SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Thursday night, NewsChannel 9 presented “Dark Days: Six Months of Coronavirus.” The 30-minute documentary takes Central New Yorkers behind the scenes of the earliest days of the pandemic.
The special program includes brand new interviews with several local leaders about the tough decisions they faced as coronavirus approached and as the pandemic hit.
On December 31, 2019, crowds celebrating the new year ahead at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo or Marriott Syracuse Downtown were blissfully unaware of what was already on the way.
At the time, McMahon had just been sworn in for his full first term as Onondaga County Exeuctive.
In a brand new interview with NewsChannel 9, McMahon says, “We were just coming off of 2019, one of the best years in our county’s history from an economic standpoint.”
Dr. Stephen Thomas, the chief of infectious disease at Upstate Medical University, remembers what was posted by medical colleagues: “The 31st of December, they threw a thing up that says mysterious pneumonia is killing people in China.”
“We had our first meeting about COVID on January 29th. It was a very small meeting,” Onondaga County’s Commissioner of Emergency Management tells NewsChannel 9.
COVID is Coming
McMahon remembers were he was when he first became alarmed about a virus that hadn’t even been confirmed in New York State yet. He says, “We were at a conference in Washington DC with my peers from across the country. That’s when the first case was confirmed in Seattle, Washington, in King County. And the King County Executive and I were going to be speaking on an early childhood topic. He got to the conference, but had to quickly leave to go back to his community.”
On March 4, McMahon returned to his community too, as he held what would be his first of many briefings.
When asked about his first alarming moment, Dr. Stephen Thomas says, “When the cases started popping up in Westchester. This is not going to go well, and it’s going to become a Central New York issue.”
It was becoming an issue at the worst time, just days before thousands were scheduled to get together for Syracuse’s St. Patrick’s Parade.
That Monday, March 10, Ryan McMahon said, “It really should be game on for the parade on Saturday.”
The county executive pointed to the numbers. Onondaga County had no cases of coronavirus, nor did any neighboring community.
Dr. Stephen Thomas says, “When they were saying this parade was going to happen, looking at the totality of what was going on, I didn’t have any issue with it, but as the days went on, things changed.”
Knowing how the flu spreads, Dr. Thomas felt Central New York would get whatever New York City gets about two weeks later.
Thomas says, “There probably already are infected people in this community and you put 3,000 people together on the street, then in the bars, it’s not going to play well.”
On Wednesday, March 11, nobody knew the Syracuse Orange’s upset over North Carolina would be the last game of the basketball season. The next day, the rest of ACC Tournament was cancelled.
Thursday morning, March 12, two days before the parade, Monroe and Albany counties got their first positive cases.
Dr. Thomas remembers calling the Onondaga County Executive: “I said, ‘This is what we’re seeing, how we’re interpreting it, this is my concern, this is my recommendation.'”
“That was a real bummer. That’s a personal event for me and my family that we look forward to,” McMahon tells NewsChannel 9.
Dr. Thomas credits the Onondaga County Executive and Mayor of Syracuse for being open to regular communication and feedback.
Thomas says, “I am not a dramatic person, but I would say that decision was probably one of the best decisions in terms of getting Central New York on a good path. That decision bought us time.”
March 16: The First Case
The Onondaga County Executive remembers the call: “I was in my car. I knew what it was before I answered.”
Confirmed on Monday, March 16, the first case was a woman in her 70s with no history of travel. Her husband was the second case.
Some schools across Central New York wouldn’t reopen on Tuesday, March 17.
By the end of the week, the county executive’s briefings were happening daily from the socially distanced Oncenter.
His and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s briefings from Albany became appointment television, and would be more important as the deaths began.
March 26: The First Death
On March 26, McMahon announced: “I stand here with a heavy heart. We’ve had our first death in our community related to the COVID-19 disease.”
In his new interview, McMahon says, “It was tough to sleep every night to be honest with you. You’re carrying the weight of the world. The worst day of the pandemic for me was the day we lost five people.”
“I won’t forget when I found out. It was just tough, tough for me to stay on top of my game. That was my toughest moment,” McMahon remembers.
With tears in her eyes, Onondaga County Health Commissioner Dr. Indu Gupta says, “As a physician, I’ve signed death certificates for a majority of my life. It was never easy, but I could hold my patient’s family’s hand, hug them, send them a card. Here, I can’t do those. It’s hard.”
As people continued dying, Syracuse’s hospitals began filling up. Onondaga County reserved Manley Fieldhouse as a field hospital.
Commissioner Wears says, “We all know what the worst could have been. We’ve seen it in other parts of the world, state. That’s not easy to talk about, but we had to be prepared to handle it.”
Between Central New York’s largest counties, Onondaga and Oneida, 323 people have died from COVID-19 as of September 24. About half of them died in state-regulated nursing homes.
It’s a regret the Onondaga County Executive has to this day.
McMahon says, “We tried early on to get authority to make them do things that they pushed back on. We were reminded we don’t have that authority. If I had to do anything, as loud as I was, could have been louder? Internally, I reflect on that.”
He did have the authority when it came to testing other senior housing complexes, aware that workers were unknowingly bringing in the virus.
The county executive says, “When we started pushing out asymptomatic testing into senior facilities, that was one of our proudest moments. We saved people’s lives. We would have found cases that would have run through those buildings like they ran through nursing homes.”
At the height of the pandemic, there was no scarier, but also no more inspiring place than the hallways of Syracuse’s hospitals.
Dr. Robert Corona, the CEO for Upstate University Hospital, says, “I hear it everywhere I go, thank you to Upstate.”
“The nurses that went into COVID positive rooms with virus all over the place, with courage all over their face, with grit, they went and took care of those patients. They didn’t have to have a conversation with me. I saw it in their eyes,” says Corona.
Some took that determination to another hospital in the SUNY system, Stony Brook, which was treating entirely COVID patients from the New York City area. Just as much gratitude is owed to Upstate’s researchers, who’ve helped New York become a leader in testing.
Commissioner Wears says, “I talk to some of my peers around the state, their counties aren’t doing what we’ve been doing.”
Ryan McMahon says, “We can point to that as a big turning point.”
Most SUNY campuses are now testing their students’ saliva and sending the swabs to Upstate’s labs for results. That test was approved this week by the Food and Drug Administration.
Corona says, “We’re talking about thousands of tests a day we can do.”
Fight For PPE
Testing wasn’t always that easy. In the early days, nasal swabs and testing chemicals seemed worth their weight in gold.
When Onondaga County first offered testing at the Syracuse Community Health Center before there was a single case, nurses were lucky to have enough supplies to get through the day.
“There was nothing normal in March and April. It was the wild, wild west,” remembers Dr. Corona. “We were bidding on these crazy prices that were things were several cents, now five, eight dollars a mask. Everybody had a friend who could get us cheaper PPE. Our materials people had to vet that through. Was it the real deal? Was it a knock-off?”
He remembers his security teams driving down to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City to pick up an order of PPE.
He says, “When it got there, it was taken. and we don’t know who took it.”
Health Commissioner Gupta wants people to know: “This mask, we should have the name written in there. This mask means ‘economy.’ Because people can enjoy life and keep restaurants open, shops open, go out and hang out with limited groups, keep activity and emotional health going.”
Dr. Thomas agrees, “When people think about wearing a mask and how that may impact their personal rights, they (should be) thinking of their neighbor or parent or grandparent. It’s not about them. It’s about the community and saving each others lives.”
Grading Central New York
When asked to grade Central New York, Dr. Gupta says, “I don’t know whether I should grade it. I would say we have done quite well.”
Dr. Stephen Thomas says, “I think we did well. I think we are doing well. It’s not over.”
When asked about how the federal government performed, Dr. Thomas says, “I think the federal government could learn a lot from the State of New York and Central New York. That’s how I feel.”
Dr. Corona agrees: “You can’t argue with the data, the science. We did it. We had the same tools that other states did. We used them. The outcomes are pretty impressive.”
“The community stepped up and stopped this virus. The community stopped the worst case scenario from happening,” says Commission Wears.
Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon says, “I think overall, this period of time and those of us who lived in it, history will judge us well.”