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Borough Presidents Demand Probe Into City Hall’s Shielding of Neighborhood COVID Death Data

SHARE Borough Presidents Demand Probe Into City Hall’s Shielding of Neighborhood COVID Death Data

Mayor Bill de Blasio

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Two borough presidents called for an investigation of the city’s handling of COVID-related data after THE CITY revealed the de Blasio administration withheld a map tracking fatalities by neighborhood as the pandemic peaked last year.

“The issue of what data, and when it should be available to the public, should be discussed,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who will soon rejoin the City Council, where she created the city’s Open Data law a decade ago. 

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards agreed there should be an investigation — and perhaps legislation to ensure transparency during emergencies. 

“We knew people were dying — and being transparent with this information could have saved lives because it also would have pinpointed that these were the neighborhoods that needed the testing,” said Richards, who was a City Council member when the pandemic hit the city in March 2020.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The demand for a closer look at key data follows THE CITY’s report that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene put together the fatalities map for release in early April 2020 as COVID deaths were about to peak. But City Hall delayed making the information public for weeks, emails reviewed by THE CITY show. 

The emails offered a glimpse into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s early-days management of pandemic information as he now moves to expand virus mandates and as his health department is alerting New Yorkers about the spread of new variants, including Omicron.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday that the city has logged 13 Omicron cases so far, with seven more emerging elsewhere in the state. She added that she would announce new measures Friday to combat “this impending surge.” 

‘Get This Up and Out’

During a sit-down interview held by Hunter College at the Roosevelt House on Tuesday, de Blasio declared that the city’s health department was the first to put out COVID data that showed the inequalities of the virus. 

“We started to get data in, in the very beginning of COVID, we needed to make sure it was accurate — because it was powerful and controversial,” he said. “We needed to make sure it was real. But once we became convinced we had enough data we put it out.”

A spokesperson for the mayor said this week that the administration was committed to transparency, and noted the trove of data and information released by the city and its health department during the nearly two years of the pandemic. 

A City Hall official recently said there were concerns in early April 2020 that releasing a map of deaths would stigmatize certain neighborhoods — and provide a false sense of security in others. 

But health department officials at the time, including some who have since left the agency, said the delays in releasing information came during a crucial juncture. 

“We wanted to get this up and out so people could try to understand” the severity of the virus, said one former health department employee. 

Once the ZIP code-level death data was released on May 18, 2020, it showed how the virus generally ravaged poorer neighborhoods more than wealthier ones.

Nearly 35,000 New Yorkers have died of COVID since March of 2020. 

‘It’s Shameful’

Richards said he and other elected officials repeatedly asked for information on deaths as the virus spread through their communities in the initial weeks of the pandemic. 

“Trauma still remains within the borders of these communities, and it’s shameful that they withheld this data,” Richards said. 

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Brewer called for the Council to examine open data policies at every agency — starting with the health department, where withholding information “has much more of a domino effect, particularly when you have life and death,” she said. 

She said that information about where most of the deaths were happening could have helped better direct government resources as well as grassroots mutual aid efforts. 

“The city should have coordinated better,” said Brewer, who is running to become the Council’s next speaker. “How did that impact the decisions that were made?”

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