New York’s 77th lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, talks with DVEIGHT Executive Editor Michael Mundy about the COVID-19 crisis, how it affects our region, and the steps she is taking, along with Governor Cuomo, to flatten the curve.
Michael Mundy: Thank you so much for doing this. First of all, we have to say that we really value what you, yourself are doing along with the governor. It’s been the most comforting news we get each day coming from the governor. So everyone in New York really appreciates it, but especially everyone here in our area.
Kathy Hochul: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.
MM: So the biggest news I think right now is the government sort of announcing that possibly the worst is over, which we’re all hoping is true. Where do you stand with that sort of decision? Is it something that we’re facing now — a turning point in this situation, or what’s your take on all this?
KH: Well, the declaration that the worst is over is simply based on analyzing the data that we’ve seen trending over the last week. And what that means is instead of the number of cases skyrocketing upward, we have finally hit a plateau where it’s leveled off. Now, the bad news is it’s leveled off at a high level. There’s still now 200,000 positive cases in New York. And the death rate seems to be holding rather constant at an exceptionally high number, which is in the 700s for the last six days. It’s plateaued, which means it’s not continuing upward. And that makes it a little bit more manageable for us to know what we’re dealing with in terms of hospital capacity and supplies. But what we need to see next is that this trend to start heading downward. And it has headed downward with respect to two important variables: hospital admissions and the number of people in ICUs. So people who went into the hospital had to be on a ventilator — many don’t survive once you’ve been on a ventilator for a certain amount of time. So that’s responsible for we think the current death rate.
KH: When you extrapolate this out, because we’re having fewer people going into hospitals now and fewer people in ICUs than on ventilators. We think that the trend of lives lost will start heading downward fairly soon, we hope. But anything can change. If people’s behavior starts to change, we’ll see an increase in cases and mortality shortly thereafter. And that’s because by declaring the worst is over, we’re simply saying that it’s no longer going upward. It does not mean we’re out of the woods at all, as much as we’re so desperate as human beings to feel that there’s some hope or some end to this. Because this is so unnatural for us to be disconnected from others that if we start losing our commitment to what we’ve been asked to do. If people start becoming complacent, we will end up right back where we started and have to do this all over again. And that is a factor that we do not want to see and something we’re fighting hard against.
If people’s behavior starts to change, we’ll see an increase in cases and mortality shortly thereafter.
MM: What is the sort of plan to start to reopen, do you have a vision for this?
KH: The coordinated effort that the governor just announced this past week with neighboring states was important because we want to make sure that we’re doing things in a coordinated way. In a strategic way and not at odds with other states. To me, certainly in the Hudson Valley, people think nothing of going into Massachusetts or over to Connecticut. And because it’s so geographically close, the boundaries between states become almost non-existent. It’s the metropolitan area. A lot of people live in New York City. They have their second homes in the beautiful Catskills and in Sullivan county and so there’s just this incredible synergy. So what you do in one area will have an impact in another even if it’s in a different state. You open up the bars in New Jersey or Massachusetts and restaurants and pent up New Yorkers start saying, ‘I can cross state lines and do something I miss doing.’ That could continue the spread even longer. So there’ll be a thought out plan just as the closing of businesses and determining what was essential. You know, we had to evolve for a while as more cases came before us. We realized, ‘Well, you’re right, that’s essential. That’s not essential.’
KH: We’ll be doing it the same way in a piecemeal approach because that’s the only way to open this economy will hopefully have some answers before long, but even to say we’ll have answers in another two weeks is impossible to do. So there’s just a lot of unknown here. And it’s frustrating for us because in government you want to govern with predictability and be able to give assurances to the people you represent that there is a date certain. But we’d be misrepresenting the whole situation if we pretended to know that. No one knows that answer right now.
MM: For people who might have had or are asymptomatic, how does one get tested? Will there be a point where they can get tested to determine whether they have been exposed to it or not?
KH: That’s an important dynamic in terms of knowing when we can open up more industries as well as are there people employees who had contracted the virus and again, only 20% of people who contract the virus will need to be hospitalized. So 80% either were asymptomatic or had minor symptoms that they wrote off as being a flu or being a cold. And so because we didn’t have testing available from the federal government early on, we now want to make sure that we have the capability. We’re developing now the antibody test to determine whether or not someone actually developed immunity or developing antibodies to protect them from this. So they would be part of the first wave of people that would be more likely to be able to go back to their workplace because they wouldn’t contract it ideally and also not be able to spread it to someone else. How we get that out there is still a function of trying to mass-produce it. That has not occurred. It’s being worked on with New York State businesses and businesses within the seven-state region. We’re asking other businesses to typically work together to ramp up testing production and getting it out there. There may well be a home testing kit someday, which would be phenomenal. We’re just not there yet.
What you do in one area will have an impact in another even if it’s in a different state.
MM: What are some things people can do to help out.
KH: Yes, we have a COVID-19 website that people can identify that they want to volunteer. Now someone who’s been a retiree, who was a medical professional — there’s certainly a place to fill out your qualifications and reengage in the workforce again. So that’s one dynamic as on the healthcare side, but I think in terms of where there’s a high need, particularly in rural areas, rural poverty is still extremely high and what this has done is exacerbated the existing fault lines that have set apart a lot of people who lived on the margins. There’s a lot of demand for food. So I’m calling on people to check in with your local food banks for monetary and food donations. But also, are you a candidate to help drive food after you’ve had your training and you’re properly equipped and you have the protective equipment on you? Couldn’t you just be a volunteer? I saw a great article about college students in other states banding together while they don’t have classes to attend becoming Meals on Wheels drivers, whereas before I’d always been driven by people that were retirees. I think that’s an area we need to step up our engagement and everyone can help us even on a minor level.
KH: I’m not a good cook. I never pretend to be but if I am home and I’m making a pot of something or roasting something I’m making extra and leaving at the doors of my neighbors because I have a lot of seniors who I don’t want to see out there in the grocery store. I feel worried about them. I want them to be secure in their homes. So even just that neighbor to neighbor checking in on people and you know, this is a time to get to People I mean, if there’s any positive that comes out of this, it’s the ability of us to connect with people, not just your old friends, but also people that you can live in your community that you never had a reason to get to know and understand that they’re under tremendous stress. These are huge disruptions in how we, how humans interact with each other. But we also can come out as stronger in a way that we feel that people are more valued, whether the people that are working in our grocery stores and pharmacies and other people that get up there every day and put themselves in danger in our health care facilities. I think we’re going to just have more gratitude in our hearts for people that we perhaps even just ignored in society, and that’s good for them, and it’s good for us.
MM: Okay, last question. Everyone in New York is kind of concerned about the unemployment situation, since it’s so overwhelmed. Is there any news from your office?
KH: Yes, absolutely. And this was critically important that we address a system that was not functioning the way it should have. And the reasoning is that for 40 years we have the same system as many states based on cobalts technology, which is so antiquated my father knows how to do it, but he’s 83. So we had an antiquated system that we had invested money and we started a year and a half ago to bring into the 21st century. Clearly, that wasn’t done in time for this. But we were aware that that needed to be done in terms of enhancing our technology. But let’s imagine a system that was working fine, and all of a sudden explode to 10 million calls in a week. No, there’s no system on earth that could handle that shift in volume. And we immediately started retraining people from the outside, hiring more people, taking people who were state employees, who are deemed non-essential — even DMV workers — or people who work in different agencies that were now retrained to be part of the call center. So we now have over 1000 people and that number continues to grow answering the phone calls. Google just helped us redesign our website and that was just relaunched.
Rural poverty is still extremely high and what this has done is exacerbated the existing fault lines that have set apart a lot of people who lived on the margins.
KH: But here’s the biggest development. Normally once you get online, you should be able to fill out your application, push send, and it’s in motion. But many times because of some missing information or something you weren’t able to answer or something that didn’t show up consistently, then it would be directing you to make a phone call after you fill it out online. And that’s where the log jam occurred were thousands of people trying to get through the phone line. And what we’ve now instituted is if you cannot file completely online and you need to talk to a person, leave your phone number with us and within 72 hours, we will have a representative call you back. It’s not perfect, but it’s going to be dramatically improved over what it was. We’re trying very, very hard to help smooth out all the obstacles that have been in place before and get it right.
MM: We appreciate this just want to wish you the best of luck with everything going forward and keeping us informed. We really appreciate that.
KH: Thank you and keep producing beautiful work in your magazine. It makes people feel happy.