Looking back: How COVID-19 changed life in CNY in an instant
This is the first part of an occasional series looking back at the past year of the pandemic in the region. Watch for more stories through the month of March.
It was this time last year that the coronavirus pandemic started affecting life in central and northern New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency on March 7, 2020 because of the virus. At the time, there were 76 cases statewide. That number is now more than 1.6 million.
Local political and health leaders have been looking back at the tumultuous year, punctuated by lockdowns, quarantines, and ultimately, the death of hundreds of central New Yorkers.
Upstate Medical University infectious disease specialist Dr. Stephen Thomas said looking back, the first surge of the coronavirus wasn’t as bad in central New York as he thought it would be.
“I think that was in large part because we had a pretty good head start,” Thomas said. “The county executive and the mayor made some decisions that put us off on the right path."
Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon said the first of those decisions was cancelling the very popular St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Syracuse.
"We really struggled with that decision because there was pressure to cancel it. But we didn’t have cases,” McMahon said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, what wasn’t going to happen.”
McMahon and Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh ultimately decided to cancel the event that brings thousands of central New Yorkers to downtown Syracuse each March. After that, getting ready for the looming crisis ramped up. From preparing for delivery of lunches to school kids in case schools were closed, coordinating with hospitals, and getting testing sites up and running in March.
“Looking back on the early weeks, I think we took the planning and preparation very seriously so we could mitigate before,” McMahon said. “I’m really proud of our team, because I think it did really help us absorb the hit COVID brought us in the first wave.”
Still, looking back, McMahon has regrets. In particular, that he didn’t push enough for asymptomatic testing in nursing homes, where many COVID victims ultimately died.
"Whether or not it would have changed anything, eventually the state took our policy and implemented it statewide,” he said. “But the what ifs, if we could have found pockets of virus in those facilities sooner. Maybe we could have, maybe we couldn’t have, but looking back it’s something I wish I was more aggressive on."
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh said he doesn’t like to second guess early pandemic decisions, but admitted he’s had the what-if moments.
"What if we did this what if we did that, how we could have done things differently,” Walsh said. “I think about how we make sure we learn from what’s taken place over the last year, and make sure we are putting the systems in place in city government, so god forbid in the next pandemic or next crisis, we’re in a better position."
But with the recent holiday surge of the virus abating, and vaccinations ramping up, Walsh is optimistic.
“I think in some ways we have all been holding our breath for the past year, and the people who are getting vaccinated, finally get to breathe and take a breath and let their guard down a little bit,” he said. “And I don’t think we’ll ever be able to quantify the value of that, whether you’re looking at physical health, mental health, and spiritual health."
Throughout the pandemic, McMahon became a kind of communicator-in-chief. Early on he was holding daily briefings, now pared now to two a week, explaining the impact of state directives, and health initiatives. But also he also had to report the most difficult news of the pandemic: how many people have died from COVID-19, with more than 670 deaths in Onondaga County since the pandemic began.
The stress of the last year may have finally caught up with McMahon. Early last month, he woke up seeing double. After eliminating things like a brain tumor or stroke, doctors diagnosed disruption to a nerve in his eye, something brought on by stress. That’s led to his latest realization of the insidious ways the year-long pandemic has crept into our lives.
“It’s okay to be vulnerable. And it’s okay to admit we’ve had a bad year. Many have suffered much more than others, but we’ve all been impacted,” he said. “So hopefully people can take something from what I’ve been going through and my challenges and make sure they take care of themselves. Whether it’s mental health, whether it’s seeing your doctor. We’ve all been through a traumatic experience."