President Donald Trump; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (AP/Getty/Salon)

Leadership in the age of COVID-19: Hiding the bodies to maintain the illusion of competency

Trump's federal government is managing this pandemic based on inventory control concerns and not the public health



Bob Hennelly
April 14, 2020 10:30AM (UTC)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

Like a proverbial mariner, we are all collectively struggling to chart a course out of the coronavirus maelstrom for ourselves, our families for our nation and our world.

The sky is a gray to black forbidding.

The daily death tolls are like claps of thunder and lightning, that can strike close to, even into our own lifeboats, now adrift on a sea of further notice tribulation.

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We cling for dear life to stay in our vessels, as a violent and turbulent sea swells all around us.

These all powerful naturally destructive forces killing thousands by the day, provide us a primordial reminder of how delusional our 21st century assumptions of global dominion were, and to some degree still are.

As this phase of state imposed social distancing and the suspension of commerce as we have always none it continues the crisis takes on an internal psychosocial toll because of the open-ended nature of it.

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Because we have no real sense of what the reality is of our unprecedented modern circumstance, we look to the people we had elevated in more certain times to leadership for timelines and schedules for a return to smoother sailing.

Leadership as sanctuary

Surely, we hope and pray, Governor Murphy and Governor Cuomo can navigate us out of these unchartered menacing waters.

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What they both provide us is a sense of continuity that comes with the projection of a managerial competency informed by compassion and framed by integrity.

To the eternal credit of both men, they have forged a cordial collaboration with each other that is in the collective self-interest of the residents of both states.

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But their presentation styles are very different and its important to compare and contrast them, not as a kind of political exercise, but as a real time best practices tutorial on crisis management on what appears to produce the best results.

Unlike President Trump, both men use their heightened crisis visibility to praise and uplift the tens of thousands of first responders, health care and essential service workers that are risking their health and that of their families to maintain social order.

But where they differ is in how they apportion their time in the limelight.

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A team on display

Gov. Murphy always opens the daily briefing with the basic COVID-19 statistics of the day, but then cedes the floor to his subject matter experts like Judith M. Persichilli, New Jersey's Health Commissioner. Persichilli, a registered nurse by training, has lead major healthcare systems, like University Hospital in Newark, where she was CEO.

Similarly, we get to hear from New Jersey State Police Colonel Patrick J. Callahan or Dr. Lamont Repollet, the Commissioner of Education who provide succinct reports.

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By contrast, Gov. Cuomo is always the dominant headliner, who has his top Commissioners present at the table but only are called upon when a reporter's question is granular enough that the Governor does not have the answer.

This is a distinction with an important difference.

The Murphy model, which appears to be more self-effacing, also builds up his subordinates in two important ways. Each one of them commands large agencies with thousands of employees. When those workforces see the Governor defer to their boss, it uplifts the entire agency and gives front line workers a sense they have a place at the table.

For the Commissioners, it's an essential opportunity to extemporaneously give a high-profile accounting of themselves, their agency and conditions of the ground as best they know them.

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That's not to say that on occasion we don't get to see the best and the brightest advising Cuomo.

Melissa DeRosa, the first woman to serve as the Secretary to the Governor, who sits six feet from the Governor at the daily briefing, frequently provides the succinct and informative answers to reporters' queries.

Over forty years of writing about and observing leadership in society, it has been my experience that the most effective and secure leaders are the ones with the ego bandwidth to up lift their subordinates, ala Murphy.

Not only does it build more enduring teams, it becomes a form of succession planning.

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How lost are we?

Ultimately, what we are looking to from both men is an orientation as to where we are in our tribulation, the beginning, the middle or the end. In the parlance of crisis management, this would be called their situational awareness of the facts on the ground.

And it is in this essential function that both Governors maybe handicapped by the very nature of the sprawling bureaucracies they command, and the need governments have to project a sense of control, even when they lack it.  (See Trump COVID-19 gyrating burlesque.)

More than facility management

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Throughout this entre mass casualty event without precedent, it has been entirely framed by both Governors as a battle being waged in our hospitals.

Indeed, we are assessing the relative success of our efforts at COVID-19 containment on hospital and intensive care unit admissions, intubations, discharges and the deaths from patients we know had COVID-19.

It is this matrix, which is now driving the entire conversation about when and how we return back to business as normal. I submit this is a very shaky foundation upon which to build these literally life and death deliberations.

From the outset, Gov. Cuomo reasonably framed this as an effort to back stop the hospitals from being crushed by the wave of COVID-19 cases. And, thus was born the flattening the curve algebra that linked the public's compliance with social distancing.

Using this rubric what we are missing entirely in our daily count are the massive numbers of likely COVID-19 death occurring in the privacy of people's homes.

Weeks ago, thanks to my work as a reporter with the Chief-Leader, which covers New York City's first responders, I was hearing from District Council's Local 2507 and Local 3621, representing the FDNY EMS workforce, that their members were encountering a science fiction-like spike in fatal cardiac arrests in people's homes.

Over Twitter, I was getting front line reports that EMS members who in a pre-COVID-19 world might see one maybe two cardiac arrest calls per shift, were attending to several, and in one case as many as thirteen.

According to FDNY data provided to the Chief-Leader comparing EMS cardiac arrest calls from March 20 to April 5 in 2019 to the same period in 2020 the number of fatal cardiac calls had spiked from between 22 to 32 deaths per day to more than 200 in a single day.

Moreover, the odds of a 911 cardiac patient surviving dropped markedly as well. In the 2019 FDNY EMS got between 54 to 74 cardiac calls that resulted in between 22 to 32 deaths a day.

By contrast, in the midst of this pandemic the department was averaging 300 such calls that ended with well over 200 of the patients dying in their homes.

As a consequence of the unprecedented demand from the pandemic on the city's hospitals for the first time EMS crews were ordered not to transport cardiac-arrest cases to the hospital if they had not been able to restart the patient's heart at the scene.

In multiple interviews with this EMT workforce over several days I learned that there was a wide range of circumstances behind each at home death. In some cases, it was an older person with a pre-existing condition who developed the initial COVID-19 flu like symptoms.

On other 911 calls the person had gone to the hospital at some stage of their bout with COVID-19, only to be discharged to die at home and errantly are now reflected in the Governors' daily report as a win, a light at the end of the tunnel.

Extrapolating from the FDNY data, we are talking about potentially thousands of COVID-19 deaths that are going unreported throughout the nation.

Without a grasp of what's happening in our homes and neighborhoods the officials from the state house to the White House are flying blind even as they project an air of competent management.

It's like the U.S. Census advertising, that's now in ironic heavy rotation on cable TV, says. If we don't get counted it's like we never existed.

The preliminary demographic COVID-19 mortality data indicates that this virus has disproportionately taken a toll on poor people and communities of color.

By ignoring the residential death toll, it will be easier to conceal just how much of a role fear over immigration status played in the number of our residents who chose to ride the virus out at home rather than go to the hospital.

Hidden body counts

In the past week, as the regional COVID-19 body count approached 3,000, the number of people killed on the day of the WTC attack, elected leaders and reporters used the 9/11 body count as a yardstick by which to measure current further notice tragedy.

New York City's first responders who survived 9/11 and the toxic World Trade Center, know all too well about the way disappearing a body count can help the government at all levels conceal their cynical betrayal of the public trust.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Mayor Giuliani and the Bush administration, through the EPA's false claims, advanced by former Gov. Whitman that the air was safe to breathe in lower Manhattan, exposed hundreds of thousands of workers, students and residents to potentially lethal doses of toxic air.

Thousands more have died since and tens of thousands are still battling one or several life altering diseases from that exposure which the Federal government has tried to paper over with programs like the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund.

Job one: opening Wall Street

Within two years, the EPA's inspector general found that Whitman's assertion had been unfounded. "When EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was 'safe' to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement," the report's authors concluded, since "air monitoring data was lacking for several pollutants of concern, including particulate matter and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)."

Moreover, the EPA's inspector general learned that it was President George W. Bush's White House Council on Environmental Quality that heavily edited the EPA press releases "to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones." Despite the fact that samples taken indicated asbestos levels in lower Manhattan were between double and triple the EPA's limit, the Council on Environmental Quality described the readings as "slightly above" the limit, the inspector general found.

And when the inspector general tried to determine who had written the press releases, they "were unable to identify any EPA official who claimed ownership."

Almost twenty years later a strong case can be made that all of America is lower Manhattan after 9/11, as President Trump chafes to re-open the economy to safe his re-election.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the 2020 CDC has played the role of the 2001 EPA by watering down occupational health standards to compensate for the scarcity of personal protective equipment that both state and Federal governments failed to anticipate.

2001 EPA = 2020 CDC

Consider the CDC's absurd, and potentially criminal assertion that N-95 masks that are supposed to be thrown out after each clinical COVID-19 encounter, could be re-used for days.

As multiple health professionals have told the media, the efficacy of the N-95 did not change, nor did the nature of the highly contagious and deadly virus. It was the efforts of the CDC to manage the crisis that history will judge as having made it much worse.

There are multiple other examples where the Federal bureaucracy managed this pandemic based on inventory control concerns and not the public health. From their flip-flop on whether or not the public should wear masks at all, to their evolving guidance on when front line workers should be sidelined, their actions have helped spread this deadly virus and added to the death toll for health care workers and everybody else.

Add in the Federal government's strategy that pits the states against each other for vital PPE and health care equipment, and what emerges is the profile of a central government that's actually obstructing the legitimate efforts of the states to save lives and contain the virus.

And now, rest assured, as it appears the official COVID-19 death toll might come in at 60,000, the Trump administration will hail their response as brilliant, all because it was so much lower than their initial 100,000 to 240,000 projected body count.

It's all about managing expectations and maintaining the illusion of competency.


Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Andrew Cuomo Cdc Coronavirus Covid-19 Donald Trump Insidernj New Jersey New York Phil Murphy

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