Monday, August 3, 2020

America’s COVID testing crisis


I would consider my workplace to have its “A game” going on with COVID-19. We’ve been used as a model for other employers because we have a trove of innovative protocols in place and we even have someone whose sole job is the management, auditing and improvement of those procedures.

But, despite how good we think we are, there’s an outside factor that can cause this whole system to fail miserably, something that we have absolutely no control of.

It’s not the coronavirus itself.

It’s actually the testing of it.

Given regional and national testing issues, we won’t know if someone has the virus until a week to two after we send them for a test. Expedient tests, if even tests at all, are harder to come by as resources, which still haven’t been elevated to the levels needed to address the plight of the nation, are being designated for the hottest of the hot spots across the country.

In just the past two weeks alone, community testing sites in Niagara County have dropped from 13 to 6 and our two largest health networks (Niagara Falls Memorial and Eastern Niagara Hospital) have announced the suspension of public testing so the relatively scant test inventory (like reagents) can be focused upon healthcare workers, front line workers and high-risk individuals.

Hoping to improve our lot, we looked just across the county border where Erie’s executive recently said results from the program run by the county itself would come back in 48 hours. That sounded great, but actually getting tested is a different story. They can do 500 tests a week, which certainly can’t meet local demand. When my COVID guy called on a Wednesday to get a feel for how long it would take to get someone tested, he was told that if we made an appointment for someone that morning they wouldn’t be seen until the next Wednesday or Thursday. So, it was a 9 or 10 day turnaround from scheduling to results, no better than what we could get anywhere else in the area.  

It makes one worry about the inevitable. As I’ve said before: For the next 12 to 18 months employers must understand that some of their workers will get COVID-19. Employers cannot control what their workers do outside of work but they can control/mitigate/prevent its spread in the workplace.

Our myriad responses to a possible spread of COVID – from communication to a plant shutdown to sanitizing to tracing to quarantines – are nearly meaningless if we cannot appropriately identify an exposure within one to three days. Given the week-and-a-half to two-week situation we’re faced with now, an outbreak may have already occurred due to the inability to properly assess the situation.

We need fast testing and fast results for my factory, to protect my team.

We need fast testing and fast results for retailers, to protect their employees and their customers.

We need fast testing and fast results for schools, to protect the children, teachers and families at home.

If we don’t have that, and can’t have that, right now what does the fall and winter hold for America?

Two months from now begins cold and flu season. Those ailments share symptoms with COVID. Employers and school administrators will have to test everyone who shows the slightest cough or runny nose. If they don’t, and someone chalks it up to common maladies, they open the door for not only a harmful outbreak but also massive liability. And, you certainly can’t shut down every business, school, or non-profit because someone has a sniffle. Testing is paramount.  

Once the sick are sent to testing sites to discount a COVID diagnosis the networks will be more overwhelmed than they are now. Every year, most Americans get 1 to 3 colds; it’s estimated that, collectively, Americans count for one billion colds a year. Somewhere between 25 and 30 million Americans get the flu.

We can’t keep up with the current need based on the current COVID outbreak, so how will we keep up with waves two and three while at the same riding the traditional waves of the cold and flu?

The healthcare industry, at least on the administration side of the tests, has more than done their part, having shown us that, when tests are available, they can deploy the personnel and places necessary to get people tested. Suppose we get back to 13 testing locations in Niagara County; we could stand to have 1 or 2 more but it’s still a reasonable number for a county our size.  

It’s the manufacturers and testers, who are badly backlogged, that need a hand. It’s rare you’ll hear this columnist call for corporate welfare, but the federal government and state governments have to step up their game and devote grants and incentives to producers of reagents and testing kits as well as the companies that run both the automated and personnel-driven testing labs.

If governments can always find it in their good graces to do that for the Amazons and Elon Musks of the world it’s not asking too much to devote funds that truly benefit the public as a whole and are, for lack of a better analogy, a wartime investment.

We’re in a war, against a virus and am economic depression, a war that needs to be won soon.

Think back to World War II and how long it took us to build ships – the monstrous Liberty ship SS Robert E. Peary was built in just over four and a half days.

We need that sort of ingenuity, devotion, focus and leadership again.


From the 03 August 20202 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Looking back at the past 15 years


In July 2005 I reached out to Tim Marren, editor of the Lockport Union Sun and Journal at the time, and asked him if he needed a columnist. Lockport native and WNY media icon Clip Smith passed away 11 months earlier and without his contributions there were no local columnists. I told Tim I would follow in Clip’s shoes and write the column for free.

So, here I am 15 years – and over 750 columns – later, still writing for the Lockport paper and its sister publication, the Niagara Gazette. A few years ago, then-editor of the Daily News John Anderson invited me to share my contributions with the readers in Batavia, too.

Did I ever think I’d make it this far?

I’d like to think so.

It was always my goal to write as long as newspapers existed. Yes, there may have been a few times where I wondered if the well would go dry and I would have nothing to opine upon, but that never happened and never will: We live and work in New York…Albany will always serve up something for me.

And, you never know what will happen in this world. When I signed on did anyone think I’d be writing about something called the Great Recession and, then, not too many years later a global pandemic?

The world is a fluid place. It’s always changing. We’re always changing.

The newspaper industry is changing, too.

Over the past 15 years, the online presence of newspapers has in many communities across the country grown to be their bread-and-butter. That has become an economic model difficult to manage and sustain as consumers who abandoned subscriptions to print editions think they should have unfettered access to online content, never mind what it takes to keep the reporters covering everything from local sports to municipal corruption to neighborhood business to the accomplishments of high schoolers.

Because of those trends, two newspapers the column ran in -- the Medina Journal-Register and Tonawanda News – both folded.

Heartbreaking.

Communities need newspapers.

Our constitutional republic – or as some people call it our “democracy” – needs newspapers.

I can attest to their value in that regard. Not every one of my columns has been a victory (some actually stunk), but there have been enough to have a measurable impact and reinforce the importance of the press. For example…

In 2011, a column about the Obama Administration’s plan to exclude almost all minors from most agricultural work and all animal husbandry -- which would have destroyed farming’s future as well as 4-H and the FFA – went absolutely viral and became a critical cog in the machine that brought down the rules in the public comment period.

That same year, the federal government proposed that all farm workers get a commercial driver’s license (CDL) in order to drive farm equipment. This column brought that to light and we managed to beat that, too.

Last year, the state legislature passed a bill that would have prevented Boy Scouts from using the shooting ranges at summer camps. The sponsor of the bill admitted to the New York Times that my column changed her mind. She brought an amendment to the floor that passed.   

Then, during this COVID event I’ve scored two wins – the first being the suspension of unemployment’s waiting week during the crisis and the second being the development of COVID-19 Administrators for public schools.

Mixed among those columns and more were less traceable wins – those you can’t see in the legislative chambers but those that hopefully encouraged people to rethink the way they view the world and the people in it.

Through the years, this column has received responses and exposure from all over the world, and it’s exciting to wonder whose attention I might attract next. Rebuttals from Charles Schumer and Louise Slaughter have appeared in the paper. Staffers from the Reagan Administration spoke out about a column. I’ve appeared on radio shows across the country. Supermodel-turned-super-businesswoman Kathy Ireland and I shared a nice dialogue after she read one of my articles. The largest newspapers in Germany and China have quoted me. And, what really makes me proud, schools, colleges, and departments of education across the US and Canada have included my essays or quotes in their textbooks and curriculum.

I thank you, the reader, for being there, week in and week out. Over the years I’ve heard from hundreds, maybe thousands, of you. Some write me in agreement. Others respectfully disagree. And, a few have disrespectfully disagreed to the point of anonymously mailing me my column with expletives written all over it. Be it to the positive or negative, I love your feedback.

I’d also like to thank all the editors and publishers of these newspapers for allowing me to pursue my dream and share my ideas. Your support – and the weekly designation of space on the opinion page -- means a lot to me.  

15 years is a long time.

But, it’s not the end.

I’ll be here as long as you can all put up with me.

From the 27 July 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, July 17, 2020

Random thoughts on education in the Covid era


As school districts debate if, when and how to go back to classroom education a recurring sentiment from a fair percentage of parents across the country is that their kids won’t be wearing a mask all day (if at all).
  
I’m sorry, but if you think your kids will be going back to school and won't be required to wear masks at all times except eating and drinking you're kidding yourself. To eliminate subjectivity, manage risk and keep the focus on education it is guaranteed most if not all schools will require constant use.

They can’t count on kids to understand the nuances of social distancing and to remember to put the mask up whenever they are within two meters of another person (heck, outside of the school walls that’s asking a lot of adults). On top of that, children are natural germ spreaders – they don’t cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze and think nothing of projecting that spray in their peer’s or your face. Six feet won’t cut it. Masks will to a point.

If you’re still not sold on it, think about your pocketbook and the niceties you want your schools to have: If schools don’t enforce continuous mask usage they could expose themselves – which means we the taxpayers – to considerable legal liability if a kid took the virus home, got someone sick, and that person died.

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It’s been written in this column before about what kids are missing out on without the classroom experience. School shutdowns stink because students’ foundational years are when you want them exposed to different ideas, different cultures, and the teachers, coaches, and staff who can inspire and provide encouragement.

Kids needs the in-person experience.

But, some need it more than most – specifically the special needs students.

Even if mainstream students are denied that physical schooling, districts really have to figure out how to deliver on-site education to those who need a little extra help, support and love. Distance and virtual learning are both impractical and ineffectual to students with developmental and physical disabilities. We as a society are doing a great disservice to them if we deny them the incredible benefits that the human experience provides them.

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My 8-year old daughter did quite well with e-learning last semester but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a frustration.

We live in a neighborhood that is rural, but nowhere near remote. In a four minute drive I can make it into the hamlets of Gasport and Wright’s Corners, eight minutes gets me into downtown Lockport. Despite that, we literally have a third world internet connection.

Our internet bogs down and makes Zoom and Google Hangouts difficult if not impossible. Many times she got booted off virtual classes because of our connection. It was heartbreaking for her. Tears would flow from the frustration of not being able to learn, see her teacher or interact with her friends.

Mind you, just a couple years ago Cuomo’s office said we were leading the nation in high speed internet and 2018’s “last mile funding” would finally ensure high-speed internet access for all New Yorkers.

It hasn’t. Visit any rural town in WNY or the Adirondacks – families, students and businesses have only rudimentary connections if any at all.

What’s happening to my family – and thousands of more across the state -- should encourage Albany to immediately refocus and rethink its efforts with broadband infrastructure, whether over the air or through cables.

Will it happen? During the spring Governor Cuomo claimed to understand the internet woes faced by students but he’s the same guy who just 5 months earlier vetoed a bill that would have studied the feasibility of state-owned internet to provide it to underserved communities.

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The last 3 months of the 2019-2020 school year gave everyone a taste, just a taste, of homeschooling.

You have to admit it was difficult -- and that was with substantial resources provide by schools.

So, now, can we finally cast aside the insidious and unfounded stereotypes that traditionally-schooled families hold towards homeschool families?

The Covid crisis can help you understand the incredible investment of time, mind, money, and patience that homeschool parents invest in their kids. It’s not easy.

Through the years, in Scouting and various plant tours at Confer Plastics I’ve interacted with many homeschoolers. All of them have been incredible students with high levels of inquisitiveness, focus and discipline. I even had a college professor tell me that he knows when he has a homeschooled student in his class because of that student’s brilliance.

I think we can now all agree that homeschoolers really are “different”…but “different” in very good ways.

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If in-person education is not a thing in the coming school year, superintendents and schools boards have to be ready to quell a revolt.

It’s common water cooler and social media talk that taxpayers will be enraged if they don’t get a refund on their taxes. They have a point – no busing, sports, arts, full food service, maximum use of HVAC, general maintenance and so much more.

Districts will have to be ready to explain if that budgeted money is coming back and, if not, what it is being used for – whether it’s “a rainy day fund” or it’s being reinvested in the physical plant of the campus to be ready for Covid protocols.


From the 20 July 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News