Monthly Archives: October 2020

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).