What New York City Did Wrong

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S1: Hey, how are you doing? A couple weeks ago, when coronavirus started getting really real in the U.S., we set up an answering machine for this show because we wanted to hear from you. We still do. Do you have a quarantine confession? Do you have advice for getting through self-isolation? Are you seeing something that might be a story that might show us some little corner of all this that has been upended by the Corona virus outbreak? Do you just need to vent? We are listening. Call. Leave us a message. We might play it on the show. We might use it to inform our reporting. Our number is 2 0 2 8 8 8 2 5 8 8. You can also find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. All right. Onto the show.

S2: I’ve been trying to remember what my block used to sound like. I live in Brooklyn. I’ve been pretty much inside for a couple weeks now. And while I’ve been here, my streets changed the mosque two doors down. It doesn’t wake me up with the call to prayer anymore. The bus still goes by, but I never seem to hear it. This eerie quiet in my corner of the city. Sometimes I worry it’s misleading.

S1: It’s easy to fill the silence with whatever you think is true. The birds seem louder, but so do the sirens.

S3: What are your sources telling you about what is about to happen this week?

S4: The last few days have been increasingly alarming.

S1: I called up Liz Kim, who reports for Gothamist and WNYC to get the news from the other side of the city. She’s not hearing sirens so much in Manhattan. She’s alarmed anyway.

S4: There are now Corona virus patients in New York City that have been on a ventilator for a month, 30 days. Yeah, we don’t know how many, but we know that.

S5: What that means is if you have patients that have been on a ventilator that long, it doesn’t look good for them. Basically, the longer you are on a ventilator, the greater the risk that you’re not going to make it.

S6: Since the beginning of this pandemic, Liz has been trying to measure its impact on the city, cataloguing each case, each death and the deaths keep adding up.

S7: And the first spike we saw was over 80 deaths in a 24 hour period. This is a New York City. This is a New York City. Yes. Even more recently, we’ve seen over 200 deaths over night. That’s one 24 hour period. And that like it was in the 80s one day. And then the following day it was over 200.

S8: So that’s like a real indicator of how the death toll is really going to start to spike. And it’s going to be very frightening, I think, for New Yorkers.

S6: But just a few weeks ago, officials in New York were saying the risk to people who live here was low. So today on the show, I asked Liz to take me back. Tell me how my city got to this dark place so fast. See what the rest of the country can learn from what’s happening in my own backyard. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S1: Liz is a local reporter here in New York. But she had her eye on the Corona virus back in January when it was still primarily in China.

S9: The feeling was that, you know, this had pandemic potential. So the whole world was really it was an international story, but there was a real sense that it could have local implications.

S4: So as part of the coverage, I started listening to these regular CDC calls and they would give these regular briefings.

S1: These briefings were pretty standard. One of CDC top doctors, Nancy Messineo, would come on and give a measured assessment of the situation on the ground in Asia. It seemed important globally, but not urgent. Locally. Liz remembers the day that changed.

S10: It was February 26. You know, I dialed into the call and the calls are all always conducted by one of their head scientists, Dr. Nancy Masson. Yay! And what startled me about this call was she did something she’d never done before, which was she started talking about the virus in personal terms. And she said this morning I spoke to my family and I told them that you need to be prepared for our lives to be disrupted.

S11: You should ask your children’s school about their plans for school dismissals or school closures. Ask if there are plans for Chalo school. I contacted my local school superintendent this morning with exactly those questions. You should think about what you would do for child care. Schools or daycare is close if teleworking an option for you. Does your health care provider offer a telemedicine option?

S10: And as soon as she said that, I remember I gasped and I never really had that kind of reaction, you know, during these calls or really I can’t really remember the last time I was like, really, like, wow, this might be bad. And up until that point, you have to remember that they were they kept reassuring the American public that, you know, the risk is low. That was this constant drumbeat that we would hear at every single CDC press briefing. But all of a sudden, she would say this might be bad. So that to me was a real turning point, because if the scientists are seeing something that’s indicating to them that it’s going to be bad and if they’re starting to talk about it in personal terms. It was just it just indicated to me that this was going to be something that could be quite serious.

S12: And I don’t really know I don’t know whether city officials were listening to this call, but we certainly found it really alarming and immediately after that call. Like within the newsroom we started talking about. All right. We have to get up an explainer for New Yorkers and tell them about this and tell them how they should prepare. And that’s basically what I started doing immediately. Like I wrote the story about the call.

S10: And then immediately after the call, I’m like reaching out, trying to get experts to tell us how do people prepare in a situation like this.

S3: A week after that February 25th press conference that you found so alarming, New York reports its first case of someone testing positive for a coronavirus was a woman who had been in Iran. And the report was that she was self isolating in her Manhattan apartment. Right and right. You look at you look at the articles you wrote at that time and the comments from all of the officials were basically just remain calm. You know, the health commissioner is saying New Yorkers are at a low risk of contracting this this disease. There’s a council member who’s saying this is disturbing but expected and the risk to New Yorkers remains low. Did that surprise you when you were getting those kinds of comments at that time?

S13: So this is very interesting. And I often wonder what would have happened if it had been a different first case. Right. It’s not really the first cases, the first case that we knew of. But this was a woman that had traveled to Iran, which by then was already a hot spot on top of that. She was a health care worker. So people made these assumptions. That’s why she traveled to a hotspot, too. She was a health care worker, which means she probably had a very high degree of exposure to the disease. So we kind of lulled people into this kind of.

S7: I don’t know if it’s like a sense of complacency, but they they felt like, all right, this was expected, you know, because look at you know, if you if we track everything about this woman, it’s expected that this was the type of person who would be infected. And they immediately, you know, they had the disease detectives kind of track her steps, like who she came in contact with, the driver who drove her from the airport.

S14: You know, her her partner, they were all quarantined.

S15: So it made people think like we have a handle on this because we know how this woman got it. But then fast forward just two days later, the New Rochelle case happens.

S16: Turning now to the news and a second person in New York state has tested positive for the novel Corona virus. It started a week ago when 50 year old Lawrenceburg boos went to the hospital. Should say he lives in New Rochelle but works in Manhattan. He also has underlying respiratory issues. What was different about this New Rochelle case?

S14: The difference about the New Rochelle case is to this day, we have never been told where or how he contracted the disease.

S17: That was what was the main difference between him and the first known case. Right.

S15: So we have now community spread where it’s someone we don’t even know how he contracted this disease.

S17: There’s there’s nothing particular about his travel habits or profession that would make us believe that, you know, someone like him could have contracted it.

S1: Is this when you saw this kind of low risk language begin to change?

S18: Startlingly, no, because even then, both the governor and the mayor of New York were telling New Yorkers, basically, you know, don’t be alarmed.

S15: They were saying at the time, you know, it’s just too it’s just two confirmed cases. At that point, things start to chains. Once they started tracing the contacts of the New Rochelle person and seeing how many other people were also getting sick and later getting tested and found to be infected. Like who?

S17: Like the people who went to the same synagogue as him.

S15: Like some people who were students with his children. Teachers. People who he had worked with. And then it became obvious that New Rochelle had suddenly and this is a very small suburban community outside of New York City is like all of a sudden New Rochelle is this hot spot.

S17: I think that’s when it dawned on elected officials that this could be a lot worse than we’re seeing right now.

S1: The New Rochelle case is what spurred Gov. Cuomo to action. He called in the National Guard to establish a containment zone and cleanup schools.

S19: New Rochelle is a particularly problem. It is what they call a cluster. The numbers have been going up, the numbers continue to go up. The numbers are going up unabated.

S1: But at the same time, the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, who’s going on TV and asking the governor to shut down his city, too, because he couldn’t ask his residents to shelter in place without permission.

S20: I believe that decisions should be made made in the next 48 hours. And it’s a very, very difficult decision.

S1: I want to emphasize that for days, Cuomo refused to consider it.

S21: When was the week where the mayor and the governor kind of got on the same page here?

S22: I would say it was March 19th. So throughout that week, you know, you have the mayor of New York City urging the governor to call a shelter in place order.

S23: The governor consistently pushes back on that.

S22: Then the evening of the 19th, we hear that Governor Gavin Newsom of California has issued a stay at home order for the entire state.

S23: And then we thought, OK, tomorrow is going to be interesting because the governor has the governor of New York has been getting this question all week long and he’s going to be asked, well, we’re seeing, you know, the governor of California just added, what are we doing? We have far more cases than California. So I think not unexpectedly, Governor Cuomo came up with his own version of a stay at home order, which he called Paws.

S21: So I feel like what you’re laying out here is this kind of like two steps forward, one step back approach. And not just that, but like the mayor is kind of on one path. And the governor is on another path. It just seems confusing.

S18: It is very confusing because, you know, you know, first, you know, New Yorkers are listening to what the governor is telling them and then they’re also then in the evening listening to what the mayor of New York City is telling them.

S23: I think, you know, early on, both of them were also telling New Yorkers not to panic. I mean, that’s been a constant refrain, I think, even now. But I think it’s also fair to say that they underestimated what this disease really was and what a pandemic can do to a densely populated city like New York.

S1: So you had the mayor pushing for a lockdown. The governor resisting it. Cuomo kept saying he wanted to wait until Connecticut and New Jersey enacted a similar rule. So New Yorkers couldn’t just zip over the border, resume their lives as usual. But for Liz, watching all this, this political infighting, it was worse because there was an absence of any visible scientific guidance from the CDC.

S21: You know, it’s funny you talked about how this press conference from the CDC back in February had been this turning point for you. It was this this woman, Nancy Messineo saying very plainly, like I’ve spoken to my children about the fact that we’re going to have to make changes in our lives because of this virus. And of course, in the weeks since, we haven’t seen a lot of Nancy. Messineo There’s been a lot of, you know, the coronavirus taskforce and Dr. Burke’s Dr. Foushee. When was the last time you heard her speak?

S17: They have not had a press briefing. I would say in about at least like maybe three weeks.

S4: And now that’s very odd. Right. Because like even when the when the disease was just mostly located in China, they were having these briefings. And then when it was, you know, it was spreading. And in other parts of Asia and then later Europe, we were still hearing from the CDC. And then all of a sudden and the CDC briefings have just stopped.

S24: What do you think is lost when? The CDC is sidelined like this.

S25: So to me, what I thought was very important about having the CDC deliver the updates on Corona virus was because you felt that this was a nonpartisan agency. It’s its scientists. So they know what they’re talking about. And they’re also in communication with the W.H.O.. So you kind of got I felt you feel like these are experts and they know what they’re talking about. So you’re getting this kind of unfiltered response from them on what’s going on. But once the briefings are taken over by elected officials, you know that elected officials have other concerns. They’re concerned about how they look to their constituents. They’re concerned about the economy.

S26: So to me, having the CDC give their own separate briefings is very, very important because you want to know how this looks to the people who are best able to assess it. You know, it’s not being filtered through a governor or a mayor. You’re getting it straight from the people who are looking at the data.

S27: So New York is getting ready for a week that feels like it could be really awful. There’s been a bunch of writing over the weekend basically making the point that China was the first warning and Italy was the second warning, and now New York City is this kind of final warning to the rest of the United States to sort of get ready. I’m wondering, looking back on the story of the last month. What do you see as lessons learned that other cities and states who aren’t as badly affected right now should be taking?

S28: I think the major lesson is that we needed to be much more ready to swallow a stay at home order or a pause or whatever you wanted to call. Want to call it. And we needed to make it a lot more clear to people what the stakes were and how important it is to basically just stay at home.

S29: I think that. It’s funny because the elected officials are very worried about the impact on the economy.

S28: But in the end, by drawing out the decision, they only hurt the economy even more because it’s drawing out basically the pandemic. If we had gone to all of these measures a week earlier, that would have made a huge difference. If we had also been a lot stronger in the messaging, that would have also made a huge difference as well.

S1: When Liz looks out her window, she says it seems like New York still hasn’t figured out how to warn its residents to stay indoors. It worries her.

S15: For instance, I went and I took a walk at the Central Park Reservoir.

S30: I think it was maybe Thursday, Thursday evening, and it was busy. Not just the reservoir itself, but just even the outer area around the park. There are a lot of people jogging, running, and it’s really questionable whether you’re ever really six feet apart from anybody because everybody is all in motion. You know, they’re people kind of cluster together at certain points.

S31: Playgrounds are still open and the playgrounds have been. I mean, the mayor did take off the basketball hoops at 80 playgrounds. You know, the mayor is still saying that, you know, they’re New Yorkers are still overwhelmingly have been cooperative and obeying the stay at home order. But it’s not what we’re seeing.

S1: It sounds like that upsets you.

S4: It is upsetting because I think that there is a true argument to be made as to whether the order has been strong enough. And I think there’s been a lot of mixed messaging when it comes to this concept of what, a stay at home.

S32: I mean, the governor, Governor Cuomo, has called it pause.

S30: But what does it really mean and what should it really mean? And if it’s coming from, let’s say, scientists like, what does that mean? And I think hearing it from scientists, it’s you get a very different notion of what it should mean versus when you’re hearing it from a politician who when you hear it from a scientist, what do they say?

S32: A scientist will say that the best thing that can slow and even halt the spread of the virus is if everybody stayed home. Everybody just stay home like as much as humanly possible.

S9: I mean, if you need to go out. The reason should be you’re getting groceries or there’s some kind of emergency in your family or friend and you need to help them right now. But otherwise, just stay at home. And that’s not really the message that elected officials have been willing to say.

S27: Some of the other places would, I think, say, well, we’re not a city like New York. We don’t have big city problems. We don’t have people living right on top of each other. Do you think that’s a valid point?

S33: I mean, the density definitely hurts the city. But I think that you can’t underestimate the spread of the disease and you can’t under estimate all the different vectors that could wind up, you know, in a certain place like, you know, like Louisiana. There are there are pockets of this which are surprising. Like, for instance, New Rochelle was very surprising in many ways, too. Right. Why was the initial hotspot identified in a suburban community? I think there were all these ways that surprise people about the way Americans organize, whether through religious activities or cultural kind of traditions, the way in which we come together.

S34: And I think that there are different ways in which that happens all across, you know, large cities, small towns that could make this virus a real problem everywhere.

S35: Liz Cohen, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for having me. Liz Kim is a senior editor for Gothamist and WNYC. A few hours after we spoke, Liz learned that Mt. Sinai Hospital had just started working to build a 68 bed field hospital in Central Park. It’s just steps away from where she went for that walk. Last week. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson, Mara Silvers and Jason De Leon. And if you have got something to say about this quarantine, about maybe a job loss you’ve suffered in the wake of it. Whatever’s on your mind, leave us a message. Our number is 2 0 2 8 8 8 2 5 8 8. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll talk to tomorrow.