The New York State Association of Counties, with the New York State County Executives’ Association, has published an account of the pandemic and how local, state and federal agencies handled themselves throughout.
The book, titled “Our Darkest Hours: New York County Leadership & the COVID Pandemic,” is available on Amazon and from Archway Publishing. It chronicles counties’ experiences and responses throughout the first year of the pandemic.
“The State of Emergency may be coming to an end in the state of New York, but we cannot and should not forget that there were too many lives lost and too many livelihoods disrupted to let the experience gained during this crisis be lost to history,” said Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, the immediate past president of the New York State County Executives’ Association. “We felt very strongly that the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic needed to be told so that the next generation of local leaders are better prepared when disaster strikes.”
Part I of the book includes written or oral histories submitted by county executives documenting what happened in their county. Monroe County Executive Adam Bello has a chapter in the book in which he describes when the county learned of its first case of COVID-19 and, six days later, its first death.
“The first of too many lives tragically lost, and particularly troubling because no one knew how the person had become infected,” Bello wrote.
The county quickly closed schools and declared a state of emergency. An executive order signed by Bello would prohibit the in-person paying of taxes, for example, and the county started a small-business loan program that likely kept many businesses alive.
“One of our earliest and most critical decisions in shaping our response to COVID-19 was that we would do it as a community,” Bello wrote. “We convened our two hospital systems, local elected leaders and the county health department to ensure we were collaborating and sharing the best, most accurate information available. Transparency was critical.”
The number of cases and deaths, as well as where clusters were being seen were communicated daily through multiple media outlets.
“At one of our briefings I demonstrated how to make a homemade mask,” Bello recalled in the book. “Thinking back, it was a wild thing to do – interrupting “Days of Our Lives” so the county executive could do arts and crafts on live TV. But it worked. I spotted more than a few homemade masks during my next trip to the grocery store.”
Later in the chapter, Bello recalls how he felt when he found out about the region’s first COVID-19 death.
“I was stressed out about making the announcement, along with the other bad news – the cancelation of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the closing of the schools. I mentioned to a friend that I was like the Bad News Bears, and he replied, ‘Adam, you’re not the one who went out into the street and threw a bottle of coronavirus on the ground to get everybody sick. You’re the person who has to convey what’s happening and how the public is going to get through it.’
“For me, it was a good reset moment, a moment of clarity,” Bello wrote. “The job of a leader in the middle of a pandemic is to communicate and answer questions. You can’t be afraid to give bad news or admit to not knowing the answers, all while reassuring people that you will do everything you can to figure it out.”
NYSCEA President Marcus Molinaro said that the work the state’s counties did to stop the spread of the virus and get people vaccinated “may be the most important work we have ever done as county leaders.”
“We owed it to the county leaders who come after us to provide an accurate and unvarnished account of what happened so that when it’s their turn to step up as onsite incident commanders, they don’t have to relearn the same hard lessons,” Molinaro said in a statement.
Part II of the book provides a public policy account of what the group calls the “fractured federal and state response” to COVID-19, while also exploring the economic impact of New York on Pause, the state executive powers and the “diminution of local home rule.”
“The book is a commemoration of the struggle and the hardship and what the county leaders went through during the height of the pandemic. They were the ones on the ground working seven days a week for 18 months, coordinating efforts to secure PPE, enforce mask and social distancing mandates while also encouraging residents to check on their neighbors and support struggling local businesses,” said NYSAC Executive Director Stephen Acquario, one of the book’s co-authors. “These are stories that needed to be documented for posterity. They must not be forgotten.”
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