City Hall Withheld Data on COVID Neighborhood Deaths During New York’s Pandemic Peak

As COVID-19 ravaged New York City in March 2020, officials from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene began to plot where the virus was hitting hardest in the five boroughs.

A death map, broken down by zip code, was ready to go online in the first week of April as New York neared its expected death peak, according to people familiar with the case and emails reviewed by THE CITY.

“I think the reality of this scenario is that we have to be transparent at the highest level,” wrote a senior health department physician in an April 5, 2020 email, two days before the coronavirus deaths reach their peak.

But city hall did not approve the release of district-level death data until May 18. New York City recorded 12,923 confirmed deaths and 3,399 probable deaths from the coronavirus between April 5 and May 18, 2020.

The emails provide a window into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handling of pandemic information during the poignant first weeks of the COVID crisis – a glimpse revealed at a time his health ministry again demands trust New Yorkers as new variants, including Omicron, broadcast.

On Monday, the mayor announced a broad vaccination mandate for all private sector employees – calling the move a “preventive strike” against another possible wave of infections.

“We can talk about all the other tools and we will, but vaccination is the central weapon in this war on COVID,” he said.

“It’s the one thing that has worked every time at a strategic level. This is the reason New York is back in so many ways.

Nearly 35,000 New Yorkers have died from COVID-19 since the first death was confirmed in early March 2020.

Silent transparency call

When New York City faced its first wave of COVID that spring, longtime city health workers believed it was vital to post information about where people were dying – even with warnings of imperfect data and a rapidly changing situation, according to people familiar with the matter and to emails reviewed by THE CITY.

But the information languished after being approved by the health service, which could not publish anything without the consent of the town hall, people familiar with the matter said.

City hall officials, however, blamed the delay in releasing granular death data to a split within the health department, where, they said, some officials argued that postcode-level maps could create stigma in hard-hit communities and create false sense. security in other neighborhoods.

At this point, the virus was increasing: Hundreds of New Yorkers were dying every day from COVID-19, with 815 people dying on April 7 – the deadliest day for the city in the 21 months of the pandemic so far .

Using borough-level death data then available, LA VILLE revealed on April 3, 2020 that Bronx residents were dying at a rate double that of the city, prompting calls for help and to targeted resources. When the city’s first death map was finally released on May 18, 2020, it showed COVID has largely hit poor neighborhoods the hardest.

Dr Oxiris Barbot, Commissioner of the Ministry of Health and Mental Hygiene at the time, speaks during a press conference at city hall on the coronavirus, March 12, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY

Meanwhile, Dr Oxiris Barbot, then health commissioner, was fighting behind the scenes with de Blasio over the city’s response to the unprecedented health crisis. De Blasio also frequently clashed with the then governor. Andrew Cuomo.

Danielle Filson, spokesperson for de Blasio, responded to THE CITY’s demands with a statement:

“City Hall quickly provided critical information to New Yorkers with precision and integrity,” she said. “We have led the nation in our response to the pandemic – hosting daily press conferences while building a testing and vaccination infrastructure that kept New York City safe. “

Michael Lanza, spokesperson for the city’s health department, said keeping New Yorkers informed has proven to be a critical part of the agency’s response to the pandemic.

“The first days of the pandemic posed unprecedented challenges to our city and the health department and sister agencies responded as quickly as possible to release accurate and up-to-date guidelines and data,” he said. written in a press release.

“Great hallelujahs”

But health department staff said they were excluded from many conversations as the city launched its COVID response last year. And when it came to posting information – from health alerts to data on who got sick and where – everything had to be approved by de Blasio’s office.

“We were sending data and it would take a long time to see the light of day,” said a former employee of the Department of Health. “There were big hallelujahs every time something went live. “

In early April 2020, Dr Demetre Daskalakis, then Deputy Commissioner in the Division of Disease Control, emailed other staff in the health service to request a death card.

“I think the reality of this scenario is that we have to be transparent at the highest level,” he wrote on April 5 to other staff in the health department. The health ministry sent the map and other data to the town hall for final approval.

Dr Demetre Daskalakis

Dr Demetre Daskalakis
Mike Wren / New York State Department of Health

Emails sent out later in the month showed that the post was still awaiting city hall approval. During his televised press conferences, journalists repeatedly insisted on the mayor for the geographical distribution of the deaths.

“On postal code deaths, you absolutely have to get it out, I want to do it,” he said when asked at a press conference on May 12.

“Again, a very sad subject, but we will always be transparent.”

Zipcode-level data was released six days later, showing the pandemic’s disparate effect across New York City neighborhoods – devastating some sections while sparing others.

The highest death rate initially was in the zip code that includes the Starrett City real estate development in Brooklyn, an area that had 76 deaths at this point – a death rate of 612 people per 100,000, the data shows. .

Other neighborhoods, including the Financial District and Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, had not recorded any COVID-related deaths at the time.

The health department was initially unable to provide the necessary context on the deaths, including “probable deaths” – victims who never tested positive for COVID but who had symptoms consistent with the virus, city hall officials said.

However, a draft April 13 Health Ministry press release that was never released showed a clear explanation for “probable deaths.”

“Behind every death hides a friend, a family member, a loved one. We are working to ensure that every New Yorker who dies from COVID-19 is counted, ”Barbot said in the scrapped press release, which was reviewed by THE CITY.

Bureaucratic traffic jams

Daskalakis, who left the health department last year, did not respond to a request for comment. Barbot, who left last year after several reports of his feuds with the mayor, also did not respond to a request for comment.

She has publicly criticized de Blasio, telling a team of BBC documentaries last year that the mayor’s delays at the onset of the pandemic – especially with the order for closures across the city – “have cost thousands of dollars. lives ”. But her critics said she had not made the full threat of the virus known and they blamed her leadership style.

The Commissioner of the Ministry of Health, Dr Oxiris Barbot, talks about the spread of the coronavirus.

Dr Oxiris Barbot, Commissioner of the Ministry of Health at the time, speaks about the spread of the coronavirus under the gaze of Mayor Bill de Blasio, March 2, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg // THE CITY

Speaking recently in a podcast about his days at the start of the pandemic, Barbot said it was “a master class for making decisions with imperfect data.”

“One of the challenges that was certainly there from the start was to communicate this to the public in a way that doesn’t scare people off,” she said.

Barbot added, “One of the things I was very mindful of was being transparent with New Yorkers about what we knew, what we didn’t know, and sharing with them as Information became available, as new data points became known, that we would adjust our strategy to respond to this new reality.

This new reality often changed – and required open communication that sometimes ran into bureaucratic deadlocks, former health ministry officials said.

Delayed doctor’s opinion

In mid-April 2020, health ministry officials drafted an advisory for patients on how they could get medical treatment for an illness unrelated to COVID as the city mired in lockdown , according to emails shared with THE CITY.

The notice – which was reportedly posted online and sent to a network of health professionals in New York City – advised doctors how to tell patients with severe symptoms of an illness unrelated to COVID to seek medical attention promptly. The advisory also called on New Yorkers to donate blood, if they could.

But the notice was only released on May 29, shocking health ministry officials who wanted to provide immediate advice to doctors and other health care providers, emails showed.

Health officials believed at the time that the pandemic would negatively impact other sick patients who were afraid to seek medical care outside or were unable to due to the dangers of the virus.

Officials were right: The excessive number of deaths in the city, including deaths linked to the pandemic, increased by nearly 35,000 in the year ending last June, compared to the previous fiscal year.

A city hall official said the notice was released after review and approval from state-level stakeholders – highlighting a frequent problem during the pandemic as the city faces an often combative Cuomo administration, the manager said.

“We continue to prioritize transparency and publish more data than any other locality,” Filson said in a statement.

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