An open bed is “a gift” at a Wisconsin hospital where patients can’t believe other people still don’t take covid-19 seriously.
As the coronavirus pandemic swelled around the 160-bed Mayo Clinic hospital, the day was dawning auspiciously. Two precious beds for new patients had opened overnight. At the morning “bed meeting,” prospects for a third looked promising.
Better yet, by midmorning, there were no patients in the Emergency Department. None. Even in normal times, a medium-size hospital like this can go many months without ever reaching zero.
Everyone knew better than to trust this good fortune. They were right.
From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., seven patients arrived at the emergency room. Fourteen descended the next hour, then 10 more the hour after that.
About a third had signs of covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, most with trouble breathing. But there was also the man who had smashed his fingers with a hammer. The unresponsive woman who had to be resuscitated. An injured elbow. Neck pain. Acute depression.
By 12:05 p.m., Mayo had put itself on “bypass,” sending all ambulances to the two other hospitals in town, a last-resort move rarely employed. By late afternoon, the emergency room was stashing patients in four beds erected in the ambulance garage — the first time it had adopted that tactic — and holding others for hours as they waited for places in the overflowing hospital.
With more than 91,000 covid-19 patients in their beds, U.S. hospitals are in danger of buckling beneath the weight of the pandemic and the ongoing needs of other sick people. In small- and medium-size facilities like this hit hardest by the outbreak’s third wave, that means finding spots in ones and twos, rather than adding hundreds at a time as New York hospitals did when the coronavirus swept the Northeast in the spring.
“A bed is a gift right now,” said Jason Craig, regional chair for the Mayo Clinic Health System in northwest Wisconsin. “I’ll take all of them.”
In Utah, some doctors acknowledge they are informally rationing care, a euphemism for providing some patients a lower level of service than they should receive. In El Paso, the National Guard has been dispatched to handle the overwhelming number of covid-19 corpses, many held in 10 refrigerated trailers outside the medical examiner’s office.
So far, such extreme measures are not widespread, but only because hospitals have spent months preparing for this catastrophe — one expected to grow worse in the weeks to come as the weather turns cold and Americans move indoors.
More challenging still is locating doctors, nurses, respiratory technicians and other staff needed to provide care as the pandemic places unprecedented demand on the entire nation simultaneously. Even Mayo, one of the most prestigious and well-resourced systems in U.S. medicine, is supplementing its Wisconsin staff with nurses from its hospitals in Arizona, Florida and Minnesota, redeploying nurses from other parts of this hospital and hiring temporary travel nurses who sign on for short assignments.
With nearly 300 staff infected or quarantined in northwest Wisconsin, the system has turned to technological solutions and shuttling patients between hospitals as beds open.
“No one could have forecast what we’re dealing with right now, in regard to what the staff are having to do, what the patients are going through,” said Elysia Goettl, nurse manager of the hospital’s medical-surgical unit.
For two days this month, Nov. 18 and 19, Mayo allowed The Washington Post to watch from inside the largest of its five northwest Wisconsin hospitals as it coped with the virus’s staggering consequences.
On that Wednesday, the health system tallied 341 positive coronavirus tests out of 1,295 given in the main facility and four tiny hospitals in Barron, Bloomer, Menomonie and Osseo — an astonishing positivity rate of 26.3 percent. The state’s seven-day rolling average infection rate that day was even higher, at 32.5 percent. (Six days later, Mayo’s rate would fall to 17.6 percent, and later to 14 percent, though its models forecast a continuing surge of patients.)
In contrast, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) closed the nation’s largest school system the same day, when the city’s seven-day average exceeded just 3 percent. Two days earlier, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) imposed tough new restrictions when the state’s 14-day average positivity rate reached 4.7 percent.
In the main 160-bed hospital here, there were 166 patients at 9 a.m. Wednesday, 60 of them with covid-19. At 4 p.m., after a day of transfers and discharges, there were a total of 147. By Thursday morning, as emergency room patients and others found their way into the hospital, there were 167.
“We thought we may get some bed relief, and then, of course, the law of health care kicks in,” Craig said.
Wisconsin largely evaded the first two waves of the U.S. pandemic, which crashed through the New York area in March and April and the Sun Belt this summer. Unlike Seattle and elsewhere, Wisconsin’s younger people were infected first as the state reopened. Now, the virus is reaching into the older, more vulnerable population.
In room 41129, on the hospital’s fourth floor, 63-year-old Mark Ahrens was beginning to recover from covid-19. Ahrens fell ill about two weeks earlier, overcome by paralyzing fatigue. His lungs clogged, leading to pneumonia.
Three floors down, his wife, Kathryn, was undergoing surgery the same day to clear out pockets of thick fluid from severe covid-19 infection in one of her lungs. A double-leg amputee with diabetes and high blood pressure, she contracted the disease at the same time as her husband. The couple were admitted together. Ahrens hadn’t spoken to his wife in a week.
“I feel real lucky that I’m still here,” Ahrens said. “Because I was in really bad shape when we came in.”
A careful mask-wearer outside the home, Ahrens believes he and his wife, who is 57, were infected by Kathryn’s grandchildren, who visited the couple’s home for a week. Kathryn’s daughter, Sandy Kassa, assumes her children picked up the virus during an outbreak at their day-care center, then passed it on to her and the couple.
“I thought I had the flu,” Kassa said. She suffered from fever, chills and difficulty breathing, which has lingered for weeks, though she has recovered. “Somebody was reaching up inside my rib cage and squeezing my lungs.”
Small family gatherings are thought to be a significant avenue of virus transmission in the current surge. But Kassa didn’t heed the public health warnings until the virus struck three generations of her family.
“I honestly thought before I became sick that people were just being dramatic,” she said. “Now that I’ve experienced it myself, I just know that it’s real.
“I shouldn’t have had my kids over there.”
Ahrens is incredulous at how casually some people are still treating the virus.
“People were … saying it was fake news and stuff. They’ll probably realize in a year from now, when they lose somebody. If they would listen now, they would be here for the next holidays,” he said.
In the room next to Ahrens, 72-year-old Donna Keller said she fought diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration from covid-19 before she was finally hospitalized. “I thought I could whip it,” she said.
Keller said she, too, was careful to safeguard herself against the virus and is unsure how she became infected. But she doesn’t like what she sees on the street.
“The younger kids, I think, feel they can fight this and it doesn’t affect them,” she said. “But they don’t realize that they pass it on to the older people that have a harder time fighting it.”
Ahrens and Keller were discharged Nov. 20, Ahrens to the small Mayo hospital in Bloomer, where he began rehab, and Keller to her home. On Friday, Ahrens’s wife joined him at the hospital in Bloomer.
Until the surge, the floor where they convalesced was reserved for all kinds of medical and surgical patients. On Nov. 18, 38 of its 40 beds were occupied by covid-19 patients, and the hospital was seeking staff so it could fill the last two. More covid-19 patients spill onto the third and fifth floors and into the intensive care unit.
In normal times, Mayo is nearly this full, said Richard A. Helmers, a pulmonologist and vice president for the region’s hospitals. Mayo does brisk business in high-end care, including cardiac surgery and neurosurgery.
But those patients generally follow a predictable course. Doctors and administrators know when they’ll leave, when the next bed will open. Covid-19 patients can linger for weeks, even a month or more, complicating the effort to find space for the current endless surge of sick people.
Despite the overcrowding, officials stress that the hospital is still open to anyone who needs its care.
A glimpse inside the hospital’s sandstone walls reveals little of the stress it is under. The corridors are clean and quiet. Little equipment is visible. Few people scurry through public areas or cluster in conversation. The hospital was designed this way 10 years ago. If necessary, Mayo could close off the covid unit and create one giant negative-pressure system in an attempt to keep the airborne virus contained.
On Ahrens’s floor, nurses attend to covid-19 patients at least once an hour, and each nurse typically is responsible for at least three patients. In an eight-hour shift, nurses must don gowns, gloves, N95 masks and face shields a minimum of 24 times, checking to ensure they are protected against the virus. After each visit, they carefully strip off the protection and dispose of it.
Some nurses are working 12-hour shifts and overtime in a job in which they are holding patients’ hands as they die and helping others grieve over lost loved ones.
Marybeth Pichler was filling in on the floor recently when another nurse asked her to sit with a dying covid-19 patient. He had perhaps an hour to live. He had been given morphine to ease his discomfort.
“I just sat down, and he just talked,” she said. “He talked about how he used to farm and how he had dairy cows and after he sold the dairy cows, he had Black Angus.” After about 25 minutes, the patient took off the mask that provided him high-flow oxygen and soon passed away.
With no visitors allowed, Pichler said she “felt it was an honor to be able to sit with him and hear about his life. Otherwise … he would have been alone when he died.”
“I knew when I volunteered what I was volunteering for,” she added. “When I’m going to work in the morning, I actually pray to be a blessing to someone or to be there for someone.”
For hospital personnel everywhere, the early part of the pandemic meant confronting a new, lethal and unpredictable virus. Now, the dominant theme is burnout from responding all year with no end in sight, coupled with the complications of home life.
“They’re struggling — emotionally, physically. They’re exhausted,” Goettl, the nurse manager of the medical-surgical unit, said. “And they have given 120 percent on their shift, and they walk out exhausted. They go home to a family where they have to give another 120 percent. We do that day in and day out.”
Sara Annis, who supervises the medical-surgical nurses, works long hours at the hospital while her husband puts in 60 to 80 hours a week trying to keep the couple’s brewpub alive. When neither can be home, they leave their children, ages 9 and 12, there alone to attend school online. Neighbors check up on them.
“It’s a huge, huge struggle just to try to balance work and family life right now,” she said.
Mayo is exploring technology to help with the crisis. Before the pandemic, its advanced care at home program was designed as an experiment to determine whether patients who should be hospitalized could be treated in their own homes. They are provided hospital equipment, full-time monitoring from a central control room and visits by paramedics, nurses or nurse practitioners.
But when the virus struck, the program was pressed into service to help ease crowding. Mayo is now caring for five people at home, including covid-19 patient Rita Huebner.
A Mayo paramedic visited Huebner’s small apartment before she arrived, making room for the hospital equipment she would need. Then he and two others delivered her there late that afternoon.
Huebner, 83, said she may have to rehab in a nursing home but for now accepts recuperating at home. “I’m doing pretty good, but not good enough,” she said. “I’m so damn weak.”
Patients trade the security of having trained caregivers at their bedside for the advantages of staying in their own beds, at times with family around them, said Margaret Paulson, chief clinical officer for the at-home program. Remote monitoring can be done at long distances, including from Mayo’s main headquarters in Minnesota.
On Wednesday, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced new measures to encourage more hospitals to adopt telehealth programs that could ease the strain of the pandemic.
Until the surge eases, there is only one glimmer of light at the end of this crisis. On Nov. 19, Mayo was notified that its first shipment of the coronavirus vaccine would arrive in early January. A team already is devising a distribution plan.
“We need hope right now,” Craig said. “Hope is what’s going to get us through the winter.”
What it’s like to stay alive as the virus charts its fatal course through a home for the elderly in one of the worst-hit neighborhoods in the Bronx.
When someone in the building died, a notice was often taped to a window in the lobby: “WE REGRET TO ANNOUNCE THE PASSING OF OUR FRIEND….” The signs did not say how or where the friend had died, and because they were eventually removed, they could be easy to miss. In March, as these names began to appear more frequently at Bronxwood, an assisted living facility in New York, Varahn Chamblee tried to keep track. Varahn, who had lived at Bronxwood for almost a year, was president of its resident council. Her neighbors admired her poise and quiet confidence. She spoke regularly with management, but as the coronavirus swept through the five-story building, they told her as little about its progress as they told anyone else.
Some residents estimated that 25 people had died — that was the number Varahn had heard — but others thought the toll had to be higher. There was talk that a man on the second floor had been the first to go, followed by a beloved housekeeper. An administrator known as Mr. Stern called in sick. Around the same time, Varahn noticed that the woman who fed the pigeons had also disappeared.
The New York State Department of Health advises adult care facilities to inform residents about confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases. But inhabitants of Bronxwood said they were kept in the dark. In the absence of official communication, it was difficult to sort out hearsay from fact. “I was told that it was 42 people,” said Renee Johnson, who lived on the floor above Varahn. “But honestly we don’t know. They are not telling us anything.” When for a couple of weeks Renee herself was bedridden — fatigued and wheezing — there were rumors that she, too, had passed away.
Because so many people were missing, and no one knew where they’d gone, life began to feel like a horror film. The dining room, once an outlet for gossip and intrigue, was shuttered and the theater room padlocked. Staff covered the lobby in tape, as if it were the scene of a crime. The library began filling up with the possessions of those who had vanished: their televisions and computers, their walkers and bags of clothes.
It seemed like a good omen when a few residents came back from the hospital grinning, having faced the ordeal and lived to tell about it. “I wouldn’t even say to them, ‘I thought you were dead,’” Varahn said. “I was just happy to see them.” But then she spotted these survivors in the lobby or going out shopping and worried that the sickness would continue to spread.
The virus was taking the worst toll in the Bronx, and Bronxwood sat within the borough’s hardest-hit ZIP code, although it would be weeks until anyone would know this. But by April, it was clear that elderly Black and brown people with preexisting health conditions, living in crowded housing in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, were among those most susceptible. That many of Bronxwood’s residents belonged to this demographic did not escape anyone there.
When Varahn arrived at Bronxwood in the summer of 2019, she was 65 and still worked at two salons. She hadn’t been planning to move to an assisted living facility, but she was desperate to find an affordable room. She had been sharing a ground-floor apartment with her 28-year-old son in Allerton, a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, before her landlady pushed her out to make space for her grandchildren. Friends told Varahn she should have taken the matter to court, and maybe she could have, but she believed that things happened for a reason.
In the brick vastness of the east Bronx, with its towering apartment blocks and modest duplexes, Bronxwood’s cream-and-beige exterior stood out. The building was just a 20-minute walk up the street from her old apartment, so she didn’t have to worry about missing her clients, her church sisters or the kids she mentored, who called her Mother V. Her benefits covered the $1,270 rent, which included three meals a day and housekeeping. The shared bedrooms — crammed with two twin beds, two stout night tables, two wardrobes and two wooden dressers — were small, but Varahn didn’t think she’d spend much time in hers.
On the first floor, which housed the recreation and meeting rooms, there was always something to do. Staff threw holiday parties and monthly birthday celebrations. Visitors came by to help with knitting and coloring and computer lessons. There was Uno, Pokeno and afternoon bingo. On Wednesdays, members of the cooking club prepared Cornish hens, fish and chips, liver with onions. In the afternoon, bands would perform — classical and jazz, calypso and merengue — and some of the singers were quite talented.
Not long after Varahn moved in, she met Glenda King at a Bible study group. Glenda, who is 68 and has lived at Bronxwood for over seven years, wears square transition lenses and tucks her gray hair into a prim, low bun. Dryly self-deprecating, she considers herself an introvert who has the misfortune to live in a building with 270 other people. She makes a point of being friendly, even though she likes to say that she has no true friends.
At first, Glenda found Varahn to be reserved, but she soon realized that what she had mistaken for detachment was simply Varahn’s way of taking in her new surroundings. Varahn knew how to draw people out and listen to their problems. She had worked as a beautician since high school, first at flagship boutiques in the city and later for the disco diva Carol Douglas and on the sets of Spike Lee films. Her clients felt comfortable confiding in her, and before long, so did the residents of Bronxwood. “I can go up and talk to her about anything,” Glenda told me. “Her forte is humility.”
All adult care facilities are legally required to maintain a forum where residents can independently discuss their living conditions, but some resident councils, like Bronxwood’s, are more active than others. Although Varahn was new to the building, people encouraged her to run for president. She would bring an unusual amount of political experience to the council: She had previously served as vice chair of the Allerton Barnes Block Association and as president of both the neighborhood merchant’s group and a charity society at her church. Under her bed, she stored the plaques from various luncheons that had celebrated her civic advocacy.
After Varahn’s victory in the September elections, Glenda, who had worked for many years as a typist, took on the duties of council secretary, and Hurshel Godfrey, another longtime resident, assumed the vice presidency. Every month, the council gathered in the main lobby, which fit about 60 people, some of them perched on their walkers. Varahn, who has a broad, serious face and a sleek bob, dressed for the occasion in crisp two-piece suits with lapels. She worked to cultivate a shared sense of purpose. “I never said I could do something, even if that was true,” she said. “I always emphasized that we could do it together.”
One of the first things Varahn noticed that fall, as the weather grew colder, was how few residents had proper winter clothes. Some explained that they were stuck indoors because they lacked coats. Old men shuffled around in flip-flops in the rain. In the annual grant application for extra state funding, Varahn secured a bigger clothing allowance — $200 per resident — and a double-oven stove for the communal kitchen. She brought in educational speakers for Veterans Day and Black History Month, and planned field trips to go out dancing and to the casino. “Varahn had a lot of connections,” Hurshel said. “I knew a few people, but she knew a lot.”
Some of the local politicians Varahn was acquainted with started asking her if she had ever considered running for higher office: The City Council elections were coming up in 2021. In February, she started riding the subway to midtown Manhattan to take a class for first-time candidates. Former campaign managers shared tips on electoral strategy and the best kind of eye contact to make with large crowds. Maybe, she thought, electoral politics was her calling.
At this point, the virus was said to be on the other side of the world. It hadn’t yet surfaced in a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, or in New Rochelle, just a short drive up the road.
Until the 1980s, elderly Americans with medical needs had limited options: They could age at home with family or aides, or they could “park and die,” as the saying went, at a nursing home. Assisted living facilities emerged as a third way, rejecting the clinical strictures of a medical institution in favor of a more informal, dormlike setting.
In the last four decades, demand for assisted living has soared. The paradigm promises residents the freedom to live autonomously — and operators freedom from regulation. Unlike nursing homes, assisted living facilities are not subject to federal oversight. The standards for care — along with the definition of “assisted living” — vary greatly from state to state (and from facility to facility).
During the pandemic, these freedoms have become liabilities. “If infection control was limited and regulation was already ineffective in nursing homes, it’s almost nonexistent in assisted living,” said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School who studies long-term care for older adults. “It’s all the problems we are talking about with nursing homes, but even more so. There’s less regulation, far less staffing and many of the residents are just as sick.” The population in assisted living often closely resembles that of nursing homes, yet there are no requirements that the former provide full-time medical staff. In New York, according to government data, half of those in assisted living are over 85, two-thirds need help bathing and a third have Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia.
At Bronxwood, the state’s third-largest adult care facility, residents said that employees initially lacked protective gear as they cleaned dozens of rooms. As in other homes in the city at the start of the outbreak, shared bathrooms and group meals made it difficult to isolate. And because it is not a medical institution, residents continued to enter and leave the building as they’d always done. (Neither Bronxwood nor Daniel Stern, an administrator, responded to repeated requests for comment.)
Less than 1% of Americans reside in long-term care facilities — a category that includes nursing homes and assisted living residences — but these facilities account for around 40% of the country’s COVID-19 deaths. Researchers caution that this figure represents an undercount. Many states do not publish this data, or do so incompletely, and fewer than half of all states report cases in assisted living facilities, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation. “As a result,” the analysis said, “it is difficult to know the extent to which residents and staff at assisted living facilities have been affected by COVID-19 or the extent to which interventions are urgently needed.”
The way that New York counts deaths has been controversial from the start. That’s because the state’s Health Department will not attribute a death to a residential health care facility unless the death occurs on the premises. The unusual policy has baffled residents and their family members, along with lawmakers and health care experts. “This is a really big hole in New York state data,” Grabowski said. “If someone lives for a long time in a nursing home, it makes no sense that their death is then attributed to the hospital rather than the nursing home.” Without a proper count of cases and deaths, advocates argue, officials cannot direct scrutiny or resources to afflicted homes.
For more than two hours at a hearing in August, legislators repeatedly pressed the state health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, for the number of deaths that could be traced back to residential health care facilities. His answers did not satisfy his interrogators. “It seems, sir, that in this case you are choosing to define it differently so you can look better,” said Gustavo Rivera, the state Senate Health Committee chairman, whose district includes part of the Bronx. “And that’s a problem.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has boasted about the relatively low death toll in the state’s nursing homes, despite the fact that no other state counts these deaths as New York does. As of mid-November, there have been more than 6,619 virus-related deaths within the state’s nursing homes and 179 in its adult care facilities, according to official data. Bronxwood, however, has never appeared in that tally.
“The public list is incomplete and misleading,” said Geoff Lieberman, the executive director of the Coalition of Institutionalized Aged and Disabled, an organization that advocates on behalf of adult home residents in New York City. “Either everyone at Bronxwood died at the hospital, or the information isn’t being accurately reported.” Before the August hearing, Lieberman and his colleagues at CIAD interviewed residents at 28 adult homes in New York City, including Bronxwood, and tallied around 250 deaths from their accounts — a stark contrast to the 53 deaths that facilities had self-reported to the state. Bronxwood employees likewise sounded the alarm: In April, six staff members told local news that by their count more than a dozen residents had died.
Residents played detective, too. In May, when the U.S. death toll hit 100,000, Renee Johnson tried to match the names she saw in the newspaper to those of her missing neighbors. “We lost a lot of friends,” she said. “And you’re scared — you’re really scared — because you don’t know if you’re next.”
Jonah Bruno, a spokesman for the Department of Health, defended New York’s approach to counting COVID-19 deaths in residential health care settings. “The Department goes to great lengths to ensure the accuracy and consistency in our data reporting,” he wrote in an email. Bruno did not disclose how many residents died in the hospital after falling ill at Bronxwood, but he noted that the facility passed an infection control survey in May. “Since the start of this pandemic,” he added, “we have made protecting the most vulnerable New Yorkers, including those in adult care facilities, our top priority.”
Slowly and then all at once, everything that had made Bronxwood bearable was taken away. Residents were discouraged from seeing one another, going outside or congregating in common areas. Visitors were banned. Whenever people lingered downstairs or smoked out on the patio, staff ushered them back to their rooms.
Varahn hung posters in the lobby to try to boost morale. The first gave the administration and staff five hand-drawn stars and thanked them “for caring during COVID-19.” “WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER,” read the second, on which she had colored an American flag. Some residents thought their president was doing the best she could, given the circumstances. Others were offended. They didn’t want to thank anyone: They were miserable.
Deborah Berger, who lives on the fourth floor, likened the new regime to living in a giant day care center. Glenda said she felt like a puppy in a doghouse. Renee compared it to jail.
The analogies were ready at hand, but what was harder to express was how little trust they had in the institution tasked with protecting them. “Nobody is talking to us,” Renee said. “The staff just say: ‘Go to your room. Go to your room.’ There’s no feelings. There’s no nothing.”
Glenda washed her hands until she felt as if they were going to fall off. She wiped everything down with bleach — door handles, dresser, windowsill. She had a weak left lung, and she was terrified. “If I get one hit of that coronavirus,” she liked to say, “I’m not going to make it.” When her legs got stiff from sitting, she paced up and down her cappuccino-colored hallway, about the length of a city block. Other times, wearing a surgical mask, she wheeled her walker downstairs, though the state of affairs there could be disappointing. A lot of residents didn’t wear masks. They huddled around the TV and crowded in the elevator. People were getting complacent. “Not me,” Glenda said.
The council had suspended its meetings, but toward the end of April, several residents approached Varahn to report that Bronxwood was not giving them their stimulus checks. In fact, complaints about missing or partial stimulus checks were so widespread throughout the city’s facilities that the state issued a guidance: Residents’ money belonged to residents. Varahn convened an impromptu meeting with the council’s leadership in the stairwell — the only somewhat quiet place in the building — to strategize about what to do.
Hurshel, the vice president, was planning to ask about his check. “Don’t ask,” Varahn coached him. “Say, ‘I came here to get my money and I’ll cash it myself.’” Glenda noted that people with dementia might not remember the existence of the checks in the first place, so she knocked on doors to remind them.
Part of Varahn’s role as president was to relay these and other concerns to Mr. Stern. They had an easy, playful rapport. Sometimes, he asked what an intelligent woman like her was doing living in a place like this. The question flattered her, but it also unsettled her, as if she wasn’t wanted or didn’t belong.
People talked about leaving Bronxwood almost as soon as they arrived, but the truth was that they were there because they had nowhere else to go. The elderly are typically steered to places like Bronxwood after a stay in the hospital. They have taken a fall or needed a surgery, and while they’re recovering, lose their apartment. Others, like Glenda, are recommended by a caseworker at a shelter. It’s not uncommon for such homes to hire recruiters to help fill their beds.
While many assisted living facilities cater to a wealthy clientele, who pay out of pocket, Bronxwood primarily serves low-income seniors. (It is, technically speaking, an adult home with an assisted living program.) Most residents sign over their supplemental security income to pay for the room and board — and out of that sum the facility gives them a $207 “personal needs allowance” each month. The money runs out quickly, since it often goes toward phone bills, toiletries, transportation and more nutritious food.
Out of Bronxwood’s 270 or so residents, more than half are enrolled in its assisted living program, whose costs are covered by Medicaid. In theory, the program offers an extra level of care to those who need it. In practice, it functions as a “huge financial boon” to the adult home industry, said Tanya Kessler, a senior staff attorney with Mobilization for Justice, a legal services organization. Bronxwood can charge Medicaid between $78 and $154 per enrolled resident each day, depending on his or her needs. But Kessler said there’s little oversight into whether this additional funding results in additional care. Bruno, the spokesman, said that the Health Department conducts regular inspections of assisted living programs “to ensure all applicable laws, regulations and guidelines are being followed.”
Healthier residents at Bronxwood told me that they seemed to be roomed with those who were more infirm, effectively placing them in the role of an extra aide. “One of the big complaints we hear is, ‘I’m not well myself, but they put this person in here that they expect me to look after,’” said Sherletta McCaskill, who, as the training director of CIAD, helps adult home residents organize councils and independent living classes. “It speaks to the lack of services that these homes are providing.” The most recent audit by New York’s Office of the Medicaid Inspector General found that Bronxwood had overbilled Medicaid by $4.4 million in 2006 and 2007. (Bronxwood requested an administrative hearing to challenge the findings, according to an OMIG spokesperson; the date is pending.)
In the pandemic, everyone’s escape plans, loudly discussed yet endlessly deferred, took on a new urgency. Residents told Varahn that they were joining the city’s long wait list for subsidized senior housing, or that a son or daughter was coming to rescue them. Faye Washington, who was 68 and lived down the hall from Glenda, tried to compile a list of senior housing options in the Bronx. “You know why I want to get out?” Faye said. “Because when all those people passed away, it killed me.”
Faye told Glenda, “I’m taking you with me.” But Glenda was not in any hurry. It was safer, she felt, to be where an aide could hear if she called for help. She had heart problems, anxiety, memory loss and chronic fatigue. Her family had asked her to stay with them, but she did not want to babysit relatives. As she saw it, if God had wished her to have more children, he would have let her keep getting her period.
Varahn’s family urged her to leave as soon as possible, even if it meant losing a month of rent. But where would she go? Varahn wondered. And then what would she do? The lady who lived across the hall had gone to see her daughter in Georgia, and now she was stuck there while all her things were here.
As the lockdown dragged on, Varahn felt herself sliding into a depression. Before March, she was always out with a client or at some community meeting. Now she was eating three meals a day on a rectangular folding table at the edge of her bed. She was gaining weight from staying inside. Her feet were swollen. Her back hurt.
She started taking walks, sometimes just a few blocks, to relieve the pain. The soccer field across the street, where kids played on Saturdays, was empty. Many of the stores on White Plains Road, Boston Road and Allerton Avenue, including the salons, were closed until further notice, and some days it felt like the entire world was at a standstill.
It wasn’t just the forced isolation that discouraged her. Everything was happening on some sort of screen, and the tedious video engagements and text messages often left her frustrated. In her class for first-time campaigners, which had migrated to Zoom, the connection was always faltering, making it difficult to understand what anyone was trying to say.https://962141ce54c31f8481855073e433ab60.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
At other times, she wasn’t isolated enough. Her roommate rose at dawn and sold loose cigarettes throughout the day. People were always stopping by. Whenever Varahn was on a call or at a virtual meeting, the roommate muttered under her breath or cursed sarcastically. Once, the noise was so disruptive to the class that the instructor told Varahn to mute herself, which she found humiliating. What would have been merely an inconvenient pairing in normal times had under quarantine become an oppressively intimate arrangement. There was also the problem of Varahn’s older sister, Childris, whose heart was starting to fail. The grief put a constant pressure on her days. All this made it hard to concentrate, and she soon fell behind on her studies. So many things about her path to the City Council were uncertain now anyway. Was a person of her age expected to knock on doors? Would she have to campaign through a computer screen?
Varahn began searching for a way to reclaim her freedom. She asked Mr. Stern for a room of her own. As far as she could tell, there was plenty of space in the building. A private accommodation could double as a little office for the council, she reasoned — somewhere that residents could feel comfortable speaking to her. But management never acted on her request. Victoria Kelley, a former jazz singer who had lived at Bronxwood for three years, suspected that Varahn’s battle for the clothing allowance had turned administrators against her. Such retaliation is not unheard of, according to advocates who work with residents at adult care facilities. “If you don’t have someone on the council to fight for you, nothing gets done, but Varahn did fight,” Victoria told me. “Some of the naysayers got jealous.”
With the arrival of spring, a different approach revealed itself to Varahn. First she rented a car, so she could get around more easily. Bright flowers fringed the patio, and slender trees cast ragged patches of shade on the sidewalk. Her errands had been piling up, too. She needed to buy cases of bottled water, pick up her son’s stimulus check from her ex-landlord, haul her sheets to the laundromat after her roommate got bedbugs.
Then she started driving for the pleasure of it, humming along to power ballads on Christian radio and chatting on the phone with friends. She found herself going through the boxes in her U-Haul storage unit, making a mental inventory of all the things she didn’t have space for at Bronxwood, like her slow cooker, her turkey roaster, her Ashley Stewart outfits, her dance costumes. One weekend, a few FOR SALE signs caught her attention. That was when she realized what was happening: She wanted out.
It was a complicated undertaking. Most apartments were too expensive, which is why she hadn’t been able to get one in time last year. And even if she was lucky enough to find something affordable, she would have to keep working — perhaps, if salons weren’t allowed to reopen, somewhere that wasn’t a salon. Then again, she didn’t want any of the residents to feel that she was leaving them behind.
One morning toward the end of July, Glenda’s cellphone rang. The sound surprised her, because she had stopped paying the bill. When Glenda called the number back from the room’s landline, it turned out to be Varahn, who announced that she was moving out the next day and promised to stop by in September “to pass the torch.” Glenda told Varahn she was happy for her, and she was. But she wished her friend had let her know sooner. Hurshel, the vice president, was unable to step in, because he, too, had just left. After five years on the city waitlist for affordable housing, he’d finally landed a new spot. It was less than a block away from Bronxwood. “You have to get out of there,” he warned his old friends.
That same week, Bronxwood laid off employees without warning, apparently because of the declining number of residents. There was no longer an aide for the fourth floor, according to three people who lived there, and there was no one to speak up about it. “I feel stripped naked, like we’re getting ready for the slaughterhouse,” Glenda said the next day. We were sitting down the street, and as staff trailed out of the building at the end of the afternoon shift — a long procession of teal and navy scrubs — some of them were wiping away tears. “Right now, the administration can say anything goes.”
Glenda knew she did not want to serve as president, even in an interim capacity, and asked Renee, a former president, what to do. Renee was telling everyone who had asked her this question the same thing: She didn’t have a clue. “We’re so lost right now,” Renee said to me in August. Her bingo crew had dwindled from more than 15 players to fewer than 10. She was pessimistic about the prospects for a socially distanced election: “We don’t even know who is dead or alive.”
Varahn had implied to Glenda that she was staying in the Bronx. In reality, she was moving to suburban Maryland. She had signed the lease for a one-bedroom apartment in a senior living community just a short drive away from her daughter’s house. It was everything that Bronxwood was not: serene and quiet, lush with greenery.
She had told Glenda only half of the story because she couldn’t quite believe her good fortune. “I feel so sorry because some of them are waiting there thinking that they will someday get an apartment,” Varahn said. “If it wasn’t for my associations” — the support from her family, her earnings from the salon — “I would be stuck there, too.”
Her family was relieved about her departure, but Varahn remained uneasy. With a room of her own, she thought, or even a different roommate, she probably would have stayed. As it was, the likely return of the virus in the winter frightened her.
When she packed up her belongings, she felt as if she were packing up the future she had once imagined for herself. “By now, I would have been running for City Council, if this virus didn’t happen,” she said. “So I’m saying to myself, well, you know, that wasn’t in God’s plan.” Though she kept her move a secret, one resident spotted her carrying boxes in the hallway and asked her, “Are you just going to leave us like that?” It was the same question she had been asking herself for months.
In a handwritten letter Varahn gave to Bronxwood’s administrators before she left, she expressed her desire to remain president from afar until it was safe to hold an election. She had planned to retire there, the letter said, yet it was impossible to do so under the current circumstances. She expected Mr. Stern, or at least his secretary, to call to offer his regrets, but she never got a response. It made her feel as though nothing she had done at Bronxwood mattered — as though she had never lived there at all.
Millions of Americans are in danger of losing their homes when federal and local limits on evictions expire at the end of the year, a growing body of research shows.
A report issued this month from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and the University of Arizona estimates that 6.7 million households could be evicted in the coming months. That amounts to 19 million people potentially losing their homes, rivaling the dislocation that foreclosures caused after the subprime housing bust.
Apart from being a humanitarian disaster, the crisis threatens to exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic, according to a forthcoming study in the Journal of Urban Health.
“Our concern is we’re going to see a huge increase in evictions after the CDC moratorium is lifted,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president of research at the NLIHC and a co-author of the report.
The number of Americans struggling to pay rent has steadily risen since this summer, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. In the latest survey, from early November, 11.6 million people indicated they wouldn’t be able to pay the rent or mortgage next month.
Meanwhile, some renters who are still paying rent are relying on “unsustainable” income to make ends meet. Among those who report trouble making rent, “More than half are borrowing from family and friends to meet their spending needs, one-third are using credit cards, and one-third are spending down savings,” the NLIHC report found.
Approaching a “payment cliff”
In early September, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention barred evictions through year-end, describing the move as a public health measure to reduce spread of the coronavirus. The CDC order protects renters earning less than $99,000 if they have lost income during the pandemic and are likely to become homeless if they’re evicted.
Many states and cities also imposed renter protections during the spring and summer, and others established rental assistance programs to help tenants make ends meet. However, both types of programs are quickly expiring.
Once the CDC moratorium expires,Aurand said, “We expect to see a jump in [eviction] filings, and we know that even now, filings are already occurring. Come January, sadly, for a number of tenants, the next step is the landlord will evict them.”
The situation could reach crisis levels in the new year. With Congress yet to pass another coronavirus relief package, about 12 million Americans are set to lose their unemployment benefits the day after Christmas, a sharp fall in income that would make it harder for many people to pay rent. An abrupt cutoff would slash income by about $19 billion per month, Nancy Vanden Houten, lead economist at Oxford Economics, said in a research note.
Although the Trump Administration has restricted evictions for most households through the end of the year, it did not relieve renters of the need to pay rent. That means many renters may face a “payment cliff” at year’s end, when they must pay several months’ worth of back rent or face eviction.
“If renters are required to quickly repay past due rent or face eviction, the hardship will fall predominantly on lower-income families who have already been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus crisis,” Vanden Houten wrote.
Said Aurand, “If you were a low-income renter before the pandemic and you were hit financially, even if your income starts to recover, you’re going to have a very hard time paying back that rental debt.”
“What we really need is rental assistance,” he noted. “The underlying problem is renters struggling to pay their rent because we’re in an economic crisis, and the moratorium doesn’t address that.”
Academics have also pushed for direct aid to renters and homeowners, citing the extreme economic fallout from the coronavirus and related shutdowns. In Los Angeles, where 1 in 5 renters were late on rent at some point this summer, residents are facing “an income crisis layered atop of a housing crisis,” researchers at the University of California – Los Angeles have said.
“Delivering assistance to renters now can not just stave off looming evictions, but also prevent quieter and longer-term problems that are no less serious, such as renters struggling to pay back credit card or other debt, struggling to manage a repayment plan, or emerging from the pandemic with little savings left,” they wrote in August report. “Renter assistance can also help the smaller landlords who are disproportionately seeing tenants unable to pay.”
A groundswell of evictions would cause enormous financial hardship. Losing a home is one of the most traumatic events a family can experience, with research showing that people who have experienced eviction are more likely to lose their jobs, fall ill or suffer from mental-health consequences. Children whose families are evicted are more likely to drop out of school, while evictions also contribute to the spread of COVID-19, according to a forthcoming study from UCLA viewed by “60 Minutes.“
“We’ve got a country that’s about to witness evictions like they’ve never witnessed before,” Laura Tucker, a social worker for Florida’s Hillsborough County School District, told “60 Minutes.”
“An eviction can impact a family’s ability to re-house for more than 10 years,” she said.
For that reason, housing and public health experts have said that rental aid now
“Now is the time for action to provide emergency rental assistance. A failure to do so will result in millions of renters spiraling deeper into debt and housing poverty, while public costs and public health risks of eviction-related homelessness increase,” the NLIHC report says. “These outcomes are preventable.”
People who refuse a vaccine for COVID-19 could find normal life curtailed as restaurants, bars, cinemas and sports venues could block entry to those who don’t have proof they are inoculated, Britain’s new vaccine minister said on Monday.
Several major COVID-19 vaccines have been announced in recent weeks, raising hopes that the world could soon return to some semblance of normality after the coronavirus killed 1.46 million people and wiped out a chunk of the global economy.
The British minister responsible for the vaccine rollout, Nadhim Zahawi, said getting vaccinated should be voluntary but that Google, Facebook and Twitter should do more to fact-check opposing views of vaccines.
Asked by the BBC if there would be an immunity passport, Zahawi said a person’s COVID-19 vaccine status might be included in a phone app that would inform local doctors of a person’s status.
“But also I think you’d probably find that restaurants and bars and cinemas and other venues, sports venues, will probably also use that system as they’ve done with the app,” Zahawi told the BBC.
“The sort of pressure will come both ways: from service providers – who will say ‘look, demonstrate to us that you have been vaccinated’ – but also we will make the technology as easy and accessible as possible.”
Health authorities in many countries have become increasingly concerned in recent years by the growth of anti-vaccine groups, which are especially active on social media.
Asked if it would become virtually impossible to do anything without the vaccine, Zahawi said: “I think people have to make a decision but I think you’ll probably find many service providers will want to engage in this in the way they did with the app.”
Zahawi declined to give any specific date on a vaccine rollout as none have yet been approved for public use.
The message, he said, should be that a vaccine is good for the community and the country.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Florida has blocked, obscured, delayed, and at times hidden the COVID-19 data used in making big decisions such as reopening schools and businesses.
And with scientists warning Thanksgiving gatherings could cause an explosion of infections, the shortcomings in the state’s viral reporting have yet to be fixed.
While the state has put out an enormous amount of information, some of its actions have raised concerns among researchers that state officials are being less than transparent.
It started even before the pandemic became a daily concern for millions of residents. Nearly 175 patients tested positive for the disease in January and February, evidence the Florida Department of Health collected but never acknowledged or explained. The state fired its nationally praised chief data manager, she says in a whistleblower lawsuit, after she refused to manipulate data to support premature reopening. The state said she was fired for not following orders.
The health department used to publish coronavirus statistics twice a day before changing to once a day, consistently meeting an 11 a.m. daily deadline for releasing new information that scientists, the media and the public could use to follow the pandemic’s latest twists.
But in the past month the department has routinely and inexplicably failed to meet its own deadline by as much as six hours. On one day in October, it published no update at all.
News outlets were forced to sue the state before it would publish information identifying the number of infections and deaths at individual nursing homes.
Throughout it all, the state has kept up with the rapidly spreading virus by publishing daily updates of the numbers of cases, deaths and hospitalizations.
“Florida makes a lot of data available that is a lot of use in tracking the pandemic,” University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said. “They’re one of the only states, if not the only state, that releases daily case line data (showing age, sex and county for each infected person).”
Dr. Terry Adirim, chairwoman of Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Integrated Biomedical Science, agreed, to a point.
“The good side is they do have daily spreadsheets,” Adirim said. “However, it’s the data that they want to put out.”
The state leaves out crucial information that could help the public better understand who the virus is hurting and where it is spreading, Adirim said.
The department, under state Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, oversees 53? health agencies covering Florida’s 67 counties, such as the one in Palm Beach County headed by Dr. Alina Alonso.
Rivkees was appointed in April 2019. He reports to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has supported President Donald Trump’s approach to fighting the coronavirus and pressured local officials to reopen schools and businesses despite a series of spikes indicating rapid spread of the disease.
At several points, the DeSantis administration muzzled local health directors, such as when it told them not to advise school boards on reopening campuses.
DOH Knew Virus Here Since January
The health department’s own coronavirus reports indicated that the pathogen had been infecting Floridians since January, yet health officials never informed the public about it and they did not publicly acknowledge it even after The Palm Beach Post first reported it in May.
In fact, the night before The Post broke the story, the department inexplicably removed from public view the state’s dataset that provided the evidence. Mixed among listings of thousands of cases was evidence that up to 171 people ages 4 to 91 had tested positive for COVID-19 in the months before officials announced in March the disease’s presence in the state.
Were the media reports on the meaning of those 171 cases in error? The state has never said.
No Testing Stats Initially
When positive tests were finally acknowledged in March, all tests had to be confirmed by federal health officials. But Florida health officials refused to even acknowledge how many people in each county had been tested.
State health officials and DeSantis claimed they had to withhold the information to protect patient privacy, but they provided no evidence that stating the number of people tested would reveal personal information.
At the same time, the director of the Hillsborough County branch of the state health department publicly revealed that information to Hillsborough County commissioners.
And during March the state published on a website that wasn’t promoted to the public the ages and genders of those who had been confirmed to be carrying the disease, along with the counties where they claimed residence.
Firing Coronavirus Data Chief
In May, with the media asking about data that revealed the earlier onset of the disease, internal emails show that a department manager ordered the state’s coronavirus data chief to yank the information off the web, even though it had been online for months.
A health department tech supervisor told data manager Rebekah Jones on May 5 to take down the dataset. Jones replied in an email that was the “wrong call,” but complied, only to be ordered an hour later to put it back.
That day, she emailed reporters and researchers following a listserv she created, saying she had been removed from handling coronavirus data because she refused to manipulate datasets to justify DeSantis’ push to begin reopening businesses and public places.
Two weeks later, the health department fired Jones, who in March had created and maintained Florida’s one-stop coronavirus dashboard, which had been viewed by millions of people, and had been praised nationally, including by White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx.
The dashboard allows viewers to explore the total number of coronavirus cases, deaths, tests and other information statewide and by county and across age groups and genders.
DeSantis claimed on May 21 that Jones wanted to upload bad coronavirus data to the state’s website. To further attempt to discredit her, he brought up stalking charges made against her by an ex-lover, stemming from a blog post she wrote, that led to two misdemeanor charges.
Using her technical know-how, Jones launched a competing COVID-19 dashboard website, FloridaCOVIDAction.com in early June. After national media covered Jones’ firing and website launch, people donated more than $200,000 to her through GoFundMe to help pay her bills and maintain the website.
People view her site more than 1 million times a day, she said. The website features the same type of data the state’s dashboard displays, but also includes information not present on the state’s site such as a listing of testing sites and their contact information.
Jones also helped launch TheCOVIDMonitor.com to collect reports of infections in schools across the country.
Jones filed a whistleblower complaint against the state in July, accusing managers of retaliating against her for refusing to change the data to make the coronavirus situation look better.
“The Florida Department of Health needs a data auditor not affiliated with the governor’s office because they cannot be trusted,” Jones said Friday.
Florida Hides Death Details
When coronavirus kills someone, their county’s medical examiner’s office logs their name, age, ethnicity and other information, and sends it to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
During March and April, the department refused requests to release that information to the public, even though medical examiners in Florida always have made it public under state law. Many county medical examiners, acknowledging the role that public information can play in combating a pandemic, released the information without dispute.
But it took legal pressure from news outlets, including The Post, before FDLE agreed to release the records it collected from local medical examiners.
When FDLE finally published the document on May 6, it blacked out or excluded crucial information such as each victim’s name or cause of death.
But FDLE’s attempt to obscure some of that information failed when, upon closer examination, the seemingly redacted details could in fact be read by common computer software.
Outlets such as Gannett, which owns The Post, and The New York Times, extracted the data invisible to the naked eye and reported in detail what the state redacted, such as the details on how each patient died.
Reluctantly Revealing Elder Care Deaths, Hospitalizations
It took a lawsuit against the state filed by the Miami Herald, joined by The Post and other news outlets, before the health department began publishing the names of long-term care facilities with the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths.
The publication provided the only official source for family members to find out how many people had died of COVID-19 at the long-term care facility housing their loved ones.
While the state agreed to publish the information weekly, it has failed to publish several times and as of Nov. 24 had not updated the information since Nov. 6.
It took more pressure from Florida news outlets to pry from the state government the number of beds in each hospital being occupied by coronavirus patients, a key indicator of the disease’s spread, DeSantis said.
That was one issue where USF’s Salemi publicly criticized Florida.
“They were one of the last three states to release that information,” he said. “That to me is a problem because it is a key indicator.”
Confusion Over Positivity Rate
One metric DeSantis touted to justify his decision in May to begin reopening Florida’s economy was the so-called positivity rate, which is the share of tests reported each day with positive results.
But Florida’s daily figures contrasted sharply with calculations made by Johns Hopkins University, prompting a South Florida Sun-Sentinel examination that showed Florida’s methodology underestimated the positivity rate.
The state counts people who have tested positive only once, but counts every negative test a person receives until they test positive, so that there are many more negative tests for every positive one.
John Hopkins University, on the other hand, calculated Florida’s positivity rate by comparing the number of people testing positive with the total number of people who got tested for the first time.
By John Hopkins’ measure, between 10 and 11 percent of Florida’s tests in October came up positive, compared to the state’s reported rate of between 4 and 5 percent.
Health experts such as those at the World Health Organization have said a state’s positivity rate should stay below 5 percent for 14 days straight before it considers the virus under control and go forward with reopening public places and businesses. It’s also an important measure for travelers, who may be required to quarantine if they enter a state with a high positivity rate.
Withholding Detail on Race, Ethnicity
The Post reported in June that the share of tests taken by Black and Hispanic people and in majority minority ZIP codes were twice as likely to come back positive compared to tests conducted on white people and in majority white ZIP codes.
That was based on a Post analysis of internal state data the health department will not share with the public.
The state publishes bar charts showing general racial breakdowns but not for each infected person.
If it wanted to, Florida’s health department could publish detailed data that would shed light on the infection rates among each race and ethnicity or each age group, as well as which neighborhoods are seeing high rates of contagion.
Researchers have been trying to obtain this data but “the state won’t release the data without (making us) undergo an arduous data use agreement application process with no guarantee of release of the data,” Adirim said. Researchers must read and sign a 26-page, nearly 5,700-word agreement before getting a chance at seeing the raw data.
While Florida publishes the ages, genders and counties of residence for each infected person, “there’s no identification for race or ethnicity, no ZIP code or city of the residence of the patient,” Adirim said. “No line item count of negative test data so it’s hard to do your own calculation of test positivity.”
While Florida doesn’t explain its reasoning, one fear of releasing such information is the risk of identifying patients, particularly in tiny, non-diverse counties.
Confusion Over Lab Results
Florida’s daily report shows how many positive results come from each laboratory statewide. Except when it doesn’t.
The report has shown for months that 100 percent of COVID-19 tests conducted by some labs have come back positive despite those labs saying that shouldn’t be the case.
While the department reported in July that all 410 results from a Lee County lab were positive, a lab spokesman told The Post the lab had conducted roughly 30,000 tests. Other labs expressed the same confusion when informed of the state’s reporting.
The state health department said it would work with labs to fix the error. But even as recently as Tuesday, the state’s daily report showed positive result rates of 100 percent or just under it from some labs, comprising hundreds of tests.
Mistakenly Revealing School Infections
As DeSantis pushed in August for reopening schools and universities for students to attend in-person classes, Florida’s health department published a report showing hundreds of infections could be traced back to schools, before pulling that report from public view.
The health department claimed it published that data by mistake, the Miami Herald reported.
The report showed that COVID-19 had infected nearly 900 students and staffers.
The state resumed school infection reporting in September.
A similar publication of cases at day-care centers appeared online briefly in August only to come down permanently.
After shifting in late April to updating the public just once a day at 11 a.m. instead of twice daily, the state met that deadline on most days until it started to falter in October. Pandemic followers could rely on the predictability.
On Oct. 10, the state published no data at all, not informing the public of a problem until 5 p.m.
The state blamed a private lab for the failure but the next day retracted its statement after the private lab disputed the state’s explanation. No further explanation has been offered.
On Oct. 21, the report came out six hours late.
Since Nov. 3, the 11 a.m. deadline has never been met. Now, late afternoon releases have become the norm.
“They have gotten more sloppy and they have really dragged their feet,” Adirim, the FAU scientist, said.
No spokesperson for the health department has answered questions from The Post to explain the lengthy delays. Alberto Moscoso, the spokesman throughout the pandemic, departed without explanation Nov. 6.
The state’s tardiness can trip up researchers trying to track the pandemic in Florida, Adirim said, because if one misses a late-day update, the department could overwrite it with another update the next morning, eliminating critical information and damaging scientists’ analysis.
Hired Sports Blogger to Analyze Data
As if to show disregard for concerns raised by scientists, the DeSantis administration brought in a new data analyst who bragged online that he is no expert and doesn’t need to be.
Kyle Lamb, an Uber driver and sports blogger, sees his lack of experience as a plus.
“Fact is, I’m not an ‘expert’,” Lamb wrote on a website for a subscribers-only podcast he hosts about the coronavirus. “I also don’t need to be. Experts don’t have all the answers, and we’ve learned that the hard way throughout the entire duration of the global pandemic.”
Much of his coronavirus writings can be found on Twitter, where he has said masks and mandatory quarantines don’t stop the virus’ spread, and that hydroxychloroquine, a drug touted by President Donald Trump but rejected by medical researchers, treats it successfully.
While DeSantis says lockdowns aren’t effective in stopping the spread and refuses to enact a statewide mask mandate, scientists point out that quarantines and masks are extremely effective.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said hydroxychloroquine is unlikely to help and poses greater risk to patients than any potential benefits.
Coronavirus researchers have called Lamb’s views “laughable,” and fellow sports bloggers have said he tends to act like he knows much about a subject in which he knows little, the Miami Herald reported.
DeSantis has yet to explain how and why Lamb was hired, nor has his office released Lamb’s application for the $40,000-a-year job. “We generally do not comment on such entry level hirings,” DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo said Tuesday by email.
It could be worse.
Texas health department workers have to manually enter data they read from paper faxes into the state’s coronavirus tracking system, The Texas Tribune has reported. And unlike Florida, Texas doesn’t require local health officials to report viral data to the state in a uniform way that would make it easier and faster to process and report.
It could be better.
In Wisconsin, health officials report the number of cases and deaths down to the neighborhood level. They also plainly report racial and ethnic disparities, which show the disease hits Hispanic residents hardest.
Still, Salemi worries that Florida’s lack of answers can undermine residents’ faith.
“My whole thing is the communication, the transparency,” Salemi said. “Just let us know what’s going on. That can stop people from assuming the worst. Even if you make a big error people are a lot more forgiving, whereas if the only time you’re communicating is when bad things happen … people start to wonder.”
Dressed in blue scrubs and carrying a stethoscope around her neck, an oncology nurse in Salem, Ore., looked to the Grinch as inspiration while suggesting that she ignored coronavirus guidelines outside of work.
In a TikTok video posted Friday, she lip-dubbed a scene from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to get her point across to her unaware colleagues: She does not wear a mask in public when she’s not working at Salem Hospital.
“When my co-workers find out I still travel, don’t wear a mask when I’m out and let my kids have play dates,” the nurse wrote in a caption accompanying the video, which has since been deleted.
Following swift online backlash from critics, her employer, Salem Health, announced Saturday that the nurse had been placed on administrative leave. In a statement, the hospital said the nurse, who has not been publicly identified by her employer, “displayed cavalier disregard for the seriousness of this pandemic and her indifference towards physical distancing and masking out of work.”
“We also want to assure you that this one careless statement does not reflect the position of Salem Health or the hardworking and dedicated caregivers who work here,” said the hospital, adding that an investigation is underway.
Salem Health did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment as of early Monday.
The nurse’s video offers a startling and rare glimpse of a front-line health-care worker blatantly playing down a virus that has killed at least 266,000 Americans. It also has been seen in some coronavirus patients, some on their deathbeds, who still refuse to believe the pandemic is real.
The incident comes at a time when Oregon has continued to see a spike in new coronavirus cases and virus-related hospitalizations. Just last week, the state’s daily reported deaths and hospitalizations rose by 33.3 and 24.2 percent respectively, according to The Post’s coronavirus tracker. At least 74,120 Oregonians have been infected with the virus since late February; 905 of them have died.
The clip posted to TikTok on Friday shows the nurse mocking the health guidelines while using audio from a scene in which the Grinch reveals his true identity to Cindy Lou Who.
Although the original video was removed, TikTok users have shared a “duet” video posted by another user critical of the nurse, which had more than 274,000 reactions as of early Monday.
Soon after she posted the clip, hundreds took to social media and the hospital’s Facebook page to report the nurse’s video and demand an official response from her employer. Some requested that the nurse be removed from her position and that her license be revoked.
Hospital officials told the Salem Statesman Journal that the investigation is aiming to figure out which other staff members and patients have come in contact with the nurse, who works in the oncology department.
But for some, the hospital’s apologies and actions were not enough.
“The video supplied should be evidence enough,” one Facebook user commented. “She needs to be FIRED. Not on PAID leave. As someone fighting cancer, I can only imagine how her patients feel after seeing this news.”
The hospital thanked those who alerted them of the incident, emphasizing that its staff, patients and visitors must adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“These policies are strictly enforced among staff from the moment they leave their cars at work to the moment they start driving home,” hospital officials told the Statesman Journal.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D) on Sunday said mitigation efforts such as mask mandates have been effective in reducing coronavirus rates in the city, calling such efforts an alternative to mass shutdowns.
“Detroit actually has the lowest infection rate in the state of Michigan,” Duggan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And it’s because behavior changed. In March and April, Michigan was hammered along with New York, and we had within a few weeks, a thousand people hospitalized and 50 of our neighbors dying every day.”
In contrast, he said, the city currently had about 200 patients hospitalized and one or two deaths per day.
“It’s still too high, but the commitment to the testing, the commitment to the masks, has shown that you can dramatically drop the infection rate,” Duggan added.
The mayor noted that the city’s infection rate is about half of those of its surrounding suburbs.
“If you make a commitment to the masks, we don’t have to shut the economy down,” he said.
Asked how the city’s mask mandate and other measures had affected the spread of the virus, Duggan responded that “assembly lines are in our DNA” and pointed to the city’s drive-through testing apparatus.
Duggan went on to say that frontline workers such as firefighters, hospital workers and emergency medical technicians would likely be the first people in the city to receive a coronavirus vaccine, followed by the elderly.
“Occupation is going to go first…then people over the age over 65,” he said. “That’s the way they’re talking about it, I will be really glad when [President-elect] Joe Biden takes control of this and we get clear direction, but we will follow whatever protocols are there.”