Tensions over New York City’s release of COVID-19 statistics boiled over on a Zoom call Thursday night, as Brooklyn elected officials forcefully criticized city health officials for withholding certain infection data, according to information provided by multiple sources with firsthand knowledge of the call.
“We’re getting tagged as the diseased Jews, like they’ve been doing for 5,000 years, and you have information that can show that that’s not true,” exclaimed Councilman Kalman Yeger. Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein described the stats provided by the officials, which Eichenstein deemed inadequate, to be “garbage.” One person close to Eichenstein described this call as “the angriest I’ve ever seen” the Assemblyman.
The heated exchanges occurred on a Zoom call that Eichenstein, Yeger, Councilman Chaim Deutsch, and Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein – all of whom represent Brooklyn COVID “red zone” hotspots with large Orthodox Jewish populations – held with Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Demetre Daskalakis; Dr. Ted Long, Vice President of New York City Health + Hospitals, the city’s public hospital system; and two dozen staffers from the Health Department, Health + Hospitals, and City Hall.
The sharp words by Eichenstein, Yeger and Deutsch came after officials provided the infection rate in hotspot zip codes based on a cumulative 28-day rate of positive COVID tests, but did not provide the zip code data broken down by more recent time periods.
As officials had warned in late September and early October of a spike in COVID cases in certain parts of Brooklyn (and Queens, which last week showed enough improvement to leave the most-restrictive “red zone”), the city had released nearly every day the test-positivity rate, on at most a 14-day basis, in the affected zip codes.
But when a shutdown was announced in the first week of October in the COVID hotspots, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the borders would be drawn not by zip codes but by color-coding cluster areas, the city stopped releasing the data breakdown by zip code.
Cuomo has released data showing overall improvement in the zones’ percent-positivity rate: for example, on Thursday, his data showed that in Brooklyn’s cumulative “red zones,” the positivity rate between Oct. 4 and Oct. 10 had been 5.85%; from Oct. 11 to Oct. 17 it dropped to 5.29%; from Oct. 18 – Oct. 21 it was 5.13%; and for Oct. 21 itself it was 4.61%.
But neither state nor city have released the recent-day, percent-positivity numbers by zip code.
When asked last week at a press conference why the city stopped releasing the recent percent-positivity numbers broken down by zip code, de Blasio said, “We’re aligning to the State’s approach,” of focusing on zones rather than zip codes.
On the Zoom call Thursday night, the health officials referred to percent-positivity numbers by zip code only for the past 28 days cumulatively, but not broken down into more recent periods. Eichenstein said that if the city released those numbers – which would provide a direct comparison with the numbers that had been released until around the time the shutdown began early this month – it could show that there has indeed been an improvement in the zip codes in his district, which covers much of Boro Park and has been getting the most negative publicity in national media.
“I really am very troubled by what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing here,” Eichenstein told the health officials, “and I’m starting to question … the judgement, and the motive behind a lot that’s being put out.” The Assemblyman said he is in possession of government data, which has not been released publicly, “that shows some of my zip codes being below 3% for days right now.” The 3% positivity rate had been the threshold the city used to ask the governor for the new restrictions.
“And for the first time [since the uptick began] I’m now hearing we’re going to a 28-day range,” the Assemblyman said, noting that until the shutdown was announced, “I saw daily numbers by zip code … at about that same time, my numbers started coming down. That’s when you stopped releasing daily numbers by zip code. It went to a 5-day range to a 7-day range to a -day range, and now a 28-day range. I would ask you to please present the numbers, zip code by zip code … for the last 5 days. You want to do 3-day range, 5-day range, 7-day range, that’s fine. But I want to see those [recent] numbers, because I actually have access to [government] data that is telling me my numbers are down significantly to the extent that some of my zip codes are below 3% for days. So are we just continuing with this Orthodox Jewish cluster, or is this based on science and real, hard numbers?”
“To me, I’m sorry, with all due respect, I respect what you guys do, you know all this better than me, a 28-day range number is garbage,” as the public should instead see “how are we doing for the last week.”
Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Demetre Daskalakis replied to Eichenstein, “The zones that are created are created by the state, and so I think we are giving the view of what they have identified as areas of red and yellow zone concern … We’re in effect presenting state slides, and we don’t really have the same visibility into their data or into their process of identifying the zones beyond some recently released documents. So that, I think, is the reality of our situation right now. And I think, again, we’re presenting their slides and their views to try to sort of at least communicate where restrictions, and where interventions are localized.”
Eichenstein testily replied, “With all due respect, Demetre, for weeks on end, maybe even months, you have released daily numbers by zip code. You have that access, Demetre. You know it and I know it. You have those numbers, it’s somewhere on your computer, and it’s not that difficult for you to put it together. I’m not just saying I want to see the numbers, I’m saying I have access to [data showing] me that my numbers have come down significantly. For months or weeks, you have put out daily numbers by zip code, it’s only fair that you show us those numbers.”
Dr. Ted Long, Vice President of New York City Health + Hospitals, then said, “The state’s data is a little bit differently run than ours. We stand behind our data, but we should talk about what the state put out. It was in Cuomo’s last press release.” Long then asked that a slide be pulled up showing numbers those Cuomo had recently released which showed percent positivity by color zone.
But Eichenstein angrily cut in, “I saw the state’s press release, I know what they’re putting out. What I’m asking is, can you put out the zip-code-by-zip-code numbers the way you have released it for weeks on end. It’s a yes or a no.”
Laura Atlas, senior advisor for intergovernmental affairs for the deputy mayor of health and human services, reiterated that the city had stopped releasing the percent positivity numbers by zip code when Cuomo announced that the shutdown would follow “cluster zones” rather than zip codes, “because we didn’t want to have two counternarratives about where the concerns were. So we have been following the governor’s zone system,” Atlas said.
And Eichenstein once again fired back that regardless of the governor’s zone system, he would like to see the “zip code numbers,” so that the public could gauge neighborhood-by-neighborhood improvement.
Councilman Chaim Deutsch also asked that the city release the daily numbers, and criticized the Health Department for what he viewed as targeted enforcement of shutdown laws, as opposed to positive engagement with the community. Deutsch said that health and safety is not promoted by giving out summonses. If Health officials wanted to promote health, he argued, they would work with elected officials and community leaders to get educational messaging to residents, businesses and schools.
Deutsch referenced the incident involving Mixed Greens, a restaurant in his district that had received a violation simply for having its doors open to customers, despite the law allowing customers to purchase food to take out. Though the fine was later rescinded following publicity and advocacy by Deutsch and others, the councilman argued that the fact that the summons was issued in the first place – and the fact that, when he called the Health Department to report it, he says they didn’t even immediately know the answer to his question about whether the guidelines banned open doors – shows that the Health Department is more interested in issuing summonses for dubious charges than in actually educating the public.
Councilman Kalman Yeger told the officials on the call that releasing full data is necessary to combat the anti-Semitic rhetoric resulting from COVID uptick in Orthodox communities, which has been reported nationally.
“We’re getting tagged as the diseased Jews, like they’ve been doing for 5,000 years, and you have information that can show that that’s not true,” Yeger said hotly. “And because of the way that the numbers are getting put out – I recognize what you’re saying that you want to mirror what the governor’s office, [but] I don’t care what the state does. You’re not the state; you’re the city. And you have the information. We’re getting tagged in a certain way. So therefore, the media flies into our neighborhood with cameras to show, ‘Oh look at those dirty Jews roaming around the street. Look at them. They dress funny, they look funny, they’re diseased.’ It is a narrative that is catching on. Open up the Daily News on a day-to-day basis, and read the Voicers, the page with all the letters. Look at the anti-Semitic [statements] that get said about Jews on a day to day basis. You know why that’s happening? Because of the City of New York. It’s happening because of the numbers that [the city is] putting out.”
Yeger said that reporters have “descended on our neighborhood to point fingers,” which has led to “what the uneducated masses are saying on social media about us.”
“We as a community,” Yeger said, “are getting smacked on the head, not just by local press; we are an international show. And I’m begging you for the tools necessary to stop that before it becomes irreversible in a way that history has shown what happens after that.”
Dr. Long said that the anti-Semitic reactions were “terrible, and those things should never happen,” and that “loud and clear, we understand … it’s devastating to hear a lot of what you were just describing.” Long said the health officials would “be back in touch” with the elected officials.
In response to Hamodia’s request for comment on the elected officials’ desire for a public release of the recent percent-positivity numbers by zip code, a Health Department spokesman referred to de Blasio’s previous comments that the city was following the state approach in referring to hotspot zones rather than zip code.
Asked to comment about the call, Deutsch told Hamodia, “The point that Kalman, Simcha and I were making is the same thing we’ve been shouting from the rooftops for weeks – we need to return to daily numbers by zip code. Infection rates have been coming down. Government should not be allowed to hold us hostage based on ‘fear’ rather than science. The true fear I have seen is when children are not being educated and businesses are being shuttered.”
Neither Eichenstein, Weinstein nor Yeger responded to Hamodia’s request for comment on the call.
Updated Monday, October 26, 2020 at 2:22 am .