If you live in Cumberland County and have kids in public schools, you certainly have strong feelings about whether they should return to the classroom. I’ve advocated for a return for several months. You may disagree, but I think everyone believes that the decision should be made on clear science. A flawed system may keep that from happening.
Our school board is currently laying the bureaucratic groundwork to keep our kids at home for the foreseeable future. Their tool: a system of metrics that measure the “covid risk level” in Cumberland County.
The above graphic is taken from a youtube video of the school board’s last virtual meeting. Many of these graphics are blurry screenshots. Apologies, I can’t find the actual charts online. You can watch the video below for clearer images:
The covid metric spreadsheet appears five minutes into the video. It seems that the county gets “points” for four covid metrics:
Case positivity rate
New cases per capita
Rate of acceleration
Active clusters in last 2 weeks
More points = More Covid. The maximum score is 13.
According to our county leaders, we should have a score of 4 or less before kids can go back to class. We’re currently at a score of 6.
A score of 6 puts us in the “Accelerated Spread” category (Orange).
But look closer. The “rate of acceleration” metric says “14 day deceleration.” It’s green.
So we’re in the “Accelerated Spread” category when our “rate of acceleration” is going down? This is absurd on its face. Covid can’t accelerate and decelerate at the same time. It exists in the universe and there are laws governing such things.
Positivity Rate Wrecking the Metrics
Looking closer, it appears that our phantom “acceleration” comes from our current positivity rate. We received 4 of our 6 points from this category alone. Skip to 16:00 in the youtube video to see how this works.
Under the current system, if Cumberland County’s positivity rate was below 6% (it’s currently 7.7%) we would get 2 points instead of 4, for a total score of 4 points. At 4 points, the “metric system” would recommend that our kids go back to school.
Making this worse is the fact that Cumberland County’s positivity rate jumps around. The reason is that the rate is entirely dependent on the number of tests that are analyzed on a given day. You can use the following link to see that we’ve been as low as 5% and as high as 15% within the past month.
It’s entirely possible that our school board keeps school shut down based on a small percentage of one data point.
Since its the linchpin, we may as well read the data point’s “fine print”:
Description/Data Source: This shows the percent of positive tests as a proportion of total (Electronic Lab Reporting) ELR tests. We know that as testing increases, the number of cases can climb. This gives us an idea of the number of cases with respect to the amount of testing being done. These are only calculated using results from labs that report into NC EDSS electronically, listed below. Thus, this many not be representative if a large amount of tests in Cumberland County are being done by labs not reporting electronically. The percent positive displayed is the average percent positive during the last two weeks. Data in this spreadsheet is updated on Mondays. https:covid19nchdds.gov/dashboard/testing
It “may not be representative” but it “may be” the thing that keeps your kids from going to school. Welcome to 2020!
I think we need to find out if there’s a large number of tests in Cumberland County that aren’t being reported. If so, why are we even using this percentage in our decision making? You might as well pick a random number.
A Way Forward
If we’re going to open schools in Cumberland County, we’ve got to get a new system, or at least give less weight to the “percent positive” number that is admittedly based on incomplete data.
A cynic might say that Governor Cooper, NCDHHS, and County administrators set up these metrics with the goal of keeping schools closed. I’m not quite there yet, but if they don’t fix it, I will be.
Here’s one solution: from the very beginning, we have been told that we needed to “shut down” in order to “slow the spread” and avoid overwhelming our health care system. Remember that? What happened that that data point? Fortunately, it’s still being monitored:
If you go to 36:00 minutes in the video, you will hear Michael Nagowski, the head of Cape Fear Valley Hospital. He notes that the number of covid patients has been cut in half since the peak of the pandemic. He says there are twenty eight people at the medical center that are “also covid positive.” The peak was fifty-seven.
This is consistent with (if not better than) the trend across the state:
The number of individuals hospitalized in Cumberland County for covid should carry as much, if not more weight, than the percentage of positive tests. Hospitalizations are not dependent on the number of tests given or the number of labs electronically reporting results to the state. In fact, hospitalizations, apart from deaths, are the best way to determine the severity of the pandemic in this community. There is no “fine print.”
These types of formulas are wonderful for elected officials. Our leaders can sit back and point to a graph or chart and avoid making a difficult decision themselves. It’s the definition of political “cover.” The problem is that once you get in the weeds, you find that the cover is often a smokescreen.
Remember that the ultimate decision rests with your elected officials, not some contradictory color-coded chart on a blurry youtube video. Hold them accountable.
I’ve been writing critically about the downtown development project in Fayetteville for over two years. The purpose of this post is to pose a solution to an ongoing problem. I hope our city leaders take it seriously. If not, I hope they think of something.
In 2017, the City of Fayetteville entered into a contract with several developers to construct a parking deck, offices, and a hotel downtown. The gist of it was this:
The developers would own land next to the new baseball stadium. The developers would build a parking deck on this land. Offices and a hotel would be constructed on top. Once completed, the city would buy the parking deck structure (at cost) and then lease most of the the spaces back to the developers.
The carrot to the developers was government money.
The carrot to the city was economic development downtown. The city could finance the baseball stadium with the increased property tax revenues that were scheduled to come with the new development. This enabled the city to borrow money without putting a bond referendum on the ballot or raising taxes.
The contract between the city and the developers was amended five times, each time to the advantage of the developers. Often, the cost went up for the taxpayers. Other times, the completion date was pushed back.
Since the beginning, my major complaint with the project was that it was an expenditure of taxpayer dollars without a public purpose. Millions were to be spent to construct a parking facility that was going to be used primarily by private developers. There’s a legal argument to be made that this violates the North Carolina Constitution as well as the “Downtown Development Statute” which states “…the property interests of the local government shall be limited to facilities for a public purpose.”
Maybe that’s all moot now. It’s readily apparent that we aren’t going to get the development that was promised any time soon. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that Hyatt will be constructing a new hotel on a parking deck owned by a municipality on land owned by a development company. This was a stretch in normal times. Times are now anything but normal.
A Path Forward
Municipalities have the power to acquire property through the use of eminent domain if the property is being taken for a legitimate public purpose. A municipality must pay the landowner the fair market value of the property in exchange.
The City of Fayetteville currently owns the baseball stadium land (parcel 460 below) as well as the sliver of land connecting the stadium to Hay Street.
Parcel (466) is the parking deck. The land is currently owned by Hay Street Development Pad, LLC. Fayetteville can “take” the land and the deck. The taxpayers will only have to pay the fair market value of the property as it sits today. Presumably, our city leaders would negotiate a price that is fair to taxpayers, not the developers. If no agreement can be reached, the matter can go before a jury to set the value.
Once acquired, the entire deck can be used by the general public. Residents of Prince Charles Apartments can lease spaces, just as any citizen can, for an agreed upon price. The city can lease out spaces to season ticket holders for baseball season and use the deck for other special events at the stadium.
This plan enables both sides to save face. It cuts to the reality that if we were going to get a hotel and offices, we would have already. Covid is an excuse at this point. Let’s call a spade a spade.
If it becomes economically feasible in a post-covid world to develop structures on top of the deck, the city can partner with anyone who is willing to honor its obligations and do so.
As you might expect after seeing the first figure, our health care system is not being overrun. In fact, the number of “in use” hospital beds has decreased while covid “positives” have increased over the past month.
Today, I ate lunch in downtown Fayetteville at a place called Agora. Try it. It’s good. But, it got me thinking.
Per wikipedia: The agora (/ˈæɡərə/; Ancient Greek: ἀγορά agorá) was a central public space in ancient Greekcity-states. It is the best representation of city form’s response to accommodate the social and political order of the polis. The literal meaning of the word is “gathering place” or “assembly”. The agora was the center of the athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life in the city. The Ancient Agora of Athens is the best-known example.
Per Atlas Obscura (a really cool site): But what marked the Agora with everlasting glory was the other commodity traded and peddled daily: ideas. The Agora was the meeting grounds and hang out spot for ancient Athenians, where members of the elected democracy assembled to discuss affairs of state, noblemen came to conduct business, ordinary citizens got together to meet up with friends and watch performers, and where the famed philosophers doused their listeners with wisdom (or rubbish).
Downtown was exceptionally busy today. It’s been that way lately.
After lunch, I passed protesters camping out at the Market House. Yesterday, there was a larger protest on Hay Street. It got a little rowdy.
Our police chief was right in the middle of it.
There’s an idealistic clash in America right now. It’s a war of ideas about what the Nation was, is, and should be moving forward. A similar war is raging over what Fayetteville should be. We’re being tested. But at least we have a place to show up and present those ideas that’s not the internet. When people meet face to face, they often find they have more in common than they think. Truth emerges eventually when we listen to one another.
Covid has destroyed many of our communal traditions that hold us together as a city. We’re not going to church, ballgames, and Fourth of July fireworks shows. It’s hard to listen when you’re sitting at home. The virus isn’t going away anytime soon. In the meantime, at least we have a public space where people are going to hash it out.
America is full of ideas. You’re free to peddle yours daily in downtown Fayetteville, be they wisdom or rubbish.