This week, the governor of the State of New York came as close as he may ever come to admitting he was wrong. But that wasn’t the most astonishing thing uttered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week. And the two things are related.
On Thursday during a phone call with the press, when asked by a reporter to comment on the one-day record of new coronavirus cases on Long Island the day before — almost 4,000 of them — Cuomo likened the residents of the Empire State to a frog in a pot of water being gradually heated.
Throw a frog into a pot of boiling water and “it will jump out,” Cuomo said. But if you raise the temperature slowly, “it just sits there.” The water gets incrementally hotter and the frog thinks it’s OK — until it’s not. Suddenly the water is boiling and the frog’s a goner.
His point, I think, was COVID-19 infections are gradually rising, like the temperature in that pot of water.
“The numbers have been going up every day,” the governor said, sounding both weary and annoyed, like a parent explaining something simple to a child for the hundredth time.
“We talked about holiday spread,” he said. “I said it since Thanksgiving. Thirty days of holiday spread,” he said, his voice taking on a sing-song quality. “The day after Thanksgiving is Black Friday, it starts the holiday season, people are going to socialize, the numbers are going to go up, the numbers will continue to go up post New Year’s, experts say maybe they will peak mid- to late-January,” he said.
“New fact, UK strain. All bets are off. All equations are altered. UK strain. That’s where we are,” he continued with a sigh. “And the more cases, the higher the hospitalization rate. And you’re going to start to overwhelm the hospital system. That’s where you are… Yeah,” he said. “The numbers have been higher every day, plus or minus, for weeks and just factor out the line. And yeah, I don’t know what else to say.”
So the man with all the answers last spring has become a man watching a frog slowly cook to death in a pot of water that’s being gradually heated to boiling — and doing nothing much to turn down the heat. The best he can come up with is “Hey, I warned you.”
I mean, it’s true. He did warn us. And a significant percentage of us didn’t listen. And now cases are soaring and more people are hospitalized and more people are dying.
And the state’s strategy at this point is to just make sure hospitals don’t get overwhelmed? Make sure the pot of boiling frog water doesn’t foam up and spill all over the stove? We’ve given up on actively trying to reduce infection rates?
Actually I think that’s exactly “where we are,” to quote the governor.
Which brings me to my other point. During his press briefing on the following day, Cuomo came pretty close to admitting he was wrong.
A reporter from Syracuse asked if the governor would consider taking the City of Syracuse out of an orange zone. The city’s suburbs are all a yellow zone.
The reporter was referring to the micro-cluster strategy initiative launched by the governor in October to “detect the smallest outbreak as soon as it happens… Trace it back to where it starts, find a small outbreak or cluster, and jump on it,” as Cuomo said at the time.
“You see an ember land in dry grass, ring the alarm, everybody run, stamp out the ember. The embers are what we call micro-clusters, and we can identify them from the testing data, from the hospitalization data, and mapping software,” the governor said on Oct. 21. New York’s technology was that sophisticated. And it was going to be our salvation.
Cuomo announced complex, color-coded, tiered metrics in his new strategy for mastering whatever outbreak might be coming our way in the fall — when public health officials knew more indoor gatherings and holiday celebrations would bring a spike in infections.
The testing positivity rates in the eight initial cluster zones was 3.16% on that Oct. 21. As of Thursday, the number of zones had grown to 34 and their collective percent positive had ballooned to 8.3%.
Statewide, the positivity rate climbed from 1.2% on Oct. 21, when Cuomo announced the micro-cluster metrics, to 7.7% on Thursday. The number of COVID cases in New York more than doubled in that time period, from 490,134 to 1,094,144. Daily hospitalizations have increased nearly tenfold, from 986 on Oct. 21 to 8,561 on Jan. 7. Patients in ICU jumped from 209 to 1,068.
So much for stamping out those embers.
By early December, with the micro-cluster strategy clearly not having the hoped-for effect, the governor pivoted from focusing on positivity rates to focusing on hospitalizations, using a “surge and flex” strategy to avoid overwhelming the state’s hospitals.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with trying a new approach, especially in this unprecedented situation. But Cuomo never came out and said, “this isn’t working and we’re going to try a different strategy.” Oh no. He just started talking about something else. Worse still, he wove his new strategy into the old one. Now there are even more complicated, difficult to understand “metrics.”
Admittedly, I’m just a simple-minded frog, but it’s not even clear that the governor’s new strategy is a new strategy at all. Increasing hospital capacity was something N.Y. did last spring. Shifting patients from one hospital to another was also something that was done.
It’s important to make sure our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, but what about people getting sick and dying — or living with the long-lasting and still not entirely understood effects of this disease? Have we given up on trying to control the infection rate altogether? Hospitalizations lag about two weeks behind infections. By the time we reach the brink — “21 days from 90% capacity” — we’re talking a lot of sick and dead people.
Are we just betting that we don’t get to that brink? Even after the emergence of a new, more contagious strain of the virus that means, according to Cuomo, “all bets are off?”
But back to the reporter’s question. He zeroed in on the fact that the infection rate inside the Syracuse orange zone is now actually lower than the rate in the city’s suburbs (which are in a yellow zone). Restaurants in the orange zone cannot have indoor dining, but restaurants in the yellow zone can — which the mayor of Syracuse and the Onondaga County Executive call “inherently unfair.” They’ve written to the governor to ask for relief. Would the governor consider a change, the reporter asked.
And that’s when, on Friday, the Cuomo came close to admitting his micro-cluster zone strategy doesn’t work.
“Oh, yeah, that is the problem with the whole zone concept,” Cuomo said. “It’s geographic and it just — it — people drive outside the zone.”
The zones were supposed to help keep regions open for business. Instead of dealing with a surge on a regional basis, deal with it on a micro basis. It sounded good. And maybe it would work if infection rates across the board stayed low and there truly were “hot spots.”
But now the whole damn state’s a hot spot, governor. The zones aren’t working and leaving them in place is just “inherently unfair” to businesses inside the zones. As the governor admitted Friday, “people drive.”
So the “zone concept” — the centerpiece of the state’s COVID management strategy — doesn’t work. Infection rates have soared in zones across the state — and outside the zones as well.
It’s time to do something meaningful. No one wants a lockdown, but if a stay-at-home policy this winter prevents a lockdown this spring and saves lives, what are we waiting for? Maybe we can get control of this thing in time to enjoy economic prosperity this spring. Why is the state just sitting back and watching that pot of water heat to the boiling point?
These past 10 months have been a long, exhausting slog for all of us. We’ve seen businesses close, jobs lost, lives ruined and thousands of people right here in Suffolk County die.
We’ve done our best to cope with rules that often seem arbitrary, data that is inconsistently reported and questions that remain unanswered. We’re all hoping the government will get its act together for vaccine distribution and that by next Thanksgiving, we’ll have a more normal life to be grateful for.
But from the vantage point of a frog in a pot of water, I’m skeptical. It’s getting uncomfortably warm.
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