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‘Remembering the Lessons of Crisis: How Erie County, NY Endured COVID-19’
√ Extensively detailed and deeply researched report by Cornell University senior Callie McQuilkin combines numerous interviews with county & community leaders, statistical analysis
√ Report notes importance of county social media, press briefings as community organizations, municipalities amplified those messages
Erie County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been documented and memorialized in a new report compiled by Callie McQuilkin, a senior at Cornell University participating in Cornell’s Democracy Summer Fellowship Program. Titled “Remembering the Lessons of Crisis: How Erie County, NY Endured COVID-19,” McQuilkin’s comprehensive account takes a close look at how county government communications and actions helped residents and municipalities manage their response to the pandemic. In preparing the report and researching the county’s pandemic response, McQuilkin conducted 55 interviews with county and community leaders, including 30-plus Erie County officials, 16 members of local private organizations, and seven mayors and supervisors. Two additional conversations for background information only were conducted with a local historian and journalist. Significant social media research and analysis were also integral to compiling the report.
“It’s easy, in moments of national crisis, to focus on the choices of federal actors, like President Biden and Congress. But, during the pandemic, often it wasn’t national but local administrations on the front line of emergency response. In Erie County, policymakers established vaccine clinics, child care centers, housing assistance programs and more in record time. It’s crucial we keep a record of their work,” McQuilkin said. “My research this summer was personally transformative. The stories I heard in Erie County will remain with me for life. There were the employees who worked seven-day weeks and 10-hour days to ensure the rest of county staff could operate remotely; the Public Works Commissioner who, at 2 a.m. on Easter morning, unloaded shipments of medical supplies so local hospitals wouldn’t experience a shortage. The dedication of the policymakers I interviewed reaffirmed my personal desire to enter local government. I hope one day I’ll be able to help my constituents the same way Erie County’s leaders aided theirs.”
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said, “Callie McQuilkin’s report, ‘Lessons from a Crisis,’ is a fascinating read. Any person hoping to understand the significant role local governments play in responding to emergencies, as well as those hoping to better understand the scale of the coronavirus pandemic in Erie County and how it unfolded in real time, will find McQuilkin’s report intriguing. Erie County was fortunate to have such a talented student examine our response and offer a report on our actions for others to learn from.”
Some of the elected officials interviewed by McQuilkin for the report include Rick Davis, mayor of the City of Tonawanda; John Whitney, supervisor of the Town of Grand Island; Joe Emminger, supervisor of the Town of Tonawanda; Jason Keding, supervisor of the Town of Boston; Missy Hartman, supervisor of the Town of Eden; Bill Krebs, mayor of the Village of Springville; and Brian Kulpa, supervisor of the Town of Amherst.
Information gained through the interview process, conducted between June-July 2021, gave McQuilkin insights into Erie County’s communication choices and messages during the pandemic, and how those choices and messages were received (and acted on) countywide. The report examined three central questions:
√ How responsive was Erie County messaging to the rapidly evolving pandemic?
√ What role did community organizations play in spreading the county’s message?
√ What long-term changes will occur in the relationship between county officials and community leaders?
In addition to the numerous interviews, McQuilkin’s report examines a trove of social media data scraped from Twitter, particularly data in relation to the changing pandemic and how the county’s messaging on it was received by the community. Of specific interest was messaging surrounding three pandemic-response programs conducted by the county: the “Shop 716” initiative, the “Back to Business” grant program, and the county’s rental and mortgage relief program.
Poloncarz’s office said, “The report clearly illustrated that while the county’s social media efforts promoting these initiatives were robust to begin with, the efforts of community members sharing county messages were crucial to promoting new programs. In the case of the ‘Shop 716’ initiative, community posts helped County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s message enter the feeds of 138,000 new Twitter users, while in the ‘Back to Business’ campaign tweet shares helped to reach 69,000 new users. In the case of the rental and mortgage assistance program, community amplification expanded the reach of the county executive’s tweet six-fold, pushing the message county executive’s message to 236,000 unique followers.
Cathy Creighton is the director of the Cornell University Buffalo CoLab – and McQuilkin’s supervisor. She said, “Callie has great initiative. In exceeding her own goals for her final project, Callie did not merely provide a written report. Instead, she acquired additional skills to present the information in an interactive web-based fashion. Callie reached out to academic researchers and taught herself to data scrape, use the ARC-GIS platform and do linear regression analysis. Callie’s commitment to upgrading her skills in order to present the information in this unique and interactive format is one demonstration of her willingness to go far above what is expected.”
In 2009, Cornell University ILR’s Buffalo Office created the High Road Fellowship program. With over 230 alumni, the program has become increasingly competitive. Each year, approximately 25 Cornell undergraduate students are selected to spend the summer working in Buffalo. They are paired with community partners affiliated with the Partnership for Public Good to work on social justice issues within the greater Buffalo area. Students spend four days a week working in their placements, and one day per week students come together as a group to learn from community and civic leaders and to reflect on and discuss their experiences.
Within the High Road Fellowship, McQuilkin was selected to work as a “Democracy Summer Fellow,” a specialized fellowship where the Cornell student is paired with a public servant to advance democratic ideals at the local level. Creighton, along with the Deputy Erie County Executive Maria Whyte, supervised McQuilkin’s project, which the author designed. With their input, McQuilkin thought it important to prepare a contemporaneous oral history of county government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She arranged the interviews, relocated to Buffalo, found housing for herself, and meticulously prepared for and conducted dozens of interviews.