted with old temples — these are major tourist attractions. And yet New York State’s own ancient ruins are barely noticed even by its own tourism department. The Erie Canal is still sold to the public as an aggressively recreational destination where you can bike, kayak, jog — the new Empire State Trail. But the hundreds of miles of canal remnants — the ingenious, beautifully constructed, highly practical and now half-hidden and romantic ruins of Empire — are marketed to travelers almost not at all. This is a sure sign that the future has not yet arrived.

Someday, some of us who know well where the most obscure stones and ditches can be found, and what purpose they served, might be in a bit of demand as field guides to the curious. But it seems like we have a long hard road to travel before we become anyone’s authentic Old America, even our own. First we have to reach what I call the “Yeltsin on the Tank Moment,” but American-style. (The role of Yeltsin has not yet been cast.) This is a moment described somewhat in one of Dmitry Orlov’s books as a visible manifestation of a previous unseen moment when an empire actually does lose all legitimacy — unseen, but felt as surely as a needle feels the north just before it swings.

During the Soviet establishment’s fast slide toward dissolution, Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign unleashed a torrent of words. In a sort of nation-wide talking cure, many previously taboo subjects could be broached in public, and many important problems could suddenly be discussed. An important caveat still applied: the problems always had to be cast as “specific difficulties,” or “singular problems” and never as a small piece within the larger mosaic of obvious system-wide failure. The spell was really only broken by Yeltsin, when, in the aftermath of the failed putsch, he forcefully affixed the prefix “former” to the term “Soviet Union.” At that point, old, pro-Soviet, now irrelevant standards of patriotic thought and behavior suddenly became ridiculous — the domain of half-crazed, destitute pensioners, parading with portraits of Lenin and Stalin.

Meanwhile, the Northeastern states — the “cradle of 400-year-old American local government,” and the earliest seat of Empire — are still holding their own most virtuously against the nation’s COVID enemy. Well, we’re in for some chop. Real ‘Muricans in the heartland, of course, are trying to fend off the “fascist” mask cult, while many Northeastern communities are growing scared to death of what happens when school and college starts — so many of them being built around college life, if not actually “college towns.” There’s a distinct chill in the air when you go to work and read stern official memos that sound like wartime orders.

And so we continue to grow apart. Political colors will not fill these lengthening cracks, when so much of what is at stake is dependent on the not the sanctity of lofty ideals, but raw physical space — the Northeast, the Empire State, the city, the community, the hospital, the body. So there isn’t going to be some weird half-and-half “two Americas” composed of a central clot of red states and a bunch of geographically separated blue states, like some secular East and West Pakistan. And I’m not sure how a national government can survive such local conditions, even if it wasn’t already a massive looting operation and wanted to survive.

There probably isn’t going to be any revolution. (As Orlov adds, “It took years for people’s thinking to catch up with the new, post-imperial reality. It was not an easy transition, and many remained embittered for life.”) Then again, nations and empires shattering is a very ordinary thing, historically speaking. It gave us great nations like France and Germany, and it also gave us the Turkmenbashi — father of all Turkmen, and lover of art and literature. (Like a certain strongman we all know — the one we all love to hate, and hate to love.) But the road from ex-Gaul to the Fifth Republic wasn’t an easy one, and it led through fear and violence — including wars — and was paved with (and actually, by) petty dictators who made the trains run on time, drained the marshes, and maybe also kept the viruses down.

In Old (Upstate) America, we’re just waiting for a change of season, and maybe a glimpse of the future in the still waters.

Sunday, July 12 update

A much-needed look at how New York State counties have been communicating COVID data to their residents was published last week: Counties, COVID Data, and You. This is an excellent exploration of something that a lot of New Yorkers have been complaining about over the last several months — the confusing, sometimes maddening discrepancies between state-level data and local data, as well as the local differences in data reporting. Since New York’s reopening strategy has been so numbers-based, having the correct numbers is important. The bumps in the data road have ranged from merely annoying to genuinely distressing (like that time when our CE had to come out and announce 40 surprise nursing home deaths the state never got around to telling us about).

However, I’d also like to make the case that uniform data reporting — in the broader sense of “data,” which means all kinds of information, from quantitative to qualia — is only worth something if that data is good and up-to-date, and if the data is usefully applied.

It seems that in many other parts of the U.S. which are going through what New York went through in March and April, the public information and statistics on COVID come from a hodgepodge of outlets and dashboards. Especially from private or university hospital systems, as is (or it appears was) the case in Charleston, S.C.

MUSC officials announced an agreement with state and local officials to pause the use of the recently launched Charleston Area COVID-19 Warning Level system. MUSC said they will work together with state and local public safety agencies to explore the possibility of developing a statewide COVID-19 notification system. The previously announced schedule of warning level updates has been canceled. They want to remind the public to wear a mask, social distance, practice excellent hand hygiene and protect vulnerable populations.  Details are limited at this time.

One thing that New York State never wasted its time on was an “alert system” — mainly because there wasn’t enough time to devise one. Instead, the general state of alarm was felt more than it was read or heard. People in New York read articles in newspapers, heard about cancelled events, and most ominously, started to hear from the governor each day (though this was before his formal daily conferences). My recollection is that there was a rising sense of danger before any states of emergency had been declared either at the state or county level. They need to cancel the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, everyone started to murmur amongst themselves, before anyone openly would discuss the pandemic, or that there even was a pandemic.

As the state began to shut down in mid-March, there was no easy set of communication tools (such as “red alerts,” “orange alerts,” etc) put in place, but rather an informal set of communications strategies from the state to the local level. Most famously now, Cuomo’s daily slideshows; but down at the county level, some officials (like ours in Onondaga County) were also going on TV all the time. There was no official coordination of message, as we grit our teeth to remember. However, the message was uniform: We have a serious situation on our hands, and we must pay attention to the science. This was a notably non-partisan message.

I know about this news story from Charleston because I have a cousin who lives there. I also have relatives who live in Marion County, Florida (Ocala) and I was curious the other day to see what kind of information they had on their county dashboard. Well, they don’t have a county dashboard or report that gets updated daily; not much COVID information on their county website at all, just a link to the Master Florida Dashboard. Which does have county breakdowns, but this dashboard, as we’ve heard in the news, is now under strict state control.

The New York COVID data experience did indeed vary widely from county to county, and from county to state, and this did produce a lot of stress and controversy which still isn’t over. But I’d also say that while the basic information and messaging was the same — across regional and party lines — there was a richness and an interplay to it, I think, helped ensure that the state more or less moved forward together. Despite Cuomo’s top-down personality, in fact the local leaders were also competent and had a great deal of leeway to choose their own strategies for uncovering data. This was communicated back up to the top through a deeply flawed system (the “Regional Control Boards”), but it did appear to get communicated. There was some bottom-to-top flow. Some of it came in the form of late night shoe-bangers, but it did get heard.

The unsettling thing about the newly-stricken states is that some of them are now moving to standardize and smooth out COVID data, and also create not terribly useful messaging, like color-coded text alerts. As I’ve guessed before, some localities are probably coming up with effective data collection strategies, as well as effective community outreach — but if states like South Carolina are moving to “professionalize” the message, taking away initiative from localities, hospitals or health departments, that is cause for concern. Especially when so much of the Sun Belt population seems disinclined to pay attention to state-generated messaging, while simultaneously looking for guidance toward a personality (Trump) who seems to be actively trying to kill them.

It’s not hokey to say that to survive any kind of calamity, be it a natural disaster, war or pandemic, people who are affected have to be good at accurately reading the tea leaves. Official messaging helps, but there also has to be “herd instinct” before you can develop herd immunity. Citizens have to have enough information coming in on a regular basis — either hard numbers, or the words of their governor or local leaders or health departments — in order to assess the situation and feel their feelings of danger about it. The less rich the information sources are, the less responsive the public will be.

The successful public announcement about COVID or any other danger will merely be validating and focusing what the public already has begun to sense. You don’t have to speak the language of data or boil it down into color-coded alerts; that’s not really what “clarity” means. The sounds of many different drums seem most clear.

Thursday, July 9 update: The Teenage Terror

Onondaga County update: Today felt like a bit of a turning point. Or more accurately, over the last three days it’s become impossible to deny that — regardless of what the national COVID watchers say — this is our “second wave” beginning. Right now.

Local news outlets were making stories out of this one tweet by the CE within 30 minutes of its posting. Less than 48 hours later came this yikes-inducing story of community spread at a daycare, followed by the unwelcome news that the virus has at last infiltrated the Onondaga Nation, have just added to the sense of alert. Then there are increasing stories of local nastiness and rants by the anti-mask crowd, things you think shouldn’t be happening here. (This incident involving two young employees being verbally abused at an ice cream stand has been getting a lot of press.)

We have a right to be annoyed at the rest of the U.S., who are tied to us like a ball and chain and whose local leaders apparently did nothing to learn from New York’s experiences. I find myself getting my hackles raised whenever some expert talks about how bad “the United States” is doing — because we haven’t done badly. But who was even watching? (Maybe we upstate should just embrace invisibility as our superpower…)

Community spread driven by young people is happening. Although the details weren’t reported to him directly by the health department, the CE acknowledged that he had background knowledge of “a party of high school students from multiple districts” — which could only mean Westhill and West Genesee, my neck of the woods also — that probably exposed up to 40 people and their families. (Wow, I really feel like going back to Fairmount Wegmans now…)

The new mobile testing strategy will fan out to area school districts in an attempt to get parents to bring their kids in for testing proactively. That’s the carrot. The stick is that McMahon has threatened to go all Rockland County on the ass of anyone who intentionally lies or refuses to cooperate with contact tracers. Or more specifically, their parents (fines for parents having worked in Rockland).

We can’t afford to be in denial about what’s going on, so I’m glad to see the alarms sounded by the media and by the CE. However, the uncomfortable thing that’s also happening this week is the reopening of DestiNY USA. Which was supposed to be a triumphant fulfilment of Phase 4… but increasingly is making me, and probably a lot of other people, very queasy. So far CNY has been lucky to not have local leaders suffering from cognitive dissonance. The alarm on COVID was sounded early and well. But you couldn’t pay me to go into DestiNY on a good day, and certainly not now. I don’t want to be anywhere near teenagers right now. (I’m only partly joking when I wonder if a good use for the State Fairgrounds would be to put on a big seven-week music festival that only teens could attend, which would last several weeks, and where they would be locked into the grounds until late August, when they could go off and be locked into their dorms.)

I know, it’s crazy to think that every young person is irresponsible. But I say this as someone who works at a medical college where today I saw a student, or perhaps a resident, lounging around in a hallway with people walking by, with his mask around his chin. Great. Then there was the teenage delivery boy who brought my mom her Instacart groceries — no mask whatsoever (fortunately, she had hers).

If there was any good news to the day, it was that the county’s 51 hospitalizations are demonstrably once again a distorted number. More than half of this number consists of asymptomatic or lightly ill nursing home residents and memory care patients — all from institutions overseen by the state — transferred to hospitals out of excess of caution. The other half, around 25 people, are genuinely ill with COVID. For the first time since April, we had a week with zero deaths.

But it isn’t a good sign when there’s a new sign-off to the daily briefing: “We need your help.” Don’t trust anyone under 30?

Monday, July 6 update

NYS update: The state DOH released its self-exoneration report on nursing homes today, the upshot being that “it was the nursing home employees that brought the disease in, not infected nursing home residents.”   Interestingly, the word “tested” appears only seven times in this document, and this is what the state offers as proof that it was the employees who were infected first and not the residents:

Between May 20, 2020 and June 16, 2020, following Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order mandating twice-weekly staff testing resulted in approximately 9,000 staff tested positive.  That means that out of approximately 158,000 nursing home employees in the state, approximately 37,500 nursing home staff were presumed or confirmed positive for COVID-19— or one out of every four workers were infected.

But Onondaga County began aggressively testing in whatever senior living facilities they could (since access to nursing homes was denied to them) by at least April 22 — about a month before the period of time on which the DOH bases their data for this report.  Although Onondaga was not granularly breaking down test results at that time as they do now, on April 22 they reported 28 positives with only four of them being “affiliated cases.” Were senior living facilities very different from nursing homes in their character?  Perhaps, but the truth is that as quickly as this virus was moving, you probably cannot back-formulate your data-driven hypothesis only from May 20 — especially since many of the nursing home patients with COVID might well have already died!  Unaddressed in the DOH report was the horrible communication process with the nursing homes and local communities, the slowness to test comprehensively in nursing homes, and the slowness in re-examining the March 25 policy. If DOH is basing their conclusions on “data supplied by nursing homes under penalty of perjury” covering the period March-May… we should ask to see this data. (Basically, what this “report” seems to be is more of a theory being advanced by NYSDOH rather than a supported conclusion…)

Of course, I’m sure the state probably isn’t even conscious of the fact that Onondaga County’s health department charged ahead trying to get the true picture of what was happening inside senior facilities a month before the state made an attempt.  (And that was the whole point of the daily updates here, by the way:  to be able to reconstruct in the future what happened during the COVID crisis on a daily basis in “the provinces.”)

In a surprise, the DOH report did not wind up with “And nobody told us that the virus was coming from Italy, not from China“… but of course Cuomo made sure to mention that today. However, this paranoid display is a strong contender for Top 10 Slides of the Pandemic — something out of a fever dream Fantasia sequence playing in the governor’s mind?

In other news, the State Fair was finally, mercifully cancelled, making 2020 the first time since WWII that it will not be held. Why did Cuomo wait so long? Possibly because, despite his cheery dismissal of the idea that there is anything specifically going backward in New York State (“We’re doing great on the rolling 7-day average”), he very likely has been looking at Central New York’s daily positives average, which have been creeping slowly upward, and his experts have probably concluded that the rest of the state which are in latter stages of reopening are probably headed that way too.

But why is that happening?

Onondaga County update: CE McMahon is proving to be quite good at Twitter. He’s actually like the complete opposite of Donald Trump: timely, informative, responsive, and he has learned not to get into scraps with all the Camerons out there. On days when there are no briefings, he can be expected to post the day’s numbers breakdown, often around 3 p.m. When asked about the “high” positive percentage rates for CNY yesterday:

This was covered in today’s briefing at some length, including today’s uptick in hospitalizations, which was attributed to the hot and humid weather having respiratory effects on COVID patients (this assessment was made by doctors from more than one hospital, according to McMahon). These were not ICU hospitalizations, as the ICU number is down, and there were no deaths to report.

Cuomo has been talking tough on enforcement of mask-wearing and how the burden is on local governments. Out in the provinces, the practical concerns are about the nonexistent legal framework for enforcing these rules, especially against big-box stories that are telling their employees not to attempt to stop non-mask-wearers from shopping.

We have enough information that suggests that some of the [big-box store employees] are being coached not to address the issue, and we think that they should at least ask somebody to wear a mask and offer it. We’ll give them the masks. It’s all gray. This thing has never been tested in court with these executive orders related to mask-wearing. We believe that people need to wear them, and if some of our big-box retailers don’t work with us on that, we’ll go to the next level… I get everyone likes to talk about enforcement, but these are not legally tested processes, how many of these orders came.

McMahon mentioned that a new mobile testing strategy is coming, and I suspect it will have something to do with younger people, as this national infection trend is happening here as well.

Meanwhile, the Last Chance for Change people are still marching, not having reached the end of their 40 days yet. (A good read).

The group has almost fallen apart several times. They’ve had to manage personalities, conflicts and differing visions. Several organizers have been kicked out of the inner circle… On June 10, Day 10, the heat index reached 96 degrees. Chaplin doubled over and threw up in the grass. A few hours before the protest, Bloodworth’s cousin was killed. Then five gunshots rang out. The shots came from the housing complex a block away, and no one was injured. Still, it rattled the protesters and organizers. A quarter of protesters surveyed had lost a close friend or family member to gun violence.

On Day 15, a fight broke out among some of the marchers. Some organizers and protesters had to step in to break it up. Shortly afterward, six Syracuse police officers arrived. No one was arrested or injured. The next day, Chaplin apologized to the group, calling it a family dispute.

I know some people will read this story and think, “Well, these people aren’t really going to get anywhere.” That’s because this is not a flashy, shiny, easy story about “marches” for the TV cameras with cute signs and hats. This is the stuff that either kills a group or makes it very powerful. To think that there was ever a time when people believed that Saturday showboating on the Mall was going to change anything.