WATERTOWN — We worried and were sickened. We were engrossed by numbers. We mourned and buried our dead. We emptied shelves. We were careful. W…
WATERTOWN — For Scott A. Gray, Jefferson County’s go-to guy for COVID-19, mid-February finally brought a bit of hope after he faced a year of gut punches, a personal business blow, bittersweet battles, political footballs and a sense of surrealness in dealing with the pandemic crisis.
The vaccine had begun rolling out, and residents began slowly rotating into drug stores, health care providers and the county’s mass vaccination site at Jefferson Community College for the coveted COVID-19 vaccinations. Mr. Gray, chairman of Jefferson County’s Board of Legislators, was interviewed as the county’s COVID-related death toll approached 80 and the country prepared to mark a half million deaths caused by the novel coronavirus.
The battle is far from over, but Mr. Gray was asked if there is anything he could look back on to maybe find something worthy of taking away from it all and to carry forward, post-pandemic.
“One thing I’ve learned is that we have tremendous people in our community willing to help and willing to come together and to always know there are people you can count on and that people will step up and answer the bell when it’s time to go to work and it’s time to help the community,” he said. “We’re very, very fortunate in that regard.”
Like most of us, Mr. Gray didn’t know late last winter what the COVID storm would bring. While reading and watching the news, he heard about a new virus and he discussed it with his brother, who lives in Oregon, a neighboring state of Washington, where the first U.S. case was confirmed on Jan. 20, 2020.
March 1 brought the first confirmed case in New York state. Jefferson County confirmed its first case 15 days later.
On March 7, 2020, Mr. Gray was at his business, the fourth-generation Gray’s Flower Shop, 1605 State St., when he learned everything in the state, except essential services and businesses, would be shut down.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued a statewide disaster emergency to address the threat that COVID-19 poses.
“My business, being a perishable product business, we had to start prepping for closure,” he said. “My family has been in that business for over 100 years. We never closed. It was kind of strange. And then we had to throw a bunch of product away.”
Mr. Gray’s direct involvement with managing the county’s response and coordination to battling COVID-19 also took shape with the disaster emergency status. It’s spelled out in Article 2-B of state Executive Law, which created the Disaster Preparedness Commission in 1978. It signifies a county’s top elected officer to be put in charge in those localities during state disasters.
“That’s why people get muddied up in this whole bit about why the governor is acting the way he’s responding,” Mr. Gray said. “He’s responding under Article 2-B, as chief elected officer in the state. That’s where the relationship comes from the county level to the governor’s office.”
Mr. Gray was among those hit with a sense of bewilderment after the disaster declaration.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen, how bad it was going to get. And as we’re closing down, it became surreal. I remember, just traveling through town, and it was like empty,” he said.
Thoughts of Chernobyl, the nuclear power plant site in Ukraine that experienced a disastrous nuclear accident in 1986, and now abandoned, entered his mind.
“There was no traffic, no business, no business activity,” he said. “There was just nothing around. It was a very strange, eerie sense that you got early on with the process and not knowing where this all was going to head.”
Meanwhile, in the early days of being the pandemic’s local point man, Mr. Gray was tossed something that muddled the gears. The situation became a political football.
“Which has become the unfortunate thing of this whole situation,” Mr. Gray said. “We have politicized this thing and basically, it hampers the ability to mitigate it and to do what we’re supposed to be doing to protect the community and to make sure we’re safe as possible.”
Through it all, Mr. Gray said he has tried to be a realist through the crisis.
“I just put the truth straight out there,” he said. “Like it or not, this is the reality of the situation. I’m not trying to communicate depressing information, or trying to be over-exuberant. It’s just, ‘This is the situation.’ People can digest that information and take it however they will. I’ve just been straight-forward with people.”
The state finally began to ease restrictions in late spring, and businesses began to open up, but not before Mr. Gray faced daily pressure from county residents about when that would happen. He was deluged with phone calls, texts and emails.
“That was probably one of the most intense times — going through the opening process,” Mr. Gray said.
Later, the fight for the opening of one type of business would be bittersweet, resulting in something that personally continues to haunt Mr. Gray.
In August, the governor announced bowling allies could open after five months of being shuttered. It was something pushed by Mr. Gray and others, who dubbed the facilities “orphan businesses” — a phrase the state picked up on.
“They were just left closed after pretty much everyone else pretty much opened,” Mr. Gray said. “We had a couple of bowling alleys closed and we went to bat for them.”
But Mr. Gray said the situation became “bittersweet” after he learned in December about the death of Pla-Mor Lanes co-owner Del Leween, 72, who ran the facility with his family. Mr. Leween’s obituary said he died from complications of COVID-19.
“That was kind of one of the bittersweet moments,” Mr. Gray said. “You think you’re doing well for somebody to try to get their livelihood back, and I get news one night of Shane Leween’s father’s death. It was like a gut punch.”
Mr. Gray found himself reviewing his push for bowling allies.
“You say to yourself, ‘Did I really do them a favor?’ — because now it’s caused them a life of a family member. Those are the things your mind struggles with and come into play when you are sitting at the point of this whole situation; a decision you may have made or help make results in someone losing their life, possibly,” he said. “That weighs heavily on you.”
Mr. Gray said he realized then that every decision made in battling the virus could have critical consequences.
Mr. Gray has worked closely with the Jefferson County Public Health Service throughout the pandemic as the government agency dealt with everything from test and vaccination sites to offering disease prevention tips.
“They are doing yeoman’s work that’s stellar in their performance,” Mr. Gray said. “They’ve had to endure a very long year, a lot of hours, a lot of weeks with no days off. Our whole community has basically been riding on their backs for a year.”
Mr. Gray said he’s “taken the point” often on the disease, so the public health service could focus on its job.
“We’ll go back to it being politicized,” he said. “I don’t want them to have to deal with that. They have to stay focused on what their role is. It’s my job to take undue pressure away from them and let them continue to do their work, while if there’s any criticism in the public, I’ll take that.”
Mr. Gray’s role as point person would clearly become apparent with two situations: one in Clayton and the other in Carthage.
Last summer, a sudden uptick in COVID-19 cases in the village of Clayton turned the reviving area into a quiet and uncertain place. Many restaurants temporarily closed. The county was able to connect the outbreak to people gathering in boats at Picton Island during the Fourth of July weekend.
“That was a critical moment because we had businesses that were open, an economy that’s trying to run and a tourist economy sputtering because people weren’t traveling, going out to eat a lot. So, we’re trying to salvage anything we can in terms of our economy when we have an outbreak,” Mr. Gray said. “That outbreak caused 10 businesses in the river area to close.”
Local officials pushed for state resources to help deal with the situation.
“Again, we went to bat at the state, leaned on them and said we need a massive testing operation,” Mr. Gray said. “We called upon the governor’s office and they responded. They sent up a platoon of people from the (state) Department of Health. That’s really the foundation. You have to identify the virus and the magnitude. So testing is critical. It’s the building block of everything we do to mitigate this situation.”
The Clayton outbreak soon subsided.
“The objective of that was to get businesses back on their feet, opened up and instill some confidence in the community that we had identified all the cases and they were all isolated and we could get back to business,” he said. “You are day in and day out fighting for the livelihoods of people.”
Adversity in Carthage
Mr. Gray said the rise in north country coronavirus cases began ramping up around Halloween time.
And more local loss of life due to the disease was being recorded.
“People became complacent over the holidays or just doing their daily activities,” Mr. Gray said. “Fatigue set in, so we’re having to deal with that. People were trying to get back to normalcy, but it’s being blunted by the virus.”
Microclusters of disease appeared, and Mr. Gray worried about another shutdown.
“And ultimately, we get into the very grim details of this whole situation, and that’s when we start having loss of life, and it’s mainly associated with the Carthage centers, and that was tragic,” he said.
Families and residents complained of a lack of communication from Carthage Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, which the center would later take steps to address.
Mr. Gray’s uncle, C. Richard “Duke” Mihalyi, was at the Carthage Center for a short time. He died there Jan. 25 at the age of 94.
“I’m from the Carthage area, so I had a lot of friends who have family members in there that were communicating with me,” Mr. Gray said. “I saw first-hand the difficulty people had being separated from their loved ones, either in homes or adult long-term care facilities.”
On Feb. 3, Julie Ann Turpin, a native of Deferiet and a long-time resident of the center, died at the age of 62. Mr. Gray knew her well.
“She was the nicest person you’d come across,” he said. “As a kid, I hung out in Deferiet. It became personal with my uncle, and it really became a personal fight for Julie. I was scared for Julie.”
Shots of hope
The virus transmission rate in Jefferson County around the first of the year, Mr. Gray said, hit 1.26%.
A transmission rate of 1.0 means that each person who has the virus passes it to one other person.
“In the world of contagious viruses, anything above 1.2% is what they consider wildfire,” he said.
Meanwhile, vaccines began rolling out locally in December.
“We’re dealing with a very high rate of transmission and a vaccination process that has to get off the ground,” Mr. Gray said. “I told people from moment one what the vaccine rollout was going to be — in my very technical term — very clunky. It’s proven to be every bit clunky. We’re talking about a lot of people. And they’re talking herd immunity being at 80 percent. We have to be around 45,000 people. That’s a major undertaking.”
As of Saturday, the state reported that 13,200 Jefferson County residents were fully vaccinated.
The beginning of the local vaccine rollout was “fragmented, a shotgun-blast,” Mr. Gray said.
In late January, the county announced that Jefferson Community College would become a mass vaccination site. Ginger B. Hall, director of the Jefferson County Public Health Service, at the time thanked residents for their patience.
“We have a plan to vaccinate every eligible resident, but it will take time,” she said when the site was announced.
The JCC vaccination site has been running smoothly for the past few weeks, and on Tuesday, the state announced people ages 60 and over, government workers, nonprofit employees and essential building service workers could start signing up for the vaccine.
“We pushed for the mass vaccination site, which is critical for our community going forward,” Mr. Gray said. “That’s where we can turn a lot of people over and put a lot of people through — get them vaccinated very quickly, versus going out and having all these individual operations.”
The focus then became reaching out to various demographics, such as those without health insurance and people not connected to the internet and unable to make vaccination appointments.
“All of that has to be addressed going forward,” Mr. Gray said. “I have told everybody, and I’ve been very strong on the point, that we will make sure this is an inclusive process. For not only the people who have the means to get there to get vaccinated, but we need to do a hard reach for the people who may not have the means to know when and where to get vaccinated, and how.”
It’s simply a case where success will benefit the entire community, Mr. Gray said.
“All the credit belongs to the health care community and I’ll accept the criticism, along with communicating to the public, part of my role,” Mr. Gray said. “It also drives me to make sure everyone performs at a high level.”
He added, “Our success is not necessarily our success personally. It’s the success of the community. When the least among you is taken care of, that’s success.”