The Government can't engage in a strictly open-business agenda during the Coronavirus pandemic without acting in lockstep with all Government Agencies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is amongst them. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Public Domain)

After New York City missed the Omicron outbreak, the Government’s lockstep acts to deny the public release of pandemic data become clear

As a new spike of COVID-19 cases began ripping through Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City health officials were denying the outbreak was being driven by the Omicron variant.


Outgoing New York City Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Greenpoint) admitted Thursday evening in a heated social media exchange with a top critic of the Government’s pandemic response that New York City health officials did not believe that the Omicron variant was responsible for a spike in COVID-19 cases in his Council District at the end of November.

“I met w someone at @nycHealthy about the high level of cases in Gpoint on 11/30. They felt strongly that increase was *not* omicron,” Councilmember Levin wrote in a message posted to the Twitter social media platform. The message used abbreviations, social media handles, and indications of emphasis typical of social media posts on Twitter.

In the same Twitter exchange, Councilmember Levin claimed that he had asked New York City health officials about wastewater sample testing. “I asked if they IDed any omicron in wastewater on 11/30. They said no,” he wrote in a separate post.

Councilmember Levin’s admissions came as New York City Government has yet to account for why it missed the uncontrolled outbreak of the Omicron variant. On Monday, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the Omicron variant was responsible for 92 per cent. of COVID-19 cases in the region of the U.S. that included New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, the City of New York was still reporting a 1% Omicron surveillance rate. The massive pandemic surveillance monitoring failure by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (WFP-New York City) did not go unnoticed, as Sharon Otterman, a notable reporter for the New York Times, shed light on the Government’s neglect on social media.

Critics of the Government’s pandemic response have accused the Government of having violated transparency laws by withholding pandemic data that would better inform a responsible public health response, particularly in the face of successive outbreaks of variants described as capable of vaccine escape. Despite this criticism, Councilmember Levin stopped short of addressing the issue of New York City missing the Omicron outbreak, but he promised to share whatever data the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would release to him.

The lack of transparency around New York City’s wastewater tests for the Coronavirus is an ongoing issue.

Critics of the Government’s pandemic response view the pandemic surveillance failures by the de Blasio administration as connected to his violations of Government transparency. Progress New York has raised questions about the City’s weekly variant surveillance reports, some of which were reflected in a Times report that claimed that pandemic cutbacks by the de Balsio administration would put New York City in a position to be “ill prepared should more contagious forms of the virus cause new outbreaks.”

The Twitter exchange on Thursday night was prompted by Cynthia Walker, a chief critic of the Government’s pandemic response. She and other critics have been complaining about the City’s lack of transparency around its wastewater testing for the presence of the Coronavirus that causes COVID-19, including the sequencing of variants.

In response to criticism by Ms. Walker, Councilmember Levin invoked ignorance about the wastewater testing data that has existed since 2020, revealing that, “I didn’t know to ask for that general data when I spoke w DOHMH on 11/30 & that was a mistake.”

Ms. Walker has long been demanding the release of wastewater testing data, including upon the onset of the Delta variant outbreak in New York City. Progress New York filed a request under the State’s open records laws for that data. The City’s Health Department has promised to make a response twenty (20) Business Days from 7 December, the date when it made an acknowledgement of the open records request.

The Government is doing nothing to repair its credibility by withholding pandemic data, and this leads to a further loss in confidence in Government.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, the scientific community have faced challenges to educate Government officials and the public about the best health protection efforts. The lack of uniform Government data has leds to untruths and misunderstandings, as noted in a letter to the editor about COVID-19 deaths published in the BMJ, a peer-reviewed, medical trade journal. Yet, the Government has been responsible for creating, in part, the conditions for misinformation by refusing to release pandemic data at all, according to some advocates for Government transparency.

In the face of criticism that the Government has pivoted to an open-business priority over safeguarding public health, faith in Government leadership has collapsed. Before Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) resigned in the face of mounting sexual harassment allegations, he was the target of critics over his refusal to release accurate pandemic data about deaths in nursing homes. In his place, Gov. Kathleen Hochul (D-New York) has promised to make transparency a hallmark of her administration. Yet, her administration, too, has embraced the bureaucratic problems of their own making to thwart administrative remedies to violations of the States’s open records laws. For example, the New York State Committee on Open Government has refused to intervene in the de Blasio administration’s refusal to release to Progress New York records, including intelligence reports, in which critics of the City of New York’s pandemic response were labeled as conspiracy theorists. “The Committee on Open Government is authorized to provide advice and opinions regarding the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law,” a representative from the Committee on Open Government recently wrote, adding that, “The Committee is not statutorily authorized to investigate complaints or to direct or compel an agency or public body to take any action.”

The Government’s new emphasis to keep the economy open came after élites began to argue for a change in the pandemic response from focusing on collective responsibility for public health to putting an emphasis on individual risk sensibilities, as was noted in an essay by Joseph Allen, an associate public health professor at Harvard University, published in the Washington Post that was later cited in a CNN report. As the Government has shifted the burden onto the people, the Government has been denying the public the information for them to confer and meet and make collective decisions that affect their health and livelihood.

The Government cannot deny the release of pandemic data unless there is coördination from Washington to Albany to New York City Hall. On Friday, the CDC advised that it would be shutting down its weekly online COVID-19 tracker dashboard for the holidays until 7 January 2022. The lack of weekly CDC data comes as New York City and New York State are hitting daily record numbers of COVID-19 cases and exponential increases in the hospitalisation rates of children, even as Gov. Hochul has arguably cut paid sick leave for people recovering from COVID-19. The shift to at-home COVID-19 tests will further muddle the Government’s pandemic data, since their test results don’t automatically get reported to health authorities and won’t be sequenced. Without knowing how much money the New York City Economic Development Corporation sank into the City’s “gold standard” of testing and sequencing, namely, the Pandemic Response Lab, the public are further left in the dark about the Government’s performance. For example, without Government data, the public are left in the dark to determine whether Mayor de Blasio’s lack of hospital contingency plans is an appropriate pandemic response by the Government.

To promote an open business agenda that violates public health, the Government increasingly works very hard in lockstep fashion to make it difficult to collect, report, and release data.