Vaccinated and (mostly) unmasked

Shortly after I wrote this post, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidance regarding mask wearing/distancing among fully vaccinated people in response to newly published research findings.

The good news is that fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks indoors with extremely low risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus. Mask wearing is still recommended in medical settings such as hospitals. Requirements to mask on public transport remain in effect, as do any mandates or policies put in place by state/local governments and businesses.

The bad news is that people who are not fully vaccinated might also stop wearing masks – and wouldn’t stand out because others would just assume if they weren’t wearing a mask that they were vaccinated – and so could be exposing themselves and their contacts to coronavirus, which would drive up infection rates. This is not helped by states that have already dropped their mask mandates or never had them in the first place.

Some governors immediately dropped their mask mandates while others, such as Governor Cuomo of New York where I live, are reviewing the situation before making any changes.

Personally, I expect that I, though vaccinated, will not be making many changes in my mask behavior immediately. The few stores that I frequent are likely to keep their mask policies in place for now. Visiting my father in the health care building of his senior community will probably still require masking because, although they are vaccinated, the residents are still vulnerable due to their age and underlying health problems. If the state does drop the mask mandate, small businesses, such as hair salons and restaurants, may decide to let vaccinated customers unmask and could easily ask for proof of vaccination to give peace of mind to their employees and customers.

I am frustrated by the media commentary surrounding this CDC announcement. For weeks, commentators have been complaining that the CDC was too slow in changing its recommendations for vaccinated people and that it was a disincentive to get vaccinated. The CDC was waiting for additional scientific findings to be published before making changes, but, now that they have, the commentators are complaining that it happened too fast.

They are also complaining that the CDC guidance is confusing. It’s not. It is meant for use on an individual level and it’s very clear about what activities fully vaccinated individuals can do without masking/distancing and what activities unvaccinated people can do without masking/distancing. The CDC and the federal government are not the ones with authority to require masks in stores, churches, etc. State and local governments and businesses do that.

So, please, everyone, stop whining, learn about the recommendations from the CDC and the policies in place in your local area, and behave accordingly for the safety of yourself and others.

If you are eligible for vaccination but haven’t done it yet, make arrangements to do so as soon as possible so you don’t become seriously ill or pass the virus on to someone else.

Remember to be kind and respectful to others. Some vaccinated people will choose to continue wearing masks because they are immunocompromised and more susceptible. I know people with allergies who are continuing to mask outdoors to protect themselves from high pollen counts. Some parents of children who are too young to be vaccinated wear their masks to be a good example for their children. It is not your business to criticize someone else’s decision and masking is never a wrong choice when it comes to public health. In some countries, masks have been common for years, especially during flu season or when there are air quality problems.

The CDC recommendations rely on public trust. Unvaccinated people need to demonstrate that they are worthy of trust by following the public health guidance. Overall infection and death rates are down, but they will spike again if people don’t continue to vaccinate and mask/distance until they complete the vaccine process. A spike might not happen until colder weather drives more people indoors, but it won’t happen at all if we can get the vast majority of teens and adults vaccinated by fall.

The prospect of the epidemic phase of COVID-19 being over by fall is within reach, but only if people follow this guidance and get vaccinated.

Let’s do it!

Another Pfizer vaccine advance

Yesterday, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 was granted emergency use authorization for children aged 12-15, extending the prior age range of 16+. These younger teens can receive the same dosage as older teens with similar effect. This is good news because all high school and most middle school students should be able to be protected before schools open in August or September 2021.

Pfizer and other vaccine suppliers are currently studying the proper dosage for younger children. These eventual approvals will probably be split into several groups, 5-11-year-olds, 2-4, and 6-23 months. The research with these younger children takes longer because they have to start with lower doses and increase to find the lowest possible dose that will still mount a strong immune response. Until these children can be vaccine protected, they need for all the teens and adults to get vaccinated to reduce their chances of being exposed. While young children tend to be less sick than adults if they get infected, they can become very ill, even fatally, and suffer long-term symptoms. Even if they have mild or no symptoms, they also keep the community spread of the virus going, which means that the pandemic phase cannot end.

Canada gave authorization for 12-15 for the Pfizer vaccine last week. It’s expected that Moderna will be doing so soon. Pfizer has also applied for full authorization in the US, a process that will take several months to complete. I am especially pleased with the success of the Pfizer vaccine because data from spouse B and daughter T are part of the research findings that are showing how safe and effective the vaccine is. Monitoring for them continues to see how long immunity lasts and whether boosters are needed. I also continue to participate in the trial, but, because I was originally part of the placebo group, I didn’t receive the vaccine until February so my data are not useful for the longevity factor, although I could become part of a test group for boosters in the future if warranted.

Internationally, vaccine companies are continuing their research and manufacturing, but distribution is neither fast nor broad enough. India is particularly tragic, with widespread disease, scant treatment, and, despite being a major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals and vaccines, very little vaccine protection among its residents. President Biden has joined growing calls for vaccine companies to suspend their patent protections so that countries around the world can manufacture vaccines for their regions. This would also entail making available the raw materials, supplies, and expertise to manufacture the vaccines, some of which require new techniques such as mRNA.

I feel an odd mix of hope, dread, and sorrow. The COVID rate in New York State where I live is very low now. We are gradually relaxing some of our restrictions and I am planning to go on a writing retreat later this month. This summer, we think we are finally going to be able to travel to the UK to visit daughter E and her family and get to hold our granddaughter JG for the first time, although she is almost walking on her own and may not want to stop long enough to be held by the time we can get there.

At the same time, there are still people sick and dying in my state and exponentially more in other states and countries. It’s frustrating because we have treatment tools and vaccines now that we didn’t have a year ago but they aren’t reaching all the people that need them. What’s most frustrating is people who do have access but don’t take advantage of the opportunity, letting their fear, ideology, contrariness, or sense of invincibility stand in the way of personal and public health.

Please, everyone, continue to do all that is within your power to end the pandemic. This will look different depending on personal and community circumstances, but mask in indoor public spaces, distance when appropriate, be careful about the size of gatherings, stay home if you are sick, vaccinate when it’s available for you, keep up to date on the newest public health recommendations.

Show your respect for others and do your best to protect them. Pandemics are, by definition, phenomena that affect us all. It takes all of us working together to end one.

SoCS: carousels

To my immediate left is a throw on the back of the couch which features carousel horses.

Here in Broome County NY, carousels are part of our identity. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, one of the important sources of jobs for immigrants and for people already established here was the shoe company named Endicott-Johnson for its founders. They also gave their names to two of the villages, Endicott and Johnson City, that with the City of Binghamton make up the Triple Cities of Broome County. I’m sure everyone is excited to learn this local geography!

The Endicott and Johnson families wanted their employees and their families to have a good quality of life, so they paid them fairly and helped with home ownership, as well as innovations like providing health care and pensions. They also invested in creating recreation opportunities, which brings us to carousels.

The families installed carousels in six public parks scattered around the area. Because they didn’t want anyone to be deprived of a ride, part of the stipulation of the gift was that they would always be free to ride. And because one of the founders recalled the disappointment of getting onto a carousel but being on a stationary horse, all the horses on these carousels are “jumpers” which means they go up and down as well as ’round and ’round.

Most of the figures on the carousels are horses, but some also have a couple of other animals included, such as a dog or boar. Most of the carousels also include chariots to accommodate babes-in-arms or anyone who can’t climb up onto a horse.

When my daughters were young, we spent many hours at the various carousels. They traditionally open Memorial Day weekend and close after Labor Day weekend. I admit that I also love to ride carousels and we would see many other adults there, too. Sometimes, bridal parties will even make stops at the carousels to take photos. My favorite visitors would be elders who grew up in the area but then had moved away; they would come to take a ride and tell stories of how it had been visiting the carousels when they were young.

In our photo albums, we have a succession of years of photos of E and T visiting the carousels. It was a privilege when granddaughter ABC was living with us to introduce her to the carousels, too. It won’t be this summer, but maybe next it will be safe to travel and we’ll get to bring ABC and her little sister JG to the carousels for a ride. We’ll take photos with our phones that they can look at when they return home to the UK and remember.

ABC’s first carousel ride in a chariot being held by her mom with her dad riding on the horse beside them

*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week was to write about the memories evoked by what was to one’s immediate left when writing the post. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/05/07/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-may-8-2021/

New York voting

Georgia has already passed laws restricting voting access. Texas, Florida, and a raft of other states are considering similar bills.

When voting rights advocates complain, officials say that they aren’t really tightening access to the ballot. They are making their laws more like New York’s and New York is a liberal state, so the measures they are taking must be okay.

One major problem: New York, where I have lived most of my adult life, is way behind the vast majority of states when it comes to making registering and voting fair, accessible, and convenient.

While we do have voter registration and address change available through the Department of Motor Vehicles, the wait time between registering and actually being able to vote is long. This also applies to changes in party registration, which affects access to primaries, which are closed. (A closed primary means that only those who have previously registered with that party are allowed to vote. When I was growing up in Massachusetts, political independents could request a ballot for any party they wished on voting day, fill it out, hand it in, and then have their name removed from the party list, going back to their independent status.) I would love to have same-day registration as some states do. A voter can then cast a provisional ballot which will be counted as soon as eligibility is verified.

Many states have long had no-excuse absentee voting or extensive vote by mail options. New York has not. Absentee ballots were restricted to those who would be out of town on election day and those who were physically unable to get to the polls. In 2020, people were allowed to check the box for illness/disability for fear of contracting COVID, so the basic structure of absentee voting is still intact. One useful option we do have is that one can file as having a permanent illness/disability and an absentee ballot will automatically be mailed to you for every future election. This has been very helpful to my parents and my friends who are elders.

2020 was the first presidential election in New York State with early in-person voting at centralized locations. Previously, the only way to vote in person before election day was to go to the county Board of Elections office, request a ballot, fill it out, and turn it back in. The early voting period was October 24-November 1, with election day being November third. In our county, the lines were long. We waited about three hours in line to vote; our county lengthened the hours available after a few days to cut the waiting times. As it turned out, we could have waited to vote on election day as our planned trip to visit family in the UK was cancelled the day before we were to leave, so we were in town on Nov. 3rd. Many states have much more extensive early voting periods, beginning several weeks before election day.

One thing that New York had been good about was having long hours on election day. Polls were open from 6 AM through 9 PM. Anyone who was in line by 9 PM could remain to vote, no matter what time that actually occurred.

New York has also been very slow with counting votes. Absentee votes couldn’t be counted for at least a week after election day. In some cases, the waiting period was closer to two weeks. While the presidential outcome was clear, some races were not officially certified for weeks after the election. The most severe was our Congressional district, which resulted in our representative not being sworn in until February 11th.

New York is continuing to pass legislation to make voting more accessible. Meanwhile, these other states that are claiming to be “keeping up with liberal New York” are in reality making vote more burdensome for their citizens. They are also adding ridiculous things like making it a crime to give food or water to people waiting in line to vote.

So remember, the next time you hear some politician crow about making their voting system more like New York’s, it is probably not a good thing.

The various shenanigans that are going on with states restricting voting access points out the necessity for action at the federal level. I am hoping that the For the People Act (H.R.1/S.1) and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will be passed by Congress for President Biden to sign into law. Taken together, these would ensure equal access to the ballot for all citizens, no matter where they live. It would be even better if the bill to make Washington DC a state is adopted so that the 700,000 people that live there finally have votes in Congress.

Every citizen deserves representation and an equal opportunity to vote!

post-vaccine life

With my immediate family in the US vaccinated against COVID-19, we are inching our way back to a more interactive life while still following the national and New York State guidelines.

The most important thing that has happened for us personally is a greater ability to see my dad, known here as Paco, who lives nearby in the assisted living unit of his long-time senior community. After months of not being able to visit, we can now go to his apartment, albeit in pre-arranged thirty minute slots. I can also sign him out to go for a car ride; previously, he was only allowed away from the unit for medical care.

This has meant that I can see him more times per week and that I can take him out for treats. Last week, we went to an ice cream stand in the afternoon. This morning, I was able to bring him to get a doughnut and coffee. We are still being cautious about indoor spaces, so I don’t bring him into buildings. We enjoy our treats in the car or at outdoor tables.

The best thing, though, was that my older sister and her spouse were able to come visit for a couple of days last week. They hadn’t been able to visit since last summer. They live in Maryland and couldn’t enter New York until recently due to our travel/quarantine restrictions. Because of the vaccines, those have been relaxed. With all of us vaccinated, we were able to have everyone to our house for dinner. B made lasagna from Nana’s recipe, homemade Italian bread, sautéed asparagus, and apple pie. It was all delicious – and extra heartwarming to be together after so many months apart.

We are also starting to work our way back to activities like dining indoors. I’ve had one lunch and one dinner inside restaurants. We wore masks when not eating or drinking and the tables were spaced so that we weren’t very close to other diners. We are likely to continue doing carryout more often than dining in for a while, especially because dining in most likely involves having to make reservations while carryout is easier to do spur-of-the-moment.

There was just a national policy announcement clarifying mask use recommendations for outdoor events in light of vaccinations. Vaccinated people can exercise, socialize in small groups, and eat outdoors without needing to wear a mask. They should, though, continue to mask if they are in a large group setting, such as a sporting event or concert where the crowd would be close together for extended periods. It is good to have this clarification, but it won’t make much difference for our family. New York has had a mask mandate in place for over a year, but it was adapted in order to deal with the circumstances. Given that we don’t live in a congested area, we were already accustomed to taking maskless walks in our neighborhood. If we stopped to talk to someone, we would just keep six feet of distance between us. Still, it was good to see that there are now different recommendations in place for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Perhaps it will serve as motivation for people who haven’t yet been vaccinated to arrange to do that. In many locations, you don’t even need to make an appointment in advance.

If people need more motivation to get vaccinated, they can switch on a news report from India to see the horrific toll that the virus takes when it sweeps through an unvaccinated population. The infection and hospitalization rates are staggering. A new variant has emerged and there are so many deaths that the system to handle them is overwhelmed.

This virus remains very dangerous, capable of inflicting serious illness and death. The vaccines are safe and very effective. Everyone aged sixteen and over in the United States has access to vaccine and should be immunized unless there is a personal medical issue that precludes it. If you don’t feel personally vulnerable, remember that, even if you yourself don’t get severe symptoms, you could pass the virus on to someone else who could become very ill or die.

The only way to end the pandemic is for there to be large-scale immunity everywhere. Every effort we make, whether it is our individual vaccination and precautions or our large-scale efforts such as sending vaccines, treatments, and supplies wherever they are needed around the world, is part of what is needed to end this.

And remember: People taking vaccines approved for emergency use are not “guinea pigs.” The “guinea pigs” are the hundreds of thousands of people like me and my family who volunteered to be in clinical trials. (B, T, and I are all part of the Pfizer/BioNTech phase III trial. I’ve posted about it a number of times over the past months.) Government agencies and the pharmaceutical companies are continuing to collect data and have affirmed that the dangers of contracting COVID are much, much greater than any side effects of the vaccine.

Please, everyone do your part to keep yourself and others safe. Vaccinate, mask, distance, and practice good hygiene. Pay attention to credible medical and public health sources. The rewards of being able to safely gather, to give a hug to a loved one, to see a friend’s smile are simple, yet profound.

We just need to work together to make it possible for everyone, everywhere.

New York State update

As you may recall, I post occasionally on New York State government and politics, especially as it relates to the pandemic. This has necessarily led to some reference to the investigations into Governor Cuomo. Many New York politicians of both parties have called on the governor to resign, claiming he can’t govern effectively under a cloud of suspicion, while the majority of New York voters say in public opinion polls that he should remain in office while the investigations continue.

Given Governor Cuomo’s high profile nationally, both as a leader on pandemic policy and as the chair of the National Governors Association, there has been national coverage on the allegations and investigations, although this waxes and wanes depending on what else is happening. When there is a lot of coverage of a mass shooting or trial or a major piece of federal legislation, we don’t hear about Governor Cuomo for a few days until things calm down and we are back to the question of how can he govern under these circumstances.

Meanwhile, he has been governing. There have been numerous speaking engagements at vaccination sites, especially those in high-need neighborhoods, in the continuing efforts to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible without leaving any demographic groups behind. This week, there was the announcement of a monument dedicated to essential workers who continued to serve the public while most people were encouraged to stay safe at home. Updates to COVID policies have been rolled out as data and conditions warrant.

Most significantly from the political standpoint, our state budget has passed. Unlike most states, the New York fiscal year starts April first, so the budget was a few days late being passed. While the governor’s office is heavily involved in budget process, the delay was due more to timing of the American Rescue Plan passage in Washington, which established how much federal aid was coming to New York, and to COVID, which complicated the negotiation process which usually happens in person. Unfortunately, the Speaker of the Assembly, our lower house in the legislature, tested positive for COVID during the negotiation process but continued to serve from home.

So, our state government continues to function, which is good as we are facing yet another critical time period with the pandemic. While the overall infection rate is still quite low, cases on average are rising with sizeable presence of the B.1.1.7 variant and another variant that first appeared in New York City. We are giving out the vaccine as quickly as we can get doses. Thirty-five percent of NYers have received at least one vaccine dose, with twenty-two percent fully vaccinated. That still leaves millions of people, especially younger adults, teens, and children vulnerable to infection, so we have to continue to be cautious with masking, distancing, and gathering size and conditions.

The newly passed state budget has money to help with public health efforts, in addition to rent assistance, increase education aid, and small business programs to help everyone in our pandemic recovery. It will take time and effort, but we will build back better, a phrase that Governor Cuomo was using before President Biden and that others in the environmental and social justice movement were using before the governor took it up.

vaccines vs. variants

Right now, the United States is a place of both hope and fear regarding COVID-19.

The hope comes from the increased pace and availability of vaccine distribution. The two-shot regimens from Pfizer and Moderna and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson have all been approved for emergency use and are being distributed as quickly as possible. There have been over three million shots given daily in recent days. It’s possible that a fourth vaccine, a two-shot course from AstraZeneca may also receive emergency use authorization in the coming weeks. Approximately 29% of adults in the US have received at least one vaccine dose. While most states concentrated first on the older demographic and health care workers, eligibility has expanded to include medically vulnerable adults and middle-aged adults. In some states, the eligibility age has or will soon drop to 16 where Pfizer vaccine is available or 18 with the other two vaccines. Trials are underway to determine the appropriate dosages for younger children. New data have shown that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 90% effective at preventing infection in real-world application; this expands the information from the trials which looked for COVID symptoms and could have missed asymptomatic infections.

There are problems looming, though. A significant proportion of adults say that they will not be vaccinated at all. There is also a political divide in evidence. A recent survey showed that 49% of Republican men are refusing the vaccine. It will be very difficult to halt community spread if so many millions of people remain unvaccinated.

This vulnerability is in addition to the fact that too many places have relaxed their rules about wearing masks, the size of public gatherings, and capacity of indoor venues. Travel within the US has skyrocketed, including air travel. Many college students have gone on spring break trips to warmer states and gathered in large crowds without masks. The majority of states are seeing their COVID cases rise. Yesterday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that she felt a sense of “impending doom” because cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising as restrictions have been lifted. She and other health experts fear that the US is at risk for a fourth surge. The protection of the vaccines won’t be able to keep pace with the virus spread by people not observing public health guidance on precautions.

There is also the problem of more infectious variants. The B1.1.7 variant is spreading rapidly in some regions and there is a separate variant that has been identified in the New York City area. While the current vaccines seem to be doing a good job preventing these variants, it will still be harder to stop community spread with the more infectious variants in circulation.

I urge everyone to get vaccinated as doses become available for their age group in their localities. Because spouse B, daughter T, and I all participated in the Pfizer/BioNTech Phase III trials, we are fully vaccinated, B and T last August during the blinded phase of the study and myself in February when the placebo group was offered the vaccine to join the study group on long-term efficacy. (There are numerous posts about our experiences with the vaccine trial if you type Pfizer in my blog search box.)

I appreciate the things that are easier to do now that I am vaccinated. The most important thing is that I am much less worried when I visit my 96-year-old father, know here as Paco. Paco is also fully vaccinated and, while I still follow the protocols to mask and distance, I am now allowed to visit inside his apartment in assisted living.

I took an unmasked walk outdoors with a friend. I have been able to do some health care visits in person rather than virtually. I go to the grocery store with just one mask instead of two. I went to mass in person for the first time in a year and have reserved a place to attend Easter Vigil Saturday evening. My fully vaccinated sister stayed overnight at our house where we could safely be together maskless.

She and I even ate at an indoor restaurant for lunch, masked when we were not eating. The restaurant had good table spacing; our region currently allows 75% capacity at restaurants and our community transmission rate is low. In general, we usually still order carryout, but I think in a few months we may be more comfortable with dining in on a more regular basis. One of the good things about living in New York State is that we have generally been cautious about public health measures and the extent to which certain activities are allowed. Extensive testing is being done so that, if the number of cases begins to rise, they can react quickly to dial back on activities to keep the outbreak from getting worse. Having seen this measured, data-driven approach work in New York, I am that much more worried when I see other places abandon mask mandates and capacity restrictions precipitously. It not only hurts their own residents but also people in other locations because travelers can bring the virus home with them.

I don’t know yet when I will be comfortable resuming travel. If we can continue robust vaccine distribution and infection rates are low, maybe B and I will be able to take a short trip together for our anniversary in June. I had hoped to return to North Adams for another private writing retreat this spring, but I need to see what happens with vaccine distribution and transmission rates over the next few weeks to decide if that would be wise.

Of course, the big prize will be when we can go to the UK to visit daughter E, son-in-law L, and granddaughter ABC and finally get to meet granddaughter JG in person. We are hoping it will be on or before her first birthday in August, but it is impossible to plan. While the UK has also been on a vigorous push for vaccine distribution and re-opening, E and L haven’t been eligible for vaccination yet and what the rules will be for summer visitors from the US is a mystery.

Still, we are closer to being able to go than we have been before and we have also built up our own capacity for patience. Love, care, and concern for others are great motivators to remain cautious and vigilant until the pandemic is truly over.

SoCS: the last year

I had planned to post about the pandemic anniversary today, so it was fortuitous that Linda took the occasion to have us write about our past year. She also gave us permission to edit if we chose, so this post will be only stream-of-conscious-ish. I’m hoping to only need to do light editing.

So, compared to most other people in the US, I have been fortunate over this pandemic year. My spouse B has been working from home so we didn’t take a financial hit. He and I and daughter T have been safe in our home. My state, New York, was initially hit very hard by the pandemic, although not as much so in my home region of the Southern Tier. While we did have a period of time as a local COVID “hot spot,” we followed the precautions on masking, avoiding gatherings, handwashing, etc. and stayed safe.

This is not to say that we didn’t have to make changes in our lives. T’s job search has been on indefinite hold. Grocery shopping and meal planning became a major endeavor for me, due to shortages and restrictions. Some of my poetry activities moved online, but the year hasn’t been as productive as I had hoped. The Boiler House Poets Collective annual residency at MASS MoCA was cancelled due to COVID, although I did craft my own writing retreat in North Adams in late summer which turned out to be a perfect time, given the sooner than expected fall surge. (Additional posts from that time are here and here.)

There are two big personal impacts for me as a result of the pandemic. The first is the separation from daughter E and her family, who live in London, UK. We visited in December, 2019, with plans for several 2020 trips, including a visit to meet our new grandchild, and a plan for them to visit us here in the States in December 2020. None of that happened, due to COVID. While we have been in touch virtually, we have all been largely confined to our respective homes. It’s been hard watching from a distance as they dealt with likely cases of COVID in their household at a time when there wasn’t even testing available unless one needed hospitalization. We missed granddaughter ABC’s third birthday and the birth of granddaughter JG. We missed ABC starting nursery school, which has been variously in person and virtual depending on how viciously the virus was spreading in London at any given time. JG is now seven months old and we have no idea when we will be able to visit. She may be a toddler by the time we get to meet in person.

The second personal difficulty has been trying to care for my almost-96-year-old father, known here as Paco. Before the pandemic, we visited him every day in his apartment in the independent living building of his senior community. His memory was poor, but we were able to keep him safe and on an even keel. Once the pandemic began, though, we needed to limit contact, so we reverted to handling most things by phone with screened staff handling some tasks that had to be in person. This proved to be difficult but when Paco developed a medical problem that required a few days in the hospital, it became impossible for him to be safe in his apartment. In December, he moved to the health care building, first for three weeks of rehab in the skilled unit and then permanently to the assisted living unit. This is where he needs to be at this point, but due to state COVID rules, it was very difficult to visit in person. I am happy to report, though, that yesterday and today we had our first visits to his new apartment; before that, we had to meet in the visitors room or do window visits where we spoke by phone on either side of a window. We still have to mask and distance, but we could at least organize and tidy his rooms for him.

The greatest difficulty that is more universal is the sorrow at the immense cost the pandemic has exacted. So much illness. So much death. So many without even the most basic essentials for a secure existence. So much social isolation. So many who risked their own health to meet the needs of others. In the United States, the bewildering politicization of the crisis.

As we have been commemorating this first anniversary of the pandemic, though, I am feeling hopeful. We are about seven and a half weeks into the Biden administration and vaccine distribution has seen a big boost. Although the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is still much too high, it is lower than it has been in months. In New York State, we are able to continue our gradual, science-and-metrics-driven increase in public activities. I went to church in person for the first time in a year today. It feels like we are making real progress toward ending the pandemic.

Real hope after a year of fear.

I’m very grateful for the vaccines and the people who are being diligent in observing public health measures. I’m grateful that B, T, and I were able to be of public service as participants in the Pfizer vaccine trial, which I’ve written about frequently here at TJCM.

I admit the fear isn’t totally gone. It’s upsetting to see people who are ignoring public health advice still. Especially with so many variants of the virus active and so many people unwilling to be vaccinated, it’s possible the virus will start to surge again.

Still, for the first time, the hope outweighs the fear in my mind.

Please, everyone, be careful. Stay safe. Protect yourself and your neighbors. We can end the pandemic after this awful year.

Together.

*****
Linda’s prompt this week was to write about our experiences over this last pandemic year, stream of consciousness style or not, or “day/week/month/year.” I chose the first option. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/03/12/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-march-13-2021/

Governor Cuomo, continued

I wrote here about the developing situation with Andrew Cuomo, our governor here in New York State, where I live in Broome County, far from both New York City and Albany, our capital. In the week and half since I wrote, things have become increasingly contentious, both on the reporting of nursing home death issue and the sexual harassment/bullying issue.

The nursing home death reporting issue parameters are largely unchanged. The administration reported deaths where they happened, whether in a hospital, nursing home, or elsewhere, such as a private residence. Some people wanted to know how many of the hospital deaths were people who had come to the hospital from nursing homes; they wanted the term “nursing home deaths” to refer to people who had likely contracted the virus in a nursing home, regardless of where they died. The newest wrinkle in this is that it appears some of the governor’s top aides edited a report over the summer in such a way as to not reveal how many of the hospital deaths were people who had come from nursing homes at a time when the governor was writing a book on his leadership during the pandemic.

In reaction to all this, the legislature has rescinded the broad authority to take executive action that it had granted to the governor last spring. This is their right to do, of course, but I would feel better if they committed to staying in session past June. Getting things through the New York State legislature is often a long, drawn-out affair and there are times with the pandemic when things change quickly and new policies need to be enacted as expeditiously as possible. The governor can continue to extend existing executive orders.

I am grateful that the existing orders can still stand because, by and large, they have worked well in keeping as many New Yorkers safe as practicable. While the initial outbreak in New York was horrible, the policies the governor enacted in conjunction with public health, medical, scientific, and legal experts were adopted by the public and brought the infection rate down well below the national average. Although there have been spikes, for example over the holiday season when many people travelled and gathered in groups against the state and public health recommendations, New York has not suffered the fate of other states that didn’t implement mask mandates, distancing requirements, gathering size restrictions, etc. or that lifted restrictions too quickly. By being thoughtful and incremental in re-opening and by gathering, analyzing, and adjusting in response to data, most New York businesses and schools are open and are expanding hours as our vaccination rates go up and infection rates go down. New York needs to continue on its science- and data-driven path to keep from suffering the spikes we have seen in other states that were less thoughtful in their plans. Governor Cuomo made mistakes during the past year, but he took responsibility for them and changed policies to correct problems. His leadership mattered and I will always be grateful for what he did because he helped as many New Yorkers as he could to survive a devastating year.

I think New Yorkers need to remember that Governor Cuomo is also a regional and national leader. He spearheaded an effort in the Northeast for states to cooperate on policies and on procuring supplies after the prior federal administration decided not to have a national strategy. In 2020, he was vice chair of the National Governors Association; in 2021, he is chair. This gives him even more opportunity to advocate for policies to help everyone in the US in these trying times. In a few days, it is likely that federal aid to state and local governments will finally be enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan, an initiative that Cuomo has been championing since last spring.

I admit that I am somewhat perplexed that people are surprised by Cuomo’s personal behavior. Any casual observer of New York politics or regular viewer of his pandemic press conferences has seen him being combative and displaying his sense of humor, which ranges from dry to caustic. His sense of what is appropriate to say in public is – um, let’s say – less circumspect than one would expect. He seems especially unable to understand younger people’s sensibilities. For example, when his three 20-something-year-old daughters and one of their boyfriends were living with him last year, he said any number of embarrassing things regarding them. I don’t think he really understands current mores on what is appropriate to say or do in work settings, which is why I think his apologies following the young women’s stories of feeling uncomfortable with his behavior are credible. He is as clueless as Joe Biden who faced criticism for touching and whispering in the ears of women while on the campaign trail or George W. Bush who tried to give German Chancellor Angela Merkel a shoulder rub.

I think that the independent investigation that is ongoing is very important to gather evidence on stories of sexual harassment and hostile work environment. If there is evidence of impeachable acts by the governor, then that should take place. Unlike a corporate executive, the governor is elected by voters, not a board of directors, so there is no relevant authority to fire him or force him to resign. While some state legislators have gone on record calling on Gov. Cuomo to resign because these investigations are a distraction, the governor is carrying on with his duties, adjusting the pandemic policies as conditions warrant and getting ready for budget negotiations with the legislature. Unlike most states, New York’s budget is supposed to be passed by April first, so, once the American Rescue Plan is signed into law, there will be a short window in which to finalize and pass the state budget. Although Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul has been involved in the pandemic response, especially in her home region of western New York, it would be much more disruptive to the state budget process to have Gov. Cuomo step down at this time.

While I admire Governor Cuomo’s leadership through the pandemic, I do not admire him as a person. I find him to be arrogant, overbearing, and a boor. Unlike his father, the late Governor Mario Cuomo, who was principled and articulate, Andrew has always been a bare-knuckles brawler and bully as a politician. Despite being a Democrat, during his early years as governor, he governed more like what used to be a moderate Republican. He and then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were willing to inflict the health and environmental consequences of fracking on our area, as long as the watershed for New York City water supplies was kept free of drilling. (The eventual fracking ban in New York was thanks to Dr. Zucker of the Health Department and later passed into law once the Democrats had the majority of both houses of the legislature.) It wasn’t until it was clear that the national electorate was becoming more progressive and the Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature that Governor Cuomo started to govern and talk like a Democrat.

Because past Republican candidates for governor have been unqualified and put forward ideas which I oppose and because I didn’t like or trust Andrew Cuomo, I have been voting for the Green Party candidate for governor, whose platform aligns most closely with my own. Granted, in heavily Democratic New York, it was unlikely that my choice to vote third-party would have any real bearing on the outcome of the elections, but I wanted to make clear here that my admiration of the governor’s handling of the pandemic was not a reflection of my being a fan of him personally. Likewise, my observations of his personality and behavior are not coming from a place of partisanship.

At this point, my main motivation is pragmatism. The next couple of months are critical in the course of the pandemic. As national health experts and the Biden administration are pointing out repeatedly, we need to be cautious in ending pandemic protection measures until we have a much higher level of protection among the general public. Texas and a number of states have, as they did in previous waves, lifted restrictions too soon. Governor Cuomo will continue to follow the science to keep us from having a large spike in cases. He is also setting up vaccine sites among underserved populations, trying to address the health and social inequities that caused people of color and those with low income to be hit hardest by the pandemic. I don’t think the New York State legislature is nimble enough to address these issues and I’m not sure if Cuomo’s prior executive actions would stay in force if Lt. Gov. Hochul were to become governor.

Also, the budget negotiations will be very difficult. In New York, for a number of complicated historical reasons, the budget gets hammered out largely by the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, and the majority leader of the Senate. The budget also includes a lot of non-budgetary legislation; one hot topic in the last several fiscal years has been the legalization of recreational marijuana. I don’t think it would be fair to expect Hochul to be thrown into the midst of that process with the deadline coming up in three weeks.

I have often written about how the stress of our governmental function adds to my personal stressors. After the November election, I had hoped that, by this time, the governmental stress might have eased more than it actually has. With the aftermath of the insurrection and the state of the Republican party on the national level and the upheavals with Governor Cuomo, my hopes were not fully realized.

But, hey, what’s life without stress?

I’ll never know.

Governor Cuomo

During the pandemic, I have listened to dozens and dozens of press briefings with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. I appreciated his updates on COVID, the latest medical findings, and what New York was doing to address the illness and all the other issues that arose from it. I live in upstate New York, so the information he provided was especially relevant to me, but there were many around the United States and even abroad who tuned in.

In recent weeks, there have been legislators and press members who have been critical of the governor and his administration’s handling of the reporting of deaths in relation to nursing homes. The state reported deaths by where they occurred; people who died in hospitals were reported as hospital deaths, even if they had been nursing home residents prior to hospital admission. This was the state’s consistent practice and one which was straightforward and easy to compile from death certificates. All COVID deaths in the state were reported, categorized by place of death.

The problem arose because legislators and the press wanted to know how many nursing home residents later died in hospitals and how many formerly hospitalized patients died in nursing homes. This information is more difficult to compile and the governor’s staff, who worked seven days a week for months on end, did not have time to comb through all the records to assemble a report. Unfortunately, this was perceived as a cover-up of something nefarious and things have gotten totally out of hand with accusations flying everywhere.

I am annoyed at those in the legislature who are upset with the governor over this. When they requested the information they were not in session. Like many states, the New York legislature only convenes part of the year, usually January through June. If the legislature wanted this information, they could have offered to have the legislative staff compile it, rather than expecting the executive staff to add it to their already long list of duties.

There has also been questioning of the state policy to release COVID patients to skilled nursing facilities after hospitalization, especially in spring 2020 when the virus was so widespread in New York. This was based on federal policy. It got patients who had recovered sufficiently out of the hospital, putting them in a more comfortable, less risky environment while freeing up hospital space for more critically ill patients. Although these discharged patients were likely no longer contagious, the nursing homes had to be equipped to place them in isolation. Because I was listening to Governor Cuomo’s press conference every day, I knew that, contrary to some reporting at the time, nursing homes were not “forced” to take patients; they only accepted them if they were equipped to do so. Somehow, this morphed into stories that COVID was introduced into nursing homes by these recovering patients. In truth, COVID entered the nursing homes through staff who were living, shopping, etc. in the local community.

I am not an uninterested bystander in this case. My father lives in a senior facility which has been operating under COVID precautions for almost a year now. Despite that, they have lost at least six residents to COVID and have had more infections from which residents were able to recover. The cases originated from the outside community, not from a resident discharged from the hospital. The staff of the facility is tested at least weekly and screened for symptoms daily, but, as we know, the coronavirus is virulent before symptoms and before it shows up as positive in a test, so staff have unknowingly exposed residents, their families and co-workers.

Somehow, it has become easier to just blame Governor Cuomo. The legislature is threatening to revoke the emergency powers it granted to the governor to handle the pandemic, which is their right to do. However, if they do that, they had better be prepared to remain in session and react quickly to changing circumstances with disease variants, vaccinations, etc. The New York state legislature is not known for being agile – or even functional a great deal of the time – so they had better think carefully before they vote. It’s a lot easier to complain than it is to govern.

There have also been complaints of the governor bullying people and recently of sexual harassment. I am not commenting on those accusations at all as I have no basis to judge their veracity. I did want to address the reports on deaths and nursing homes because those are matters of public record and were clear to me as they were unfolding. Suffering the loss of a loved one is difficult enough without having questions about the circumstances of their death circulated in the press.