While public-health officials were getting in front of the coronavirus in Seattle, Mayor Bill de Blasio dragged his feet and openly bickered with Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York, according to a report highlighting the night-and-day disparity between the cities’ responses.
“It feels like we might have stopped the tsunami before it hit,” Dr. Francis Riedo, the medical director for infectious disease at a hospital in suburban Kirkland, Wash. told The New Yorker for a piece published Sunday.
Despite their outbreaks emerging at around the same time, Washington had seen fewer than 700 fatalities as of last week, as compared to more than 17,000 in the Empire State.
“I don’t want to tempt fate, but it seems like it’s working,” Riedo told the magazine. “Which is what makes it so much harder when I look at places like New York.”
Though factors such as New York’s more dense population and status as an international travel hub presented complications with which Seattle didn’t have to contend, the Big Apple’s leadership committed several unforced errors, according to the report.
While the Evergreen State let scientists, rather than politicians, guide its decision-making and public messaging from the get-go — in accordance with guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — de Blasio and Cuomo have thrust themselves into the spotlight in New York.
Their already contentious relationship repeatedly manifested itself in petty one-upmanship and disjointed public policy on everything from schools to playgrounds to stay-home orders, all while the disease continued to spread.
“You have to make the kinds of choices that, if you aren’t trained for them, are really hard to make,” Sonja Rasmussen, a former CDC official, told The New Yorker. “And there’s no time to learn from your mistakes.”
De Blasio also repeatedly offered tone-deaf messaging and eschewed the advice of experts from the city’s nationally-regarded Department of Health in favor of micromanagement, leaving members of his senior staff, as The Post has reported, on the verge of revolt.
“There’s always a bit of a split between the political appointees, whose jobs are to make a mayor look good, and public-health professionals, who sometimes have to make unpopular recommendations,” an unidentified former DOH head told The New Yorker. “But with the de Blasio people, that antagonism is 10 times worse. They are so much more impossible to work with than other administrations.”
The piece cited one particular clash in early March when the Health Department, in order to overcome a gross shortage of coronavirus testing kits, proposed asking local hospitals for swabs from people who displaying flu-like symptoms, yet tested negative for the flu — potential coronavirus cases.
Though the swabs would have to be analyzed anonymously out of privacy concerns — meaning that the city wouldn’t be able to identify any of the New Yorkers who appeared to have the coronavirus — it still would have provided a gauge for how widespread the infection was, as well as a way of illustrating the danger to the public.
But, the report said, de Blasio’s office initially refused to sign off on the proposal.
“They didn’t want to have to say, ‘There are hundreds, maybe thousands of you who are positive for the coronavirus, but we don’t know who,’” an unidentified DOH official told The New Yorker.
By the time City Hall came around to the proposal and testing began, it was March 23, and thousands of New Yorkers were testing positive for the coronavirus every day.
In his daily press briefing, de Blasio on Monday pushed back on The New Yorker’s description of the episode, and the premise of the article in general — while admitting that he hadn’t read it.
“Whenever we’ve heard of any opportunity to get more information — and I remember these conversations vividly — we wanted to maximize anything that would bring us more information on what was going on and anything that would help us reach more people to help them know their health status,” he said.
“I have not read the piece,” he added. “What I’ve had summarized to me, doesn’t make sense to me.”
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