Monthly Archives: April 2020

Thursday, April 30 update

NYS update: Cuomo’s briefing today was appropriately NYC-flavored again and featured Michael Bloomberg and Bill DeBlasio, talking about the new Contract Tracing Army and the dirty subways. The plan for the subways is to close them between 1 and 5 a.m., apparently unprecedented, to deep clean them every night. If I were an essential worker in NYC, I would be feeling more than dubious about the “free Uber” on offer. (What if you actually don’t have a smartphone? It can happen, especially if you work for peanuts.) But what else can they do down there? No subway, no city.

Come to think about it, it’s really interesting how app builders have been able to contribute virtually nothing of practical use in an actual full-blown pandemic. The University of Buffalo has come up with an app called PocketCare+, which sounds an awful lot like apps being used in South Korea and (gasp) China to track-and-trace people. (It could be useful, but I wish there was just a good app that would help you keep track of where you were anyway. It’s Day 46 of home semi-confinement for me, and as the days keep running together, writing down when and where I go places seems pretty important.)

The Bloomberg group is, according to the governor’s press release, not just going to be a downstate affair: “This nation-leading tracing program will focus on areas with the highest rates of infection and on regions where data shows could be the first to open.” If they are coming up here to help, I hope it’s actually going to be helpful to the local county health departments who are currently experiencing real data-loss thanks to the piling-on of clumsy outside efforts. “As part of this effort, The Bloomberg School – the top-rated public health school in the country – in consultation with DOH, will develop a world-class online curriculum for the State’s contact tracers that includes a training program and an online exam that must be passed to complete the program.” (Because we know the state has had such a good track record lately with other online services like unemployment benefits…? Oy.)

In other news, confusion over the resumption of elective surgeries continues. The governor last night was supposed to release a new executive order with guidance for the hospitals, according to Albany Dude who sat next to Cuomo on Tuesday and said it was coming. (I can’t remember these young guys’ names. I’m just going to call them all Albany Dude.) The hospitals haven’t gotten it.

Patients scheduled for Tuesday procedures were tested late last week for the novel coronavirus to meet the requirement given by Gov. Cuomo last week that all elective surgery patients be tested three days prior to their procedures. Iroquois Healthcare Association communicated with its member hospitals on Monday, Mr. Cayer said, that the health department’s guidance had still not arrived and that no procedures should be performed. “On Monday at 4:30, we pulled the plug here because we didn’t have the guidance,” Mr. Cayer said late Wednesday afternoon. “We were told we’d have it and we’ve been waiting for it ever since.”

The Buffalo area is nowhere near resuming elective surgeries, and there’s another troubling story confirming that Erie County has got problems. (Including frontline workers dying.)

“A lot of people aren’t taking this seriously,” Poloncarz said, “and I’m very, very disappointed to the point where it’s bothering me when I talk to my colleagues elsewhere, and they’re like, ‘You could shoot a cannon down major roads and you won’t find anyone.’ Heck, if you shoot a cannon down major roads here you’ll take out 50 cars.”

I can confirm that in Syracuse you could shoot that cannon safely. It was a surreal sight to see Fairmount Corners denuded of cars for a few moments yesterday at rush hour time as I was coming back from Solvay. I don’t know what’s the matter with Buffalo. Did they just somehow start down a “non-virtuous spiral” because they never got enough test kits at the beginning? Or does it have to do with the kind of self-absorption that comes from years of political polarization? I don’t follow any Erie County briefings and so I don’t know how Poloncarz and health officials are communicating their message, but even if they are doing it well, there are too many suburbanites in the area who just won’t listen. This is not a good historical juncture for Buffalo.

Onondaga County update: Many many years ago, when Star Trek: The Next Generation was in first-run syndication, Syracuse fans were lucky bitches. The new episodes were transmitted to the TV stations on Sundays, in preparation for the week ahead; the stations could choose to air the episode on any day of the week running Monday through Sunday. But Syracuse’s station broke the rules and aired the new episodes on that very Sunday (a week earlier than they were allowed to). During this glorious time, Syracuse Trekkies had all the spoilers first before the entire rest of the nation.

This is actually what the county briefings are starting to feel like sometimes, because usually before Cuomo is set to announce/preach on a particular key matter, we’ll get the first whiffs of it the day before. Tomorrow might be Schools Day, so CE McMahon answered some questions about the shape of things to come (except the date of opening, which he says he doesn’t know). It sounds as if aggressive testing of school staff will happen, and while social distancing measures in the schools are still under discussion, I have a feeling that students will have to stay in a single classroom while teachers circulate, rather than the reverse. It seems to me that opening the schools may not be quite as logistically difficult as opening other things (such as colleges). Keep the students from circulating through buildings, and cleaning and contact tracing gets a lot easier.

The Pizza Fritte craze in Syracuse is only becoming more of a phenomenon, and now that the operation has moved to the State Fair’s Orange Lot, wheels have been turning and some people think this would be an ideal solution for the (currently cancelled) Taste of Syracuse. “Life finds a way,” and you have to wonder if we are developing a drive-through culture, which seems bizarre and hopefully will go away once the virus does… but, well, give the people what they want? Drive-through concerts? Is there some way we can have a complete drive-through State Fair experience? Should the llama barn be one-way or two-way? (I bet someone is brainstorming that right now.)

There was some good news from the data front — Walmart finally turned over their full testing data to the county, not just the positive results. Good reporting by the paper, and McMahon thanked them as well.

Today’s major focus in the county briefing, though, was nursing home testing. There were three deaths announced, and it was strongly implied that they were all nursing home patients. (The female skew in the ratio continues, as all those who passed were women.) The fine points of the testing in senior centers were exhaustively discussed. Sitting through such “wonkery” every day, it is easy to forget that these discussions just don’t happen in other parts of the country.

The initial epicenter of the pandemic in the United States was a nursing home outside Seattle, where at least 40 residents have died of COVID-19. Yet following that outbreak, health officials did not prioritize the residents and staff of such facilities in the rest of the country to receive lifesaving testing and equipment.

Whatever happens to Central New York after COVID has gone away, and left us bankrupt for years, and maybe never again what (little) we were, at least one thing we will have: the knowledge that the above will never be said about us.

Wednesday, April 29 update

NYS update: I was cranky today. The governor was cranky today. The winds across New York are cranky today. And although Cuomo showed a map of all the counties which are (allegedly) allowed to have elective surgeries now, there is still a lot of confusion about it locally. Another executive order, on this subject, is supposed to come out later today. (As for the Masks of Love display, it reminded me of an AIDS quilt, which doesn’t inspire confidence.)

Cuomo was mostly ranting (righteously) about various disgusting situations, from the state of the subways to the famine of federal funds. A day where Cuomo feels boxed in doesn’t always make for the most illuminating or inspiring fireside chat. But it definitely feels like we’re entering a murky and helpless stretch.

One of the most annoying aspects of the whole COVID experience, in New York at least, is the squishy definition of the word “enforce.” Now Oneida County is coming out with a $2,000 fine against business owners who don’t enforce the governor’s mask rules in their establishments. If a regional reopening is going to initially depend on businesses holding up the social distance rules, at some point there has to be teeth behind the regulations. (Oneida’s CE Picente is known to talk to Onondaga’s CE a lot, so I wonder if this approach will be showing up over here as well?)

Onondaga County update: A 30th death was announced; again, another elderly female patient, and I keep wondering why the gender pattern is different here and if other non-big-city locations are seeing this too. One eye-popping statistic given out today was that 65% of all currently active COVID cases in the county are traceable to nursing homes and other senior facilities (either patients themselves, or facility workers or their contacts).

CE McMahon was not cranky today, although he admitted he was earlier in the week (people noticed). Perhaps contributing to a better vibe today is news that Joanie Mahoney is on the governor’s (116-person) economic recovery team. (At last, Joanie has a real job!) County officials feel confidently prepared to meet all of the criteria laid out by Cuomo in his visit to Syracuse yesterday, from isolation facilities (i.e., hotels, which the county is apparently already quietly using for some quarantine purposes) to a “regional control room” (the Emergency Management nerve center should suffice).

McMahon did admit that earlier rosy predictions of cooperating with the Walmart testing site have not exactly borne out, as Walmart is dragging its feet on reporting the total number of tests being performed (which messes up the “percent positive” metric, no longer able to be reliably reported at the briefings). “There are probably communities out there that aren’t asking for the data, they’re just so desperate to have testing. We use this data to make a lot of decisions. So for us, when we don’t have all the data, we break out in rashes and get very anxious.”

A reporter questioned if the aggressive senior cluster testing was distorting key numbers that the state was looking at in order to make decisions about restarts. The response:

You can’t tell counties, if they go out and do the right thing and find dormant COVID, that we’re going to hold that against you in a restart. Or else you know what everybody does? They don’t go test. So you can’t hold red curves against us. It’s about our ability to find it in real time, to identify it, isolate it and quarantine it. If we are being held to a standard even if all of the cases are identified [coming from] one building, who’s going to go test the cases?

According to him, Ulster County is now also doing senior center testing, and Dutchess may soon follow. But you have to wonder when the pressure will be turned on to “cook the books.” So far, the state has been reluctant to go into the nursing homes and test (though they are doing it now), and even less interested in the prisons. If McMahon is really interested in more correct data, maybe Jamesville should be next.

(An as aside, I find the daily county briefings fascinating in how they sometimes open the curtain on the nitty gritty of actually keeping New York State running, and how much the state — and now nation — are really run in manorial fashion. McMahon and his colleagues at the county level seem like barely noticed vassals in our great democratic system, where we have regular elections, but not regular communication between the governmental levels. This reality is usually only noticed in the context of county-level corruption, but in true emergency times like these, the ridiculousness of this isolation stands out. Should these officials really be required to sift through Cuomo’s tea leaves every day?)

But the Onondaga Nation has never been enfeoffed. The question asked by a reporter at today’s briefing about why they’re still at zero cases, was faintly disturbing — is someone trying to pursue some sort of “we don’t trust them Injuns” narrative here? (McMahon noted that he had received a suspicious number of e-mail queries about this matter all in one day.) Although I would be surprised if county officials really grasped the issues at play here, it’s satisfying to hear the evidence of how much the Onondaga LRA probably had lasting effects on public discourse.

We have not been on the Nation territory doing testing… We’re communicating with [the leaders], we value this relationship, but I couldn’t tell you how many people from the Nation have gotten tested. It’s very complicated. They are our friends, they are our neighbors, they are a sovereign country. So they have specific rights.

Tuesday, April 28 update

Today, the NYS and Onondaga County updates are (mostly) one and the same! Cuomo traveled over to SUNY Upstate here in Syracuse, where I thought he was going to talk specifically about criteria for the resumption of elective surgeries and the larger health picture related to them, and health care jobs, etc. Not really. He gave a pretty broad and somewhat unfocused presentation on reopening the economy in general, which was… good… and while he did have the courtesy to mention Central New York on some of his Powerpoint slides, I guess I was hoping to hear more about all the things SUNY Upstate and Onondaga County did right — the concept of the hospital system as a “fortress,” and all the initiatives that were taken to keep people out of the ERs, etc. But the presentation was fine, if a bit rambling. Now we are looking ahead to the fall and how it might impact the hospitals during regular flu season. Never too early to worry about that.

When Cuomo was in Buffalo, I was very disappointed to hear the local reporters asking him only about Trump. I was pleased that our local press corps wasn’t having any of that (especially since the White House apparently tried to upstage Cuomo this morning), and lobbed some nice hard questions at him, including one about nursing homes, which Cuomo is probably wishing to never hear again. A question that had to be asked, but which I think we all knew the answer to, was about the State Fair. It’s going, going, gone. Another blow to the Syracuse economy, but when we are also expecting thousands of students back to University Hill at the same time as the Fair, it’s trouble that we absolutely shouldn’t borrow. Kudos also to the Syracuse press for asking if private universities like SU are an example of an “attractive nuisance.” No, Cuomo said, but clearly this is a huge can of worms that he probably doesn’t want to face just yet.

Two fascinating stories of adventures in the PPE trade — one from Onondaga County, the other from Erie County. I don’t know if the stories are just different in emphasis, or if Onondaga County had to face any of the seamier purveyors that Erie County ran into. The specifics of why Syracuse’s and Buffalo’s outcomes have been distinctly different is still interesting to me, and I keep wondering how supply purchasing was handled in the early going that seemed to go more in Onondaga County’s favor, and if that had any impact at all.

As for the Onondaga County briefing, the CE has been gloomily warning this week that “there will be dark days ahead” — a message that has been coinciding with the county taking its proactive testing to the senior facilities. There were three new deaths announced today (total: 29) and it may not be looking good for too much longer for the Syracuse area to escape increased nursing home deaths.

Another topic at the county briefing today was the progressive muddying of testing stats as more and more players pour in to the testing scene. “Plan CNY” is going to wind up looking like a New York State-subsidized Swiss cheese before this is all over, and that probably doesn’t sit very well with McMahon and local health officials either. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned, that’s been disappointing, is how truly feudal state government is. I don’t think the average citizen, when they’re casting their votes, really comprehends how the spoils system still impacts even the most basic communication lines even in a crisis. If you’re a local official and you are a member of the ruling party, you might get included in real decision-making. If you aren’t, forget it. Albany has been a bull in a china shop through most of this crisis. It’s getting better, but the sense of sclerosis has never before been so publicly on display.

As for any disagreements with the state that I wondered about yesterday, it seems that the county has been pushing for resuming in-showroom auto sales, and the state may not like the idea. Auto sales are a big driver of county tax revenue, so McMahon wants the auto dealers open ASAP. And he probably knows very well that auto dealerships will be an attractive nuisance — and that that would be a feature, not a bug. It would be disingenuous not to point out that (hygiene measures notwithstanding) the gloves between upstate’s regions are poised to come off.

Monday, April 27 update

NYS update:  Yesterday, a lot of eyebrows were raised when Cuomo made a throwaway comment about milk dumping (“I don’t get it”).  Maybe he did get it and didn’t feel he had a lot of time to pontificate; I hope so.  Obviously, over the last 24 hours, he has “gotten it” and today started addressing all of the issues that you can read about in depth from NYFarmer (an old voice from the upstate blogroll who, over the past decade, has become a highly visible Twitterwide advocate for dairy farmers all over the world).  

In the space of just a few weeks, we have gone from a big-box grocery and restaurant-based food delivery system, to a state-subsidized food delivery system.

Amid a large surge in demand at food banks across the state, the Governor also announced the state is providing $25 million from the state’s special public health emergency fund for food banks and providers most impacted by COVID-19.  The Governor also announced the launch of the Nourish New York Initiative to purchase food and products from Upstate farms and direct it to food banks across the state. The state will also be partnering with the state’s dairy producers – Chobani, Dairy Farmers of America, Upstate Niagara, Cabot Cheese and others – to process excess milk into products like yogurt, cheese, sour cream and cream cheese, that will be distributed to food banks and those in need. 

I suppose death by sweet, sweet government Chobani is not a bad way to go for those in true need, in a time when Wegmans is now rationing pretty much everything.

Where reopening was concerned, the criteria listed in Cuomo’s presentation today seemed to speak directly to the preparations being made in Central New York/Mohawk… including a subtle hint that there isn’t going to be any State Fair this year.

No attractive nuisances. Attractive nuisances is a legal concept where you have a potentially dangerous situation that actually attracts people, normally children, to it. We can’t open an attraction that might bring many people from outside the region and then overwhelm people in that region. 

Personally, if the Fair is cancelled, people in the Syracuse area should breathe a sigh of relief… because in August, the city’s population becomes denser by tens of thousands when the University Hill students come back. Or not. But if they do come back, most of our hospitals will be in the direct line of fire. Do we really need to be coping with the State Fair and its associated concerts at the same time? Think.

Onondaga County update:  A 26th death was announced.  Once again, this county is showing a trend away from the normal — elderly women continue to die in higher numbers than men, which is the opposite of the observed national trend (or at least the NYC trend).  We are now at 15 female deaths to 11 male.

Today’s briefing seemed more subdued than ones over the past week.  Maybe Mondays just suck, or maybe the CE and his team heard things they didn’t like on their day off, either directly from Cuomo’s people or in his briefing.  In any case, no obvious rejoicing was in evidence over Central New York’s mention by Cuomo or its low 1.2% antibody test results.  Who knows.  Dr. Gupta was brought in for the first time in many days to give a thorough explanation of antibodies, antibody testing in general, and SARS-COVID-2 antibodies in particular, and how we don’t know very much about what they mean.  

When asked about the regional county planning by a reporter, McMahon’s answers seemed to imply that the governor’s office is more interested in a conversation than the presentation of a plan by the counties (“We’re sharing concepts with the state… the state has to digest the thoughts we’ve given them… we’re having a lot of dialogue right now.”)  I have no real evidence for this obviously, but I can’t help thinking that the state’s continued emphasis on antibody testing is a particular pain point for the county.  Part of Dr. Gupta’s presentation was to point out how the plethora of privately provided antibody tests don’t often agree with each other.   The CE feels that this data isn’t useful for a restart, and, “Seems there’s a lot of people getting into this business…you have to be careful who you do business with.”

One of the CE’s favorite expressions is “boxed in”:  the virus will be boxed in at the senior facilities, reporters try to box him in with their questions, an appreciative Dr. Gupta will try to box him in to providing top-drawer supportive community health services in the county budget going forward (if there even is a budget to spend).  But the elephant in the room is an elephant.  Onondaga County has been run by loyal rank and file GOP for at least the last fifty years — always playing the state and federal games well, but usually choosing to sit out the extreme ideological struggles.  For them to now sit there and watch a venal federal government starve invisible NY counties to death has to feel like the ultimate trap.

Cuomo’s cancellation of the Democratic primary will get the press today, and rightly so, as those on the left are now also trapped.  In normal years, messages can be delivered to old establishments via the ballot box.  But right now, bitter messages are being sent from on high that a whole generation of Upstate’s political aspirants may never forget.  Where our homegrown Republicans and Democrats separately go from here is anyone’s guess. 

Sunday, April 26 update: An Empire, if you can keep it

NYS update: The governor began giving tentative details of New York’s reopening plan today, and it was basically what was mentioned at the Onondaga County briefing the other day — Phase 1 would involve restarting construction and opening “low-risk” businesses. (It’s been nice getting the scoop on the shape of things to come every day at 3 p.m., but there was no county briefing today.)

As recently as a few days ago, Ryan McMahon was faintly alluding to some kind of zone of Phase 1 possibility that existed between April 30 (Trump’s date) and May 15. (Local reporters were skeptical about that, and I was too.) That clearly isn’t going to happen, as Cuomo seemed very firm on two points — the “decreasing hospitalizations” metric, and May 15 as the earliest start date even for those lucky regions that may qualify. (Unfortunately, in Rochester, at least one local restaurant owner has dangerously taken Trump’s April 30 date to heart.)

Unsurprisingly, Cuomo finally came out and named Central New York, the Mohawk Valley and the North Country as the most likely candidates. It’s a little annoying to read media coverage of this and see it being characterized as “CNY not being hit hard.” The truth is that CNY actually worked hard to prepare, both for the virus and for this moment, when decisions would begin to be made about opening the statewide economy. This is why it’s a little stunning to read that NYC’s leadership is only just now assembling their own economic restart exploratory group which will meet… next week?

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Sunday announced that a number of different groups — advisory councils, task forces and a commission — would form to help imagine New York City’s future after the coronavirus outbreak… Advisory councils, divided by industry and sector, will begin to meet in early May, he said.

I realize NYC is a huge behemoth with all kinds of competing interests, but our county and probably a few others have had such things already chosen and convened and working for a month already. The opening down there is going to be very, very, very slow. It’s been surreal as it continues to dawn how fundamentally unprepared NYC’s leadership was for this crisis, how unable to quickly pivot, how almost every egg in their basket has been smashed. The scary thing is that I don’t think New York City has experienced its Wile E. Coyote moment yet, which is when citizens actually come out of their homes and stop waiting for orders.

Italy is also preparing to reopen, and is proceeding even more slowly than New York State (for example, Italy does not even allow restaurant meal takeouts yet, just deliveries). This NYT story points out how critically important Italy’s mayors have been during the crisis, and really New York’s county executives and health departments have had to fill the same role — another unfunded mandate, if Congress does nothing about that.

It’s good, or at least very interesting, to live in CNY, Mohawk or the North Country right now — but our Wile E. Coyote moment is coming too, when the full pain of the bullet begins to be felt. Here’s an ominous preview:

In 2018, Lewis County paid $43,404 for one person with mental health issues going through County Court to receive treatment in a state in-patient facility so they could understand and participate in their legal proceedings. In Jefferson County, it took one person 313 days of in-patient treatment to make it back to court that year. The county’s bill amounted to $179,729.

If cases identical to those in 2018 happened this year, they would cost Lewis County about $87,000 and Jefferson about $360,000, 100 percent of the cost, after the increase from 50 percent was added to the 2021 executive budget by the state Office of Mental Health in an administrative action and passed in the budget’s final version.

It is not science-fictional to wonder just how long the current governing arrangement of this state is going to survive, the longer you juxtapose a prostrated center of economic and political power (New York City) with massive budget anvils being dropped on small, relatively poor counties like Lewis. Even if you think these social services vitally necessary (and I am a fan of social services), this is not going to end well. For one thing, the counties talk to each other a lot now, and probably aren’t going to stop soon. And the “crumbs from the master’s table” model of administering the state doesn’t work very well when the crumbs stop falling.

An Empire… if you can keep it.

Onondaga County update: In lieu of a briefing, the usual set of numbers were released by the health department:

More than half of Onondaga County’s newest confirmed coronavirus cases were found in senior living facilities, according to a county spokesman. The county currently has 798 cases, up 24 from Saturday. Of those new ones, 15 were discovered as part of the county’s efforts to go into senior living centers and discover whether the virus is there. Another four newly diagnosed were in contact with a person who’d already tested positive.

While critical patients have declined to 10, there were 3 new hospitalizations — which, according to Cuomo’s formula for reopening, would mean that Onondaga County is now set back to the start of another 14-day waiting period to see if hospitalizations steadily decline. (Hopefully they will be using rolling averages and not daily fluctuations.)