Although Governor Hochul’s long-promised review of New York’s COVID response hasn’t formally started yet, it is already exposing important information about the state’s pandemic preparedness – much of which is unflattering.
On Wednesday, the Hochul administration announced that the study would be conducted by the Olson Group Ltd., an emergency management consulting firm from Alexandria, Va.
Officials said the pending contract calls for the firm to be paid up to $4.3 million, with a report due in one year.
The first revealing bit of evidence is the timing. The hiring came more than two and half years after the state learned how tragically unprepared it was for a major pandemic, and 15 months after a governor resigned rather than face impeachment in part because of how he handled the crisis.
Back in April, Hochul reportedly told her cabinet she wanted a “deep dive” on the state’s response in a matter of weeks, then waited until July to launch the search for outside help. Officials estimated they would award the contract “on or about” Sept. 20, which was six weeks ago.
Given that COVID killed more than 75,000 New Yorkers – and the next virus could arrive at any time – the state’s leaders might have been expected to show more urgency in studying how to improve their operations.
Next, the $4.3 million price tag seems modest under the circumstances.
That’s less than what former Governor Andrew Cuomo was paid to write his book about the crisis. That’s less than what the Public Service Commission has committed for a “broadband mapping study.” It’s $2.3 million less than what the Assembly paid the law firm that advised its impeachment inquiry.
Given that New York is expecting to receive $30 billion in federal pandemic relief, it could afford to allocate more than 0.015 percent of that amount to understand what went wrong and be better prepared for the next outbreak.
Further revealing details can be found in the state’s answers to questions posed by firms that were thinking of bidding for the study contract.
Firms were curious about how much access they would be given to relevant information such as data, documents and interviews with current and former officials – which is an important consideration given the Cuomo administration’s months-long attempt to hide the true COVID death toll in nursing homes.
The state’s response gave no guarantees:
“The State will work with the vendor to access state data as expeditiously as possible. … Please note, this review does not and will not have the power to compel participation or document production.” (Emphasis added.)
In other words, the Olson Group will not have subpoena power to obtain documents or testimony from the former governor, his top aides or any other uncooperative witnesses – which could be a significant obstacle to getting at the truth.
Would-be bidders also asked whether the state had conducted any other “after-action reviews,” which are considered a standard part of good emergency management.
“We are not aware of any comprehensive [after-action reviews] developed by State Agencies during the previous 2 years on COVID-19 response,” the state replied. “Interim agency reviews, if conducted, can be made available.”
That fact by itself points to a glaring problem: A public health system that doesn’t systematically and routinely learn from its mistakes is doomed to repeat them.
So far, the Hochul administration’s efforts on this front are sending troubling signals. Fully analyzing New York’s response to a catastrophe as big as COVID-19 should be a major, urgent priority for state government – not something to be grudgingly addressed years later by a consultant on a skimpy budget.