This week we got some alarming news of a surge in COVID-19 infections in Riverhead. The town is “approaching micro-cluster status,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar announced Wednesday. She said the test positivity rate among Riverhead residents tested for the virus had averaged “over 4%” for 10 days. She even sent out “code red” robocalls to Riverhead residents.
The very next day, County Executive Steve Bellone announced at a press conference that Riverhead’s testing positivity rate had averaged 5.6% “over the last five days.” The county would be initiating a school-based testing program in Riverhead, he said, to ramp up testing and get a better sense of what the actual infection rate is here. The county would also be opening an outdoor testing site in Riverhead soon for the same reason.
What follows is how I tried to make sense of these statements from the supervisor and county executive — and how I tried to understand what they were saying in the context of the state’s published standards for its “micro-cluster strategy” for containing the spread of COVID-19.
The state metrics, after all, are what matters. The metrics are what determine if an area is designated — by the state — a micro-cluster zone. The designation has consequences: restrictions on business and social activities, and potential school closures.
Knowing that the state’s metrics for micro-cluster designation are based on a rolling, seven-day average of testing positivity rates over a period of 10 days — see the state’s metrics, which we attempted to explain here — I asked the county executive at the press conference if the average he was referring to was the seven-day rolling average over a five-day period. It’s a pertinent question because the state’s metrics do not speak of five-day averages.
No, the 5.6% was an average for the last five days, Bellone replied.
I asked what the seven-day rolling average percent-positive for Riverhead was.
“I don’t have that right now,” Bellone answered.
“Is it possible to get that from the health department because we don’t get those numbers for the towns,” I asked.
“I’ll check with the health department on that,” he said.
When I followed up with a question about what the five-day average meant — because I was genuinely perplexed by his use of what seemed like a random five-day metric, this is the answer I got, verbatim:
Again, what I’m talking about here, is not focusing on the state’s clusters that they have — had put in place in other places. Our focus here again, is on community spread. With respect to this data, and everything we’re doing is around that issue, from the time we saw a surge begin when we immediately ramped up contact tracing, followed by ramping up enforcement, continuing the ramp-up on on the enforcement side, as well as creating this partnership on the messaging as well. This is just another component of that comprehensive effort. With respect to what the state has put out in the past, what they’ve also said — what the governor has said — is that it’s not a simple formula looking at where an area might be designated, because there are significant differences between urban areas, suburban areas, rural areas. They are looking at things on a basis to look for, are you identifying clusters, you know, in local areas, where you can say that there is something happening there specifically. So we are, you know, not focused on that, because we know that there are a lot of different factors that went into making a determination on the cluster. But what we do know with certainty is, if community spread continues to rise, if the overall numbers continue to surge, then you will be in an area where it could become possible to see those certain areas get identified, and we don’t want that to happen.
Say — what?
Despite years of reporting, I’m always amazed by how adept politicians are at saying a lot of words without really saying much at all — or directly answering a direct question.
Before Thursday’s press conference had even ended, I shot an email off to a usually helpful Bellone spokesperson. I wrote: “Following up on my question to the county executive today: I’m looking for the 7-day rolling average in testing positivity rate for Riverhead Town and also Riverhead hamlet (11901 zip code) for each day from Nov. 4 through Nov. 18 inclusive.”
I got no reply. So Friday, I wrote to him again, forwarding my email from the day before and asking for his response.
It never came.
I’ve been reporting on the raw numbers of confirmed cases in Riverhead Town. The county publishes the total number of confirmed cases for each town every day. I’ve been calculating the daily increase. And I can say that, based on those daily totals, Riverhead has indeed seen what seems like a pretty significant rise over the past month — and a rise at a faster pace than the county in total.
On Thursday, I decided to look at the raw case numbers in seven-day chunks and it was eye-opening. For example, in the seven-day period ending Nov. 19, Riverhead had 69 new cases. In the seven-day period ending Oct. 30, Riverhead had 24 new cases. Before Labor Day, those seven-day case numbers were in the single digits. This illustrates what the county executive has been saying about the post-Halloween surge in coronavirus cases. (Fortunately, a while back, I started putting the total daily case numbers for Suffolk towns in a spreadsheet. I wish I’d done the same with case numbers by hamlet/zip code. The county’s town-level data is provided daily but it’s single-day data. There’s no historical data.)
But what is the percent-positive of tests administered to Riverhead residents? Looking at how that ratio increases over time is the all-important indicator of the rate of community spread — at least according to the state’s guidance documents. I can’t calculate that without knowing the number of tests reported day to day at the town level.
Surely, I thought, the town must be provided with the town-level data. I asked the supervisor.
“No, I do not get township stats,” Aguiar wrote in an email to me late Thursday afternoon. “I wish I did. We could monitor the spread and testing more accurately.”
Yes — and that’s exactly the point.
This continued to gnaw at me. So on Friday, I reached out to a state health department spokesperson who’d responded to a previous inquiry I made back in May. (It’s important to note here that a response — any response — to a reporter’s question can never be taken for granted. But that’s another column.)
I asked: “Is statewide testing/positives data at the zip code/town level published online anywhere?” And “Does the state provide counties with daily test numbers and positives for individual zip codes or individual towns?”
She replied that the information in the “New York Forward” plan and the state’s COVID-19 tracker as well as — most incredibly — the governor’s daily press releases “is the information currently available.” And she graciously provided links to same.
Now, none of that — let me repeat: none of that — was in any way responsive to the questions I’d asked.
So, I wrote back: “I understand that this is the information available. I was asking for additional information. I know the state has the data I am seeking. I will take your response to mean my request is declined.”
Her reply: “In an effort to raise awareness and educate communities, DOH – and our partners at all levels of healthcare – are displaying an unprecedented amount of data in real-time rather than in the traditional timeframe, which often takes weeks or months in order to collect and validate data. Once again, the information on the website is the information available.” Then she suggested that I contact “individual towns and counties for questions on their data. We can only speak to our State data, and all public data is on our many websites.”
Translation: The state has not made public the data you are asking for and I’m not giving it to you, so take a hike.
I can’t fathom a reason for not making this data public — let alone not making it available to local government officials.
The City of New York publishes this data on its website. You can look up the testing percent-positive rate by zip code or by clicking on a map. The data appears in a pop-up window, as illustrated by the image above.
The State Department of Health has this data in a database. The governor at a press conference last month boasted that the state could drill down on a “block by block level” when it comes to positive COVID cases. Why not share the data with the public? And, for that matter, local officials?
Transparency — true transparency — would only help “to raise awareness and educate communities,” to quote the state health department spokesperson.
Yes, raising awareness and educating communities is exactly what’s needed. Without awareness and education about what is actually going on — without true transparency rather than the lip service they give it — health officials have a much more difficult time convincing the public to embrace the measures officials say are needed to control this pandemic.
I still don’t know whether the state provides the county with the testing percent-positive data I was seeking. I certainly hope so. But if the county gets this data from the state, why not share it with the towns so their actions can be informed by it? And, again, why not share it with the public? And if they don’t get it, why won’t the county executive just say so?
If the county does not get the data they need to calculate the seven-day rolling average of the testing percent-positive, how do county officials know where the county stands in terms of the state’s metrics for micro-cluster designations? Without the data, they are totally dependent on whatever information the governor decides to disclose on any given day.
I’ll refrain from speculating about whether that’s the very point of less than full disclosure. But whatever the motive, it creates an environment that breeds confusion and does a great disservice to public awareness, education and ultimately the collective resolve of the public to do what’s needed to combat this pandemic.
If the town-level and zip-code level testing and positive result stats were readily available to reporters, we could report on this more clearly. If we report more clearly, there’s less confusion. If there’s less confusion and — better still — if people could see the stats with their own eyes, maybe they would put more trust in what the politicians and government bureaucrats are telling them about the recent surge and how to control it. Maybe more people would abide by the rules for masks and social distancing. Maybe fewer people would be planning extended-family Thanksgiving dinners.
There’s more than enough disinformation and misinformation out there. The only way to combat it is with true transparency and clearly presented, publicly accessible data. Instead, we get a lot of double-talk, spin and blather, accompanied by false assertions of transparency.
Another thing I’ve learned over the years, the more a politician or government bureaucrat brags about transparency, the less transparency there actually is. You can take that to the bank. But please be sure to wear a mask.
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