Mayor Bill de Blasio at a media availability on June 10, 2021, discussed his most preferred pizza toppings as the City of New York was about to implement new, opaque reporting for weekly Coronavirus variant sequencing studies. Increasingly, the mayor is mastering "performative" media availabilities to distract a jaded City Hall press corps. NYC Mayor's Office (YouTube/Fair Use)

EDITORIAL : Mayor Bill de Blasio is obfuscating COVID-19 sequencing studies, masking the growth of the Delta variant, and the consequences could be deadly.

After Progress New York raised questions about the weekly variant sequencing studies, the de Blasio administration revamped the data — and made it more opaque. The only solution now is the formation of an independent, external panel of scientists to provide oversight.

By The Editor

Mayor Bill de Blasio (WFP-New York City) “promised to increase transparency at New York City Hall,” a report moved by the Wall Street Journal reminded us in 2016. By that time then, nearly three years into the de Blasio administration, the mayor had already begun to shield police discipline records from public release, reduced his availability to the media, failed to disclose lobbyist meetings, and had to be sued to release e-mails with his “Agents of the City.” A notorious micro-manager, Mayor de Blasio began very early to review open records requests for political considerations. Even now, many requests for the release of Government records are never honoured, and, instead, are routinely extended with no basis in law. Because the journalism industry faces dire financial hardship, expensive litigation over open records is becoming scarce. Against this backdrop, the Coronavirus pandemic has tested the Government’s ability to openly disclose the true impact of the most devastating public health crisis to afflict the globe since the 1918 influenza pandemic. To no one’s surprise, Mayor de Blasio has failed to satisfy the public’s need to know about the risks to public health from COVID-19.

A City Hall press corps that had been countenancing the routine, unlawful violations against Government transparency was unable to keep Mayor de Blasio in check over the initial, Coronavirus pandemic response. After a mere, few weeks into the pandemic, the New Yorker magazine was forced to wade into City Hall dreck to juxtapose the pandemic response from New York Government executives against that from Washington State Government executives, revealing that Seattle’s initial pandemic response was rooted in science, whereas New York’s was not. Mayor de Blasio’s failings, an ongoing and continuing violation of our right to know what the Government is doing in our name, are only getting worse.

When science and justice are interrupted by business and politics, you get the disaster that has been the de Blasio administration.

Progress New York has reported that the latest emblem of Mayor de Blasio’s violation of Government transparency has been information about his health ministry’s weekly variant sequencing studies. Whilst the United Kingdom was confronting a dangerous, new Coronavirus strain first detected in India and now referred to as the Delta variant, New York’s weekly variant sequencing studies were improbably making no detection of the strain from April into May, despite New York once being the global epicenter of the pandemic. The same mayor, who had fired his fearless health minister a few months into the Coronavirus pandemic, had essentially managed to suspend the scientific method in New York. There was going to be no robust, intellectual inquiry on Mayor de Blasio’s watch.

What we know now about the Delta variant is extremely worrisome. It ravaged India — and has moved on. It now accounts for over 90 per cent. of all new cases of Coronavirus in the U.K., where it is estimated to be approx. 60 per cent. more transmissible than the Alpha variant that it replaced as the most dominant, according to an update issued by Public Health England and noted widely on social media. A more fuller report showed that 12 of 42 reported deaths, or approx. 29 per cent., occurred in patients who were at least 14 days past full-vaccination. As Government transparency advocate @perdidostschool informed Progress New York, “Breakthrough cases are ending in death.” Breakthrough cases refer to the positive cases of COVID-19 in vaccinated individuals, a situation also referred to as vaccine escape. The largest number of cases were observed in the age-bracket 10-19, according the same, fuller report. The dire turn of events in the U.K. appears to be of no concern to Mayor de Blasio.

Against obstacles of the de Blasio administration’s own making, the first time that the Delta variant was reported in New York City was in a retroactive disclosure in an overdue study. During this time, Mayor de Blasio has been reportedly focused on reopening the economy to activities that had been restricted since last year. His new-found drive to support new business activity followed searing criticism by the City’s Big Business honchos that he wasn’t doing enough to address deteriorating conditions that were hampering business activity. Now, business appeared to be joining politics to make sure that science was not driving the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Our participatory form of Government demands information be public, so that the public can participate as informed citizens — and to allow for public oversight of the Government.

After Progress New York applied an analytical scrutiny to the questionable weekly variant sequencing studies, raising new questions about the reliability of the studies, the de Blasio’s administration’s response was to ditch the weekly reports and to summarise the study findings in charts that appear to confirm a key assertion made by an expert statistician in our reporting, namely, that the weekly variant sequencing studies were not tantamount to a real form of variant surveillance ; instead, the de Blasio administration was merely engaged in mandatory reporting. As a result, critics of the mayor and advocates for Government transparency have seized upon the shortcomings in the study as evidence that public remained vulnerable to new Coronavirus strains. For example, the new weekly variant sequencing studies appear to be reported with a forethought in obfuscation. Indeed, the first table weighs down the prevalence of variants with three weeks of trailing data, in an act that appears to downplay the current spread of variants. This is no way to report the surveillance of new, emerging variants of concern. And despite the high rate of transmissibility observed in the U.K. for the Delta variant, New York’s sequencing numbers somehow don’t mirror the Delta variant’s growth rate experienced across the pond.

There is no administrative relief to Mayor de Blasio’s violations of Government transparency about public health data during a pandemic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) is currently undergoing a reported inquiry by Brooklyn Federal prosecutors into how he allegedly obstructed the release of Coronavirus-related Government information, but Federal prosecutors have yet to hold the governor to account for a series of corruption and misconduct scandals. The respective office of Manhattan Federal prosecutors, who could claim jurisdiction to review Mayor de Blasio’s alleged obstruction of the release of Coronavirus-related Government information, don’t appear interested in restoring public confidence in Government transparency, based on at least some communication with Progress New York. Consequently, the top Federal prosecutor in Manhattan, U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss, should be jointly held to account for any harm that comes to the public as a result of Mayor de Blasio’s violations of Government transparency.

One month before the New Yorker waded into City Hall machinations, the Seattle Times published an editorial, predicting the doubt that would be created in the public’s mind without full Government transparency about the pandemic. “Without transparency in deliberation and decision-making, rumor and conspiracy theories proliferate just as sure as the virus, infecting communities with misinformation and breeding mistrust.” Misinformation and conspiracy theories are already making it difficult for risk-averse communities to trust vaccines that were waived of years-long studies that are typically required before Federal approval. But the politicisation of public health data by the Government makes it much more harder for many, including Progress New York, to exhibit faith in the Government that has already been revealed to be inept, at best, and corrupt, at worst.

In his first, full-day in office, President Barack Obama (D) issued a memorandum to Federal Agency heads, providing guidance about the holding standard for Government transparency, claiming, in relevant part, that a presumption of disclosure of records should exist, even if the release of records would cast doubts on Government officials. “The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears,” President Obama wrote. Whilst President Obama was offering guidance for a Federal standard for the disclosure of Government information, the standard for Government transparency should be the same for all levels of Government. Yet, Mayor de Blasio has never met that standard.

As noted by Progress New York, doctors and other scientific professionals in the U.K. formed Independent SAGE, a collective to offer the Government and the public medical and scientific information and analysis about the Coronavirus pandemic without the taint of politics. What we need in New York is a similar panel. Progress New York urges the medical and scientific communities to organise a group to aggressively exercise immediate public oversight of the Government’s data and records about the Coronavirus pandemic, for starters.

It’s a matter of life and death.

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