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You are here: Home Section Table Good Work No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Village’s Efforts to Reassure Residents Turns Controversial
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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Village’s Efforts to Reassure Residents Turns Controversial

MoorjaniOn Tuesday March 10, Scarsdale Village officials hosted a special work session to update residents on their work to address COVID-19 and to provide commentary from an infectious disease expert – all in an effort to inform and reassure the community.

Well, you know what they say about “best-laid plans.” While the village’s plan was commendable, its invited speaker, Dr. Harish Moorjani, made a number of remarks that offended Scarsdale residents – in particular, members of the Chinese community – and undermined much of what he had to say.

The meeting started well, with Mayor Marc Samwick stating, “While the village relies on the state and county health departments for assistance with widespread health issues, we have also enacted measures to ensure that our first responders have the resources and training required to protect themselves and our community.” He then explained that village staff have implemented a variety of steps to ensure continued delivery of essential government services while maintaining public health and containing the spread of COVID-19.

As part of its efforts, the village has implemented “social distancing” procedures in its interactions among staff and with residents. Social distancing, essentially, is a coordinated effort to keep people away from each other by limiting close contact. For instance, at Tuesday’s meeting, all participants were seated considerable distances from each other. The village will work to record/live stream all future meetings to reach those who feel uncomfortable attending public sessions. (Recordings generally are available via the village website the following day.)

Who are you, man?
Samwick then introduced Dr. Moorjani, a Westchester-based infectious disease specialist, to discuss his take on the coronavirus, including its genesis, global spread, and future outlook. In beginning his presentation – reassuring to some and insulting to others – the doctor said, “The more infectious disease doctors who get involved in this rapidly evolving epidemiological situation… the better off the community is.” He continued, “It’s all evidence-based medicine…and how we can implement lessons learned into our communities… Knowledge is going to keep us functioning without any major hinderance.”

Moorjani, who recently spoke to residents in New Castle, stated that it was important to address fear and misinformation among members of the public. He also called out other doctors who have appeared in the media, sounding doomsday warnings about what lies ahead. Asking, ‘Who are you, man?” he claimed that some are “falling prey to panic because they have no knowledge” and urged people to listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

Some takeaways from his presentation include:

• Coronaviruses are common among animals; COVID-19, like the coronaviruses SARS and MERS, has spread to humans.

• The virus attacks the respiratory system by attaching to receptors in the throat and lungs. It is spread person-to-person, between people who are in close contact (about six feet), through coughing and sneezing.

• People with underlying diseases – cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, diabetes, and compromised immune systems – are at risk. Smoking or vaping can also increase your risk of  contracting the virus.

• Approximately 81% of reported cases are mild; 14% are severe and require some medical assistance; and 5% are critical, marked by respiratory failure/septic shock/organ failure.

• Moorjani believes that flying is very safe as airplanes re-circulate and filter air, preventing the spread of the virus between passengers. He had advice about avoiding infection while going through security and boarding the plane, but believes, in general, that it is safe to fly.

• Total fatality rate is about 2.3% and dropping; by comparison, MERS had a 34% mortality rate and SARS had a 9.7% mortality rate.

• One treatment - Remdesivir - is in clinical trials, with results due in three months. Compassionate use of the drug is now available for those with severe disease.

Unintended uproar
However, some residents who were present and/or saw Moorjani's presentation also asked, “Who are YOU, man?” and took exception to the doctor’s commentary that was critical of the Chinese government and culture. Specifically, he referred to the disease as the "Wuhan virus,” blamed conditions in Chinese meat markets for fostering the evolution of COVID-19 and other outbreaks, and asserted that the Chinese government has refused to share medical information/research with other countries, and routinely steals research from U.S. companies working on treatments.

Some felt that his comments fed into existing suspicions and stereotypes faced by the Chinese community, rather than promoting unity in the face of the current crisis. Others accused him of spreading his own brand of misinformation and bad advice. Unfortunately, rather than focusing on potentially useful data in Moorjani’s talk, much of the following discussion focused on his insensitive comments, discrimination in Scarsdale, and what would be done to disavow his statements.

Of course, no one expected the Medical Director of the Infectious Disease Clinic at Westchester Medical Center to delve into stereotypes, prejudice, and political incorrectness. Samwick immediately disavowed Moorjani’s comments at the regular BOT meeting a bit later in the evening. He said, “I, personally, spoke with the doctor on more than one occasion, was very clear… for everything to be scientific, fact-based, and consistent with the CDC, and the state and county departments of health.” He went on, “What we witnessed this evening was outside of those bounds and I apologize from the bottom of my heart. It was not acceptable; it is not who this community is. We are better than that; we are inclusive; we are welcoming, and we are very happy that you are part of this community.”

Samwick’s comments clearly were heartfelt, appreciated by residents, and shared by his fellow trustees. The question is whether people will glean useful information from Moorjani’s talk or discard it altogether.

Getting back on track
On the flip side, Scarsdale residents can be assured that the village is doing everything it can to protect the public and staff from the spread of COVID-19. The Village Manager, Police and Fire chiefs, village department heads, and the head of Scarsdale Volunteer Ambulance Corps detailed their efforts to address and contain the virus, while maintaining a consistent, high level of service to the community.

Village Manager Steve Pappalardo said, “The coronavirus has been a 24/7 operation for the village (and) the emergency management team and public works have been working around the clock. The situation evolves on a daily basis, it changes frequently, and we need to be on top of that and pivot as necessary while we’re trying to get other things done.” He continued, "There are lots of government, health, and other agencies and elected officials involved in this."

Village staff are continually meeting to assess preventative measures at village hall and other facilities, while keeping Scarsdale online. Staff are cleaning and sanitizing high contact areas, and have made contingency plans should village hall close. Specifically, village officials have set up remote access systems, made provisions for payroll and bill payments, and will curtail justice court and other activities as needed/practical.

In addition to enacting similar sanitation precautions and contingency plans, the police and fire departments are operating at 100% and have emergency response procedures in place to ensure continuity of operations. The Police Department also has reached out to older residents who may be vulnerable to coronavirus and is in communication with The Ambassador assisted living facility on Saxon Woods Road. Should one or members of the department fall ill, causing a reduction in staffing, the village would rely on its mutual aid agreements with neighboring areas that would ensure no disruption in safety and security.

Of particular importance is the preparedness of the public works department, responsible for the village’s sanitation and water operations. Officials assured residents that staff actively are working to prevent the spread of the virus with increased cleaning and sanitizing of public areas in downtown Scarsdale, including the parking garage; are cleaning sanitation trucks and carts more frequently; and practicing social distancing. Residents also have no need to worry about the water supply – the village’s water comes from the Kensico Reservoir and is treated with ultraviolet light to kill all viruses. In addition, the village has additional pump station workers on standby should any staff members become sick or quarantined.

Scarsdale Volunteer Ambulance Corps also is well prepared with supplies, sanitation equipment, and up-to-date training on how to deal with patients who may be infected. Noting that the corps is staffed with both career, paid paramedics and volunteers, David Raizen, SVAC president, said, “We are well staffed, in good shape, and have everything we need at this time.”

What about the election?
In light of the new social distancing policy, village officials are concerned about next Wednesday’s village election, during which many residents will be expected to come to small space to cast votes. Distribution of absentee ballots appears to be a viable solution but, by law, the ballots cannot be used by healthy voters who are in the village on election day. So, staff are asking for advice from the state board of elections and the county health department on how best to proceed while keeping residents safe.

Should the election proceed as planned, village staff will continually sanitize the area during the 15 hours that the polls will be open.

For more information, Scarsdale residents are urged to continually check scarsdale.com for important updates.

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