Monthly Archives: April 2020

Saturday, April 25 update

NYS update: According to the state budget office, the early ’20s are going to suck big time.

According to a statement by the state Division of Budget, New York state’s economy will lose $243 billion over the course of the full recovery, which is equal to 14 percent of the state’s Gross Domestic Product. Recovery to “pre-COVID level” would take three years, to the first quarter of 2023, the review said. Budget agency officials also said the $10.1 billion in spending reductions from the levels proposed in the Executive Budget include an $8.2 billion reduction in  “aid-to-localities,” which includes funds for health care, K-12 schools, and higher education as well as support for local governments.

So, the paucity of ideas from Albany for Upstate will now definitively be joined by a paucity of cash. Shocker. Let’s move on. (It’s all we can do.)

The centerpiece of Cuomo’s briefing today was a large expansion of state permissions and criteria for COVID testing. (Just testing; not much today on how tracing will be done.) There will be antibody testing for frontline health care workers — all downstate, as you would logically expect. Again, the unclear advantage of having antibodies might very well prove less comforting to frontline workers. (Who gets laid off from hospitals when layoffs become necessary? We are edging closer to Golden Tickets.)

New York’s health care workers and first responders truly need all the help they can get. (Warning: this story is very tragic.)

Someone in the press pool finally got through with a question about how internal-regional openings (like, maybe, CNY’s) are supposed to coordinate with the Northeastia plan.

The whole discussion is premature, but it’s something we’re working through right now. We’re working with the (multi-state) coalition, we’re working with regional coalitions, and we will marry the two. Not marry them … they’ll be engaged for a period of time.

I think the governor has been thinking too hard about his daughter’s boyfriend lately and maybe that’s why he’s so heavy on the nuptial metaphors.

Onondaga County update: As implied by Cuomo’s announcement today about expanded testing, the county health departments and local health care providers (hospitals, physicians) are no longer are the only COVID testing operations in town. This means that the “tests administered” daily stat will no longer be given, as it is not going to be really trackable any more. Although the county finally did get a report from the HHS-backed Walmart facility, only positive results are reported, not total number of tests. With testing being thrown open officially to the private sector, there’s no way for the county to definitively track how many tests are being given. Now the mission of the counties is to build their own tracing armies, which will be difficult and expensive (but this has been on the agenda here for at least a week already).

Onondaga County officials should feel very proud of everything they have accomplished to this point. This government got their people tested, and a lot of other people too, and was able to get to the point of taking the fight directly to the density centers (senior living) before the state was able to get their act together on the nursing home testing. Now the fight is also being taken underground.

The first wastewater samples were collected this week in what is believed to be the only effort in Upstate New York to detect the virus in wastewater. The project, undertaken by scientists from all three Syracuse universities, could help the county detect and stamp out hidden virus hotspots as the economy begins to reopen.

“Detecting the coronavirus in wastewater would tell us approximately how bad one area was over another, independent of nasal swab testing that’s done in the clinic,” said Hyatt Green, a SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry microbiologist involved in the study. “If we restart the economy in one particular area and we see an uptick in the virus in wastewater, then maybe we need to slow down a little.”

County officials could use the data to target education and testing campaigns, said David Larsen, the Syracuse University public health professor heading up the research team.

According to CE McMahon, speaking at today’s briefing, the project will require at least 10-14 days of sampling for an initial reading — which the county is racing to get done while there is still measurable virus in the community, since the data will be needed to help manage any future outbreaks later this fall.

Predictably, McMahon also sees Cuomo’s remarks this morning about upstate regions to be a non-story, since anything that outsiders would come up here for would have appropriate social distancing measures in place at the businesses. It’s true that CNY has no direct connections to other states (and it’s doubtful if some NYC residents would even be able to find Syracuse on a map, much less want to drive five hours for a haircut). But it does happen to be directly connected to the entirety of Upstate. (This is why “North, south, east, west” is a frequent catchphrase during the daily briefings.) “We’ll work through these questions, they’re all legitimate points.”

No new deaths were announced today, and hospitalizations and critical cases continue to decrease. No county briefing will be held tomorrow, as county staff (except for the health department) are “taking a half day.”

Friday, April 24 update

NYS update: With nothing new to report on statewide reopening (maybe he’s waiting for CentralMohawkia’s ideas?), Cuomo went on the offensive today, daring McConnell to go ahead, declare New York bankrupt. (Don’t worry, kids. Nobody’s going bankrupt.)

Thank you Robert Moses, New York can still borrow. Indeed, the state is moving forward with a short-term borrowing plan and could still raise cash through its myriad public authorities…Aside from the legal issues, a major state like New York declaring bankruptcy would send the bond markets into a profound spiral. There’s a reason why the state debt bill goes first in the budget voting — gotta keep those creditors happy.  

(The authorities, saving New York from ruin? Somewhere, I hope Richard Brodsky is laughing at the absurdity of it all.)

Cuomo threw in some insulting words for the state of Kentucky, but I always find the “we pay for you poor places” gotcha to be tiresome. I know the argument it’s coming from, but if New York was really that rich and powerful, it would be its own country, and Wall Street would have to raise its own armies to protect its oil and other exploitation projects. (Wall Street bails Kentucky out — and each and every one of us bails Wall Street out, so let’s all give each other’s money back, shall we?) I just think there are better ways of telling Mitch McConnell that he’s a dick.

It’s a sad sign of the state of the Empire State that the Erie Canal — in what was to have been its bicentennial season — has been labeled nonessential and will not open on May 15.

“However, to support the Canal’s continued use as a prime recreational waterway, the Canal Corporation is currently evaluating operational options to ensure New Yorkers will have access to the Canal system, if even potentially on a regional basis, this season.

There’s that word again… “regional.” This just in: Dutchess, Orange and Ulster have had enough of this crap too. All hail Midstatia.

Onondaga County update: Today’s major event was the City of Syracuse briefing. Excellent news: none of the city’s police or fire personnel have gotten sick. Not so excellent news: the hole blown in the city’s projected budget is so gigantic, that it’s almost the equivalent of what it costs to pay them. Mayor Walsh complained (rightly so) about the latest federal stimulus package that gave nothing to states and localities.

In hospital news, it appears that Syracuse has a critical shortage of Trump groupies, because Upstate can’t find anyone who wants to participate in a hydrochloroquine trial.

The county briefing was an hour later than normal and began with the announcement of two more deaths, bringing the total to 25 (14 female, 11 male). All other metrics remained very favorable. A new feature of the daily Count of the County was that recoveries were listed on a town-by-town basis for the first time. This seems like another carefully calibrated control rod. It’s now time to move people’s minds toward reopening, while still keeping their bodies relatively confined; there’s no point in opening for business (someday) if everyone is too afraid to venture out. The figures are listed with all positive cases as usual, but with the recoveries in parentheses, so that you still see the scary positive number, but then also a number that is reassuring. (It would not do, for example, to do the math for everyone and reveal that the Town of Camillus has only four active cases right now.)

CE McMahon implies that he sees the structure and mission of the county health department to be permanently changed, and at least $1 million will be spent on the initial outlay for the regional track-and-trace team. The county’s PPE situation is much better than it has been in the past, though apparently “surprise” shipments of substandard or unwanted items still happen. About 20,000 masks will be given to senior centers, the Syracuse Housing Authority, La Liga and “our New American community.” (I hope they are the good masks.)

But how about that Pizza Frite stand, with cars lined up for hours waiting for all the doughy sugary goodness?!? Some people have an innate need to flock, and flock they did. Asked about it by a reporter, the CE let out a bit of a sigh, obviously trying not to be a poop about it; but where continued social distancing is concerned, this is the only the beginning of the end of the beginning.

Thursday, April 23 update

NYS update: Before getting to the big news about the statewide antibody survey, let’s just say that Cuomo’s “big announcement” about nursing homes today was pretty useless. While families, unable to visit their loved ones, continue to be sent in circles trying to get information, they’re supposed to be happy that the nursing homes “might” face fines or closures (at some unspecified point in the future) for not releasing the information they’re supposed to release. Well, that’s sure helpful. (And now the nursing homes are throwing the blame back on the state.)

As for the antibody results… from a lay person’s point of view, they are not very surprising numbers. No one expected the upstate sample to be anywhere near the downstate one in terms of apparent exposure to COVID. What makes me nervous about the testing itself, though, is that we know so little about what having antibodies really means. Does it prove you are immune? Does it mean you might even still be potentially infectious? Nobody knows. Yet now, here we have “good data” that plainly divides New Yorkers into stark categories. Region and race are now mixed up with measures of public health. Will various populations be seen as “clean and safe” because they have antibodies, or will they be seen as “dirty and dangerous” (because they might still be transmissible because we just don’t know yet?) “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

JAMA has published clearer data on actual New York City COVID patients: Presenting Characteristics, Comorbidities, and Outcomes Among 5700 Patients Hospitalized With COVID-19 in the New York City Area.

Outcomes were assessed for 2634 patients who were discharged or had died at the study end point. During hospitalization, 373 patients (14.2%) (median age, 68 years [IQR, 56-78]; 33.5% female) were treated in the intensive care unit care, 320 (12.2%) received invasive mechanical ventilation, 81 (3.2%) were treated with kidney replacement therapy, and 553 (21%) died. Mortality for those requiring mechanical ventilation was 88.1%. 

But there’s also been anecdotal information that the upstate COVID experience perhaps hasn’t been the same as NYC’s:

On a more cheerful note, stay tuned for the SUNY Hunger Games, coming to an e-sports arena near you!

Each college is invited to put forward two teams of students to compete in “Fortnite” by Epic Games, “Super Smash Bros Ultimate” by Nintendo, or “Rocket League” by Psyonix. The tournament is free and can be completed entirely online. Of the $20,000 prize pool, Chancellor Johnson committed $10,000 and co-sponsor Extreme Networks committed $10,000. The top prize for each game is $2,000, which will be donated to the student emergency fund at the winners’ respective school. There will also be a $5,000 grand prize given to the SUNY campus with the best overall score. 

Onondaga County update: There was an additional death reported today, bringing the county total to 23. (Interestingly, the pattern of COVID being more deadly to males does not seem to be in evidence locally, as the male-female ratio of deaths seems equal or even skewing female now.)

Mayor Walsh was today’s guest to give an update on the economic development team and answer questions. (A City of Syracuse press conference will take place tomorrow.) One of those questions was about the Route 81 project, which has… completely fallen by the wayside, predictably. It’s now being seen as a future massive economic stimulus construction project — but that assumes that the powers that be above us will once again do old-fashioned things like funding stimulus projects. (I, personally, think that the rotting viaducts of 81 will still be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World taught to schoolchildren circa 3000 A.D.)

The testing campaign in the senior living centers continues to result in an elevated positive rate for the county, including an encouraging number of “contact and affiliation” cases. (More contact and affiliation cases equals less wild, untraced community spread.) These numbers make CE McMahon “excited.” I’m half expecting him to come on stage tomorrow proclaiming that he loves the smell of reagents on the morning. The state antibody testing didn’t come up until the end of the briefing, and even then the reporter asked it almost as an afterthought. The CE did not have much to say about it, not surprisingly since antibody testing is not one of his favored metrics.

The inter-county restart talks are continuing and now the county health departments have all conversed. As they anticipate continuing to meet throughout the weekend, it seems they may be able to present a plan to the governor’s office early next week.

Thursday, April 23: True North

I posted this pair of photos from Watertown the other day (which ran in two different news outlets). They’re a classic example of how two clicks of the photo shutter at two moments in time can feed (at least) two different narratives. In one photo, she is a noble, serious, unheard salt-of-the-earth working mother. In the other, she’s a screaming banshee, a “zombie,” a layabout inessential. Same woman. Same day.

We know that many of these protests are, if not astroturfed directly, then done so by proxy through the mass media. When trying to figure out who this woman really is, you focus on her sign: “It’s not about Trump.” Is she a Republican or libertarian who is trying to inject some logic into an emotional situation fomented by others? Is she a Democrat who is desperately trying to be heard above the noise?

This story about defiant participants showing up for a cancelled outdoor event would seem to follow the outsiders’ narrative of “dumb, fatalistic red-state rurals”:

The Gigliotti’s said if they had symptoms or had tested positive for the novel coronavirus they wouldn’t have come up and risked getting others sick, but they take a more philosophical stance on the danger COVID-19 poses for them. “We look at it if we get it, we get it. If we live, we live and if we die, we die,” Mr. Gigliotti said, “We’re not going to let it control how we live.”

Easy to ignore, however, is the fact that the majority of the people who had signed up for this event, didn’t show up after it was cancelled. North Country people, I find (even my own Trump-voting relatives who live there), tend to have the annoying habit of being mostly reasonable some of the time. This confounding quality has attracted the attention of national writers, including the recent finding of Watertown as being the least politically polarized city in the country, and this speculation about why some “red” areas in certain parts of the country (including New York) have taken social distancing pretty seriously.

Of all the unhappy people in the polity of the nation, the voters of the North Country have cause to be among the most unhappy. If they are liberals or Democrats, they are assumed not to exist. If they are Republicans, even MAGA Republicans, their hero will never come to their rescue. MAGA folk from Michigan or Wisconsin (or wherever Trump is calling for armed rebellion today) will command ready attention, for they are Swing Staters. But Trump, nor the national media of any stripe, will never give these North Country protesters a moment of attention. No one does. They are the most invisible voters in America.

It isn’t inherently a tragedy, of course, for white people like (most of) these protesters to be politically invisible — any more than it is for anyone else to be invisible. And when thinking of invisibility and lack of power among New York State’s political regions, I have to stop and think — who’s worse off — Queens, or the Southern Tier, or the North Country? (To clarify, I use the term “North Country” in its more specific sense — those northern parts of the state that are not within the Adirondack Park.)

But I can’t really give the nod to the North Country. They have prisons, but they also have colleges. They have pinched dairy farmers, but they also have tourism. They have MAGA protests, but they also have decent journalism. In a world that seems on the cusp of change, the North Country sometimes seems like it is sleeping inside a greater potential that is hard to define. It is the only part of New York State that “never was.”

More than just the pandemic is causing change. We are gradually starting to lose our antipathy to talking seriously about what climate change will (not “might”) actually mean for more than just polar bears. The Arctic will become a global shipping lane; it’s only a matter of time. Years ago, a controversial “Atlantica” concept was talked up by corporate interests; the idea met with strong resistance in Canada but was barely noticed on this side of the border. How would changes like this — or even an extended period of increased global hostility — affect the North Country, with its access to an international shipping lane and the presence of Fort Drum?

For the time being, the region is just trying to cope with the fallout from the pandemic, as everyone else is. “A United North Country” is a small nightly Facebook Live call-in show that deals with many on-the-ground topics and pandemic safety.

Addressing the situation on the ground there and looking toward the future, a North Country citizen writes,

We will overcome this retrograde states’ rights fiasco and COVID-19. We always do, and eventually Americans will find the grace of our democratic principles, based on freedom of thoughts and responsible actions. The strength of our democracy can take a mistake like Trump from time to time, but blaming all his supporters/voters will only ensure another four years of his total ineptitude, blatant corruption and borderline treason as his supporters/voters dig in. Eventually, everyone finds it difficult to admit when they’re just dead wrong.

Wednesday, April 22 update

NYS update: “Test and trace” was the theme of Cuomo’s briefing today. A bit old-newsy for us hicks up in the sticks, but understandably, the situation in New York City is a very different one when it comes to stamping out hotspots. Up here, density exists in very few contexts, especially when all of the college students are gone. But down there, well, you could need… gosh… maybe almost a billion dollars to pay for all the public health interventions required.

Mike Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies have committed organizational support and technical assistance to help build and execute this new program. The contact tracing program will be done in coordination with the downstate region as well as New Jersey and Connecticut and will serve as an important resource to gather best practices and as a model that can be replicated across the nation. There has never been a contact tracing program implemented at this scale either in New York or anywhere in the United States.

Bloomberg has committed $10.5 million to this campaign.

The governor is getting annoyed at the chorus of honking that follows his every move:

“Go take a job as an essential worker, do it tomorrow,” he said. “There are people hiring. You can get a job as an essential worker so now you can go to work and be an essential worker and you’re not going to kill anyone.”

Meanwhile, today is Earth Day and the Department of Environmental Conservation’s 50th birthday. The DEC’s first online-only hunter education course is drawing large numbers of signups. Hopefully people aren’t worried about their pantries. When things die down a bit, there will be an assessment of which state agencies have failed and which have thrived during the chaos. My impression of the DEC during this crisis is that morale at the agency is high and that recent leadership changes within the organization met with ranger approval. Here’s an overview of what rangers are doing to contribute to COVID efforts. (Aside from DEC, it will be interesting to see how OPHRP handles the upcoming outdoor season.)

Onondaga County update: Aggressive COVID testing is now taking place in those senior facilities that aren’t overseen by the state (ie, assisted living and independent living places), and today’s increased positive case count (up 28 from yesterday, after hundreds of tests completed) can be seen as a harvest rather than a cause for dread. At least four of the positive cases were “asymptomatic affiliations,” the type of virus infection that is the target of this new “hunting” phase. (As for the Trump-backed Walmart-Quest lab set up in the East Syracuse parking lot, they have yet to report their results to the county, prompting a nag call.) When asked by a reporter, the CE admitted that they have relaxed the formal quarantine requirement for these asymptomatic senior-home employees they’ve found. This seems risky, but I suspect it was necessary to get some of the employees to agree to testing. (Hopefully the health department is still following up on them with the daily calls.)

McMahon does not see the newly announced, downstate-centric, Bloomberg-backed tracing effort to be coming up here any time soon, and doesn’t seem to care, pointing out that there likely aren’t enough human resources to send it up here. And: “We’re never going to outsource our public health responsibility in this county. We’re always going to be doing it.”

The now-expired alternate-day social distancing plan was briefly touched on again as a “technique and tactic” to get community attention that did its job.

We’re not relaxing social distancing… we’re suggesting that you know how to do more yourself. You don’t need me to tell you how to do more each week. You know the threat… you probably know of or have heard of someone who is in the hospital. You can do that. I have every confidence that we will do that, and we’ll do even more for this next week moving forward.

Lastly, a similar situation to the recent spontaneous gathering of mourners in Rochester which caused controversy (or “controversy” there) over how it was handled: A popular local high school senior was killed in a car accident yesterday, and there are rumors of a student vigil forming. (This high school, incidentally, happens to be in the CE’s home neighborhood, as well as near my neighborhood.) The county has asked parents and the school district to discourage the gathering, but has supplied the district with masks, in case students spontaneously show up on high school grounds today.

In other county news, the free milk is flowing in Syracuse as in other places, and it appears to be getting to food banks and organizations that serve the disadvantaged, and not just bored suburbanites looking for ice cream.