Connect with us


As the United States Pulls Out of Syria and Iraq, the Soldiers Who Remain Are Preparing for Information Warfare



As the United States Pulls Out of Syria and Iraq, the Soldiers Who Remain Are Preparing for Information Warfare

As Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was on his way to Washington in mid-August to discuss the continued U.S. role in Iraq, a package of smartphones was making the opposite journey to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. They had been ordered by Col. Myles Caggins, the then-spokesperson for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition. “I’m fairly certain this will be the first time iPhone 11 Pro Max are issued to public affairs soldiers—quite a breakthrough,” he told me. The phones are symbolic of a larger challenge facing the international coalition and especially U.S. soldiers: to combat fake news that spreads in Iraq and Syria and also to explain the coalition’s mission.

The United States must confront sophisticated information warfare from pro-Iranian groups, the Syrian regime, and Moscow that is designed to erode trust in the anti-Islamic State mission in Iraq and Syria. For the last six months, there have been increasing rocket and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq by groups that boast of removing Americans from the country. Videos of the attacks are put online to send a message to Washington. Pro-Iranian groups such as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba regularly put out messages accusing the United States of operating its embassy as a military base to justify further attacks. Iranian media prints claims daily alleging U.S. wrongdoing, such as looting Syria’s oil.

In Syria, Russian ground troops harass U.S. patrols, and Russian officials and media seek to portray the confrontations as America’s fault. This combination of military confrontation in Iraq and Syria with messaging on the ground that is put out for local consumption and regional leaders is designed to undermine the U.S. presence. In an unprecedented step in late September, Washington told Baghdad that if attacks on the embassy and U.S. personnel didn’t stop, then the United States would pull out of its massive embassy compound.

When Caggins arrived in Iraq in August 2019, the coalition’s public affairs officers in Baghdad had few connections with their counterparts in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Despite four years of working together, the coalition’s Twitter account didn’t even follow the account of Mustafa Bali, the SDF’s spokesperson in northern Syria. Caggins was the first spokesperson to tweet in Kurdish and reach out to his counterparts in Syria to coordinate messaging.

The coalition’s use of tweets to message to adversaries and partners on the ground emphasizes the way wars are being influenced by social media today. As spokesperson, Caggins called rumors of attacks on U.S. convoys “false” and showed solidarity with tribes in the Euphrates Valley that suffered from Islamic States massacres. The tribes are key to shoring up security for the coalition role protecting oil fields today. Tamping down pro-Iranian fake news is also key to discouraging escalation.

In his year as spokesperson, he played a key role in pioneering new technology, tweeting in Kurdish, cultivating local relationships, and pushing for more proactive social media use. Caggins left the post last month, but his vision could transform the way the United States fights future wars and illustrates the struggle Washington has faced at this pivotal moment in Baghdad.

U.S. Army Col. Myles Caggins, then official military spokesperson for international military intervention against the Islamic State, speaks at a military base in Rumaylan in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province on July 28.

U.S. Army Col. Myles Caggins, then official military spokesperson for international military intervention against the Islamic State, speaks at a military base in Rumaylan in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province on July 28. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Caggins is a senior-ranking Black man who served in a unique public position at a time when the United States is going through a profound confrontation with racism at home. He told me that his skin color helped him form connections with locals in places like Iraq. “My dad was a retired colonel, and in 1964, after he graduated from Tuskegee, white sergeants would cross the street at Fort Benning so they didn’t have to salute him. And 50 years later, I represent all these countries and live out the dreams of my grandparents and great-grandparents,” he said.

When the George Floyd demonstrations began in the United States, he said many Kurds sent him messages expressing solidarity because they had also faced historic discrimination in Iraq and Syria. “This kinship that comes with the color of my skin and understanding those who were left out and left behind and marginalized and oppressed. … I was speaking to Iraqi PM Spokesman Mullah Talal, and he said, ‘Hey, Col, you look like one of us,’ and so these types of conversations I can have and my predecessors didn’t have,” he said.

Caggins arrived in Iraq last year as the top public affairs officer in the coalition. A veteran of the early years of the U.S. war in Iraq, having served in Diyala province in 2003, he transitioned into public affairs for the military in 2006 and was a public affairs officer for the 1st Armored Division in southern Iraq in 2009-2010.

The twin crises of the Turkish invasion in Syria and U.S.-Iran tensions in Iraq mean that the United States’ continued role at the head of the international coalition against the Islamic State is in doubt. Kadhimi’s trip to Washington in August was part of the developing strategic dialogue with the United States, and President Donald Trump said in the meeting that the U.S. military in Iraq was down to a “very small number of soldiers.”

Those soldiers, now concentrated on a handful of bases after the coalition handed over more than six posts and bases to Iraqi forces in 2020, face weekly rocket attacks by pro-Iranian militias. Trump also indicated on Aug. 20 that the United States had completed its withdrawal from Syria’s border areas and would make a decision on whether to remain and keep securing oil in southeastern Syria “fairly soon.” U.S. Central Command recently sent Bradley armored vehicles back to Syria to bolster the U.S. presence there as the Trump administration contemplates what to do next.

During this tenuous, challenging period for U.S. forces, the role of public affairs officers has grown. With U.S. troops confined to their bases, often no longer going outside the wire on patrols with their counterparts, and the COVID-19 pandemic raging, causing even more isolation from partner forces, much of the conflict now focuses on the front line of information warfare.

This aspect of the U.S. effort in Iraq and Syria has often been overlooked or taken for granted. During the war against the Islamic State, the need to get out information or respond to queries about civilian deaths, for instance, meant managing talking points and providing responses on one battlefield. However, the increased role of Russia and the Syrian regime in eastern Syria, where U.S. patrols often encounter Russians, and the need to respond to propaganda videos in Iraq by pro-Iranian groups, has added new dimensions to the conflict.

In February, a U.S. patrol was driving through a village near Qamishli when they came upon a group of armed men in civilian clothes. After being fired on, the Americans returned fire, and a Syrian was killed. The Syrian regime leapt on the incident to portray the Americans as occupiers gunning down civilians. The reality was likely that Russians helped instigate this incident.

The problem for U.S. troops is that they need advanced intelligence about which villages support the Syrian regime and which ones are more sympathetic to the United States. That means being in constant contact on the ground. It also means giving soldiers access to technology to be able to confront propaganda put out by Damascus and Moscow. For instance, the Russians appear to get video of incidents online quickly; the U.S. spokesperson has to constantly refute stories that are spread in Syria and Iraq about the United States deploying Patriot missiles or even burning people’s crops.

Boys look at smartphones as they sit outside a cafeteria tent at a camp for internally displaced persons in the Sharya area, in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, on Aug. 30, 2019.

Boys look at smartphones as they sit outside a cafeteria tent at a camp for internally displaced persons in the Sharya area, in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, on Aug. 30, 2019.ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images

When I called Caggins in Iraq in early August, it was clear to me that Caggins brought a different conception of how to fight in the information space. First, he crafted a message that was less stilted and more personal, celebrating coalition successes, like dropping bombs on Islamic State hideouts, and humanizing the face of the coalition. On Aug. 15, he introduced the deputy spokesperson, Maj. Gabby Thompson, with a tweet in English, Arabic, and Kurdish. He also made time for a variety of GFN teams, talking more directly to locals in their language than just responding to Western media inquiries. Throughout the last year, he improved the coalition’s connections to locals, responding quickly and personally without the normal layers of bureaucracy and long wait times that bedevil those trying to get an answer from the U.S. Defense Department.

The role of government and military spokespersons is changing from just reacting to news to driving narratives. This is an area where China and other countries, such as Iran, have invested resources in having top diplomats become key figures abroad, using social media and other mediums to send messages. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is an example of the kind of rock star status a diplomat can achieve, and he uses Twitter to effectively confront the U.S. government.

Caggins’s tweet introducing his deputy spokesperson, Maj. Gabby Thompson, with a tweet in English, Arabic, and Kurdish.

Caggins’s tweet introducing his deputy spokesperson, Maj. Gabby Thompson, with a tweet in English, Arabic, and Kurdish.

Similarly, Israel takes public affairs so seriously it created a whole ministry for strategic affairs and public diplomacy. Israel’s Arabic-language military spokesperson, Avichay Adraee, has 1.5 million followers on Facebook and 377,000 on Twitter. He is just one part of Israel’s public affairs machine, which has learned from past conflicts in Gaza that getting out information first and quickly is an essential part of winning conflicts. Israel learned from incidents such as the killing of Mohammed al-Dura in the Second Intifada, when a Palestinian boy was killed in crossfire between Israel and Palestinian militants, that it needs to react quickly to such incidents, even if Israel is in the wrong, to set the narrative.

Historically, the U.S. military has been aware of the importance that messaging and responding to the public have on its operations. The role of managing access for journalists has changed drastically from the Vietnam War, when journalists rode along on helicopters, to the Gulf War and war on the Islamic State, as the Pentagon has shifted its policies on embedded journalists and access. Scandals like Abu Ghraib and controversies such as that over the resignation of Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal have had the potential to change the course of wars. That appears to have made the U.S. military more cautious over the years.

Caggins said a course at the Harvard Kennedy School opened his eyes to the need to be likable, credible, and believable. But what he found was a tendency for statements being “lawyered up” and “in the Queen’s English or wonky jargon, and that’s not how people get messages in life.” This means talking more in plain terms—with more pictures and videos and an understanding of which social media platforms are popular today—and less reams of talking points. He believed that showing the human face of the coalition was important. With the coronavirus crisis meaning that most Iraqis and Syrians would never see coalition personnel, this at least put their faces on social media.

In a world of social media-driven narratives, Caggins tweeted personally to around 100,000 followers of the coalition’s Operation Inherent Resolve Twitter account. In early August, he posted a photo of Spanish soldiers playing soccer. “The sub-message is that the coalition is not just U.S. troops with machine guns. It has many nations, and its message is that soldiers are not all robots with body armor bayonetting ISIS terrorists—they unwind,” Caggins said. He chose a photo with Spanish soldiers, including a female member of the contingent, to showcase the diversity of the coalition. “This is because deployment isn’t all rocket attacks and IEDs. There is a lot to life on camp, even though the number of forces got smaller over last six months.”

A local uses his phone to capture images of a U.S. military convoy as it drives on the outskirts of the Kurdish-controlled northern Syrian city of Qamishli on Feb. 12.

A local uses his phone to capture images of a U.S. military convoy as it drives on the outskirts of the Kurdish-controlled northern Syrian city of Qamishli on Feb. 12. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Sitting in an office in the Union III base next to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is not the best way to do public affairs. This was one of the reasons Caggins asked for phones for his soldiers. In 2020, almost everyone has a smartphone, and increasingly in Iraq and Syria U.S. adversaries are using smartphones at all times to record incidents. Responding to those incidents requires getting information out first and being able to record one’s own side of the story. It’s extraordinary that in the U.S. effort in Iraq for years this wasn’t obvious, but concerns over operational security, budgets, or the wrong kinds of photos being published appear to have stopped the Pentagon issuing approved smartphones among public affairs officers.

An incident last year illustrates the challenge. Iraqi forces under Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi from the elite Counterterrorism Service (CTS) were sent to watch an island in northern Iraq where Islamic State forces were suspected to be hiding. Qanus Island, located in the Tigris River, was known as an Islamic State hot spot, and the coalition decided to heavily bomb it with F-35s and F-15s in an extraordinary display of firepower.

It was September 2019, on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary. Caggins watched videos of the strike from drones and wanted to tweet it out, but drone footage is notoriously common and has been criticized for making war look like a video game. Instead, he had the video spliced up with phone footage from the ground taken by the Iraqi CTS team. The result was a crescendo of explosions and a bit of braggadocio from the coalition about its capabilities. Caggins’s decision was questioned by a junior public affairs officer. “I want people to know what we are doing,” he said. The resulting video went viral.

Caggins, who left Iraq in mid-September after his one-year posting as coalition spokesperson was complete, is now in Texas, where he will transition to a new position at Fort Hood. On Sept. 19, he texted that he was in quarantine after having returned. “I get plenty of sleep, no rockets here.” Back in Iraq, the United States was considering closing its embassy in Baghdad as the crescendo of rocket and other attacks increased against the embassy, airport, and convoys that supply U.S. and coalition facilities.

Caggins is scheduled to speak to the Association of the U.S. Army this year about the need to value public information warfare. He argues that the U.S. government should put more approved phones in the hands of soldiers. “[If] we trust them with rifles, then trust them with cameras.” He calls this fighting “word war on the cheap in the public space.” This means having a kind of “squad-designated spokesperson” the way army squads have a machine gunner or marksman. Inevitably, this would mean dealing with the fact that most soldiers don’t have the language training for this in a place like Syria. But Caggins argues that one can shift from a mentality of “I’m not authorized to talk” to a willingness to answer basic questions and give several simple messages.

Pushing for more modern technology, such as smartphones, to help respond in the information battlefield and trying to humanize the coalition were only the start. The third challenge has been trying to reassure U.S. partners on the ground—and not just in Iraq. In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal and Turkish invasion in October 2019, confidence that the United States would stay in Syria had eroded.

The SDF was considering working with the Syrian regime if U.S. forces left entirely. Caggins went to eastern Syria in November 2019 and formed a personal connection with counterparts in the SDF that has improved messaging and restored confidence, according to a survey done by the coalition. Despite lack of clarity from Washington on the long-term U.S. goal in the country, the survey showed that trust increased in the coalition from a low of 28 percent to between 65 and 75 percent. “They see value in the coalition,” Caggins said.

Because the White House tends to change policies in Syria without notice, it’s difficult to know if this renewed confidence will result in long-term effects there. However, recent visits by U.S. envoys and the trips that Caggins and his team took—along with the deployment of Bradley armored vehicles to Syria—have sent the message that the United States isn’t closing up shop just yet.


Leveraging Health Care Reform To Address Underinsurance In Working Families




Leveraging Health Care Reform To Address Underinsurance In Working Families

The signing of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in March 2021 delivered a sweeping piece of legislation supporting families just as we reached the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. The $1.9 trillion package includes a number of measures that provide direct support to families, including several new provisions that make historic strides to reduce childhood poverty. Also within the ARPA are many provisions on health insurance coverage focused on making coverage options for individuals and families more affordable as the country emerges from the pandemic.

As necessary as the ARPA’s coverage provisions and other federal pandemic relief packages have been, they do not address fundamental weaknesses in family and dependent health insurance coverage that have worsened in recent years. In building on employer-based insurance and the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) health insurance Marketplaces, the ARPA maintains the status quo for “underinsured” children and families with health insurance coverage that fails to protect them financially, offers robust pediatric benefits, or guarantees access to appropriate provider networks to support comprehensive pediatric care.

This blog post explores what this vulnerability means for dependent coverage in particular, including how our own research shows that working parents have been seeking alternatives to employer-based dependent coverage for years. Future reforms need to focus on the challenges that underinsurance poses to families, which may mean difficult conversations about the role and future of employer-based insurance in its current form.

Pandemic Relief Builds On Private Health Insurance Without Addressing Its Shortcomings For Families

Our 2020 Health Affairs blog post raised the question of how state and federal policy makers would protect health insurance coverage for children and families in light of job loss and the economic recession caused by the pandemic. The ARPA is an important, albeit imperfect, step toward closing this gap. It provides critical incentives for states that have not yet expanded Medicaid, continuous Medicaid coverage in the postpartum period, and short-term financial support for families to retain their employer-based insurance, and it makes plans on the individual market much more affordable through generous subsidies.

Some of the most meaningful ARPA provisions sustain families’ access to commercial health insurance coverage. Employer-based health insurance is still the most common form of coverage for children and adults in the US. Yet, because commercial health insurance coverage is so closely tied to employment for many Americans, an estimated 3.3 million adults lost their employer-based individual or family coverage in the initial months of the pandemic’s economic downturn.

The ARPA offers some time-limited relief for families beset by job loss by breathing new life into the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), a law that lets workers continue to purchase their employer-based coverage after losing their job. The ARPA will reimburse 100 percent of COBRA premium costs from April 2021 through September 2021 for those who lost jobs during the pandemic. Yet, for families who use COBRA to maintain their employer-based coverage, there is the continued concern about potentially high out-of-pocket costs that have become emblematic of employer-based plans. Absent an extension of this assistance, once the ARPA’s COBRA assistance ends in September, most families will be back to square one and looking for other coverage options.

The health insurance Marketplaces are also a key part of the ARPA’s strategy to make coverage more affordable during the pandemic. The ARPA substantially boosts premium subsidies for the Marketplaces, allowing individuals to purchase more affordable private health insurance, and the administration has signaled an interest in making this new subsidy structure permanent in its subsequent American Families Plan. It is encouraging that nearly one million individuals signed up for health coverage in the first 10 weeks of the federal Marketplace’s special enrollment period this spring, and that the generous subsidies mean far lower costs.

Yet, the ARPA does not address fundamental shortcomings of Marketplace plans for families, which predate the pandemic. Pediatric (and adult) benefit packages within Marketplace plans are generally far less comprehensive than state Medicaid programs that provide comprehensive early and periodic screening, diagnostic, and treatment benefits or standalone Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) plans that historically have provided a broad spectrum of pediatric benefits with limited cost sharing. Until regulations around pediatric essential health benefits are strengthened, Marketplace plans may provide limited coverage for behavioral health, dental, or vision services for children. Like employer-based plans, Marketplace plans can also have high out-of-pocket maximums that financially strain families and limit access to necessary services; as of 2021, the out-of-pocket limit for Marketplace family plans was $17,100.

Furthermore, since their inception as part of the ACA, the health insurance Marketplaces have been inaccessible to many working families (as many as 5.1 million people) due to the “family glitch.” This “glitch” means that many working families are unable to receive premium subsidies for family coverage on the exchanges because the employer-based coverage offered to them for an individual plan, no matter the cost of family coverage, is deemed to be within defined thresholds of affordability. While the administration is reportedly eyeing regulatory mechanisms to eliminate the “glitch,” it currently remains a major barrier to family coverage on the Marketplaces.

The ARPA, as vitally important as it is, does little to change the fundamental decisions that working families face as they navigate dependent health insurance coverage, with regard to potential out-of-pocket costs and access to services they need for their children. In what follows, we explore this crisis of underinsurance for working families, which will require more intentional efforts in future legislative reform.

The Fundamental Issues Driving Underinsurance For Working Families

Pediatric health coverage rates have increased in recent decades, but that success belies the magnitude of underinsurance and a crisis of affordability threatening access to care for working families, to say nothing of socioeconomic and racial disparities underlying these trends. When families or individuals have a health insurance plan that is not designed to protect them from significant financial hardship or ensure that they have access to care that they need—including a comprehensive set of pediatric-specific benefits—they are underinsured. Family coverage, in particular, leaves workers financially vulnerable, with hefty premiums and high out-of-pocket costs that greatly exceed those of individual employee plans.

Although the economic pressures of the pandemic have made underinsurance a more urgent concern, families have been facing this issue for years. Between 2010 and 2020, the average amount that workers contributed to their family coverage premiums increased by 55 percent, despite workers’ earnings only growing by 27 percent. Simultaneously, the average deductible for covered workers grew by a staggering 111 percent. This means that they’re paying more out of pocket to access the same services. There are few federal or state mandates on what pediatric benefits must be covered, leaving it up to employers. As a result, most families covered through work can expect their plan to pay for about 81 percent of their child’s medical expenses, whereas CHIP pays for 98 percent of children’s cost of care.

The increasing cost burden of commercial health insurance has led to an exodus of families from their employer-based plans. Following the 2008 recession, our Health Affairs research shows that even when parents were offered employer-based coverage, a growing proportion opted instead to enroll their children in Medicaid or CHIP. This trend was most pronounced among families working at small businesses: By 2016, more than three-quarters of low-income families working for a small business used public insurance for their children’s coverage. Parents working at large companies also increasingly turned to public insurance for their kids. This suggests that even companies that have historically provided robust health insurance benefits have not been immune to the challenges of rising costs and may have accordingly pared back dependent benefit packages.

Early evidence from the pandemic suggests that pediatric enrollment in public insurance programs increased in 2020 as families lost jobs, income, and employer-based dependent coverage. Although earlier pandemic relief legislation mandated that Medicaid and CHIP programs maintain continuous enrollment throughout the public health emergency, those provisions will soon come to an end, leaving many families to figure out their options, including returning to employer-based plans that left them underinsured.

Significant Reforms Are Long Overdue

Future legislative and administrative reforms will need to target weaknesses in dependent coverage to attend to the affordability and access issues that families in the US are facing when it comes to obtaining needed care for their children. Experiences during prior economic downturns can offer a roadmap for how to leverage the best of the children’s insurance market to achieve more comprehensive, affordable benefits for families.

Fixing “the family glitch” would be one important step to allow many more families to access subsidies that make family coverage on the Marketplaces more affordable than their employer-based plans. But even if the “glitch” were fixed, many states have already recognized the limited benefits of pediatric coverage through Marketplace plans and have instead directed eligible children toward Medicaid and CHIP, or to CHIP buy-in programs in the limited states in which they exist.

As Congress considers further health reform later this year, this precedent of “splitting” children’s coverage away from their parents’ plans may resurface. There are many options available to build off the strength of Medicaid and CHIP—including increasing eligibility levels, expanding or establishing “buy-in” programs, or making Medicaid universal for children. Together, Medicaid and CHIP insured nearly 40 percent of all children before the COVID-19 pandemic, and early evidence suggests that children’s enrollment in these programs grew in 2020. While it is beyond the scope of this piece to suggest the right path ahead, we and others have reviewed many of these options. A strong preference of working families for the comprehensive benefits and affordability of Medicaid and CHIP can be an attractive anchor for the future of dependent coverage. Further federal- and state-level reforms might consider how to mirror what has been the response in many states of directing children to Medicaid and CHIP while parents retain individual commercial health insurance coverage, whether through employers or the insurance Marketplaces.

Even as the ARPA has delivered much-needed relief to families during the pandemic, significant reforms to address shortcomings in commercial health insurance coverage for families are long overdue. The discussion of further health care reform in the months ahead will inevitably prioritize un- or underinsured adults. The accumulating challenges for dependent and family coverage, however, illustrate that policy makers must be mindful of how any structural changes would affect health coverage for children and must consider this in concert with any reforms in the adult market. Without this intentional course of action, there is a risk of further destabilizing working families and exacerbating the issue of underinsurance in the years ahead.

Continue Reading


What Changes When Almost Everyone Can Get Vaccinated




What Changes When Almost Everyone Can Get Vaccinated

From the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the practice of public health has also required the practice of law. As widespread vaccination and other factors have brought case rates down across the United States, state and local governments’ legal authority to impose extraordinary measures in the name of fighting the virus is becoming more limited. Governors and mayors have steadily lifted restrictions not just because infections are down, because vaccinations have increased, or because the public can no longer tolerate pandemic-related restrictions, but also because officials’ power to impose blanket limits on the behavior of individuals and businesses has a defined end: when people have the ability to protect themselves. Nationally, thousands of new coronavirus infections are still occurring every day, but efforts to combat the pandemic from this point on will have to operate within stricter legal constraints than they did in the early weeks of the pandemic.

In April 2020, on assignment from the CDC, I became the senior adviser for public health in New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. My job was to lead the strategy for fighting COVID-19. In that capacity, I spent as much time talking with lawyers and writing affidavits as I did analyzing the latest COVID-19 research. In those days, “following the science” of public health was fairly straightforward: It meant mandating masks and physical distancing, promoting widespread testing and isolation when necessary, and, crucially, restricting the right of businesses and other entities to welcome people from different households indoors. When New York City and New York State ordered such measures, we were sued by restaurants, bars, and gyms.

Our successful defense against these suits rested on several facts. First, everyone was at risk from COVID-19. Second, in the absence of a vaccine, the only effective way to reduce the risk of illness was to reduce the risk of exposure, and the only way to do that was for everyone to sacrifice for one another by wearing masks, maintaining distance, and exercising constant vigilance. Third, any indoor gathering of people from different households risked transmission to large numbers of people from different social networks. (Where such gatherings were unavoidable, such as in schools, strict precautions were required at all times.) Finally, and most important, widespread community infection could lead to two existential threats: the collapse of the health-care system, and an extended period of mass death on the scale of what New York experienced in the horrific early phase of the pandemic.

Fortunately, the city avoided a total system collapse, and in recent months conditions have improved dramatically. New case rates have plummeted. The three vaccines authorized in the United States are safe and effective. People who receive them are at low risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 and also at low risk of transmitting the virus to others. And most eligible Americans now have broad access to the vaccines: Supply has greatly exceeded demand for weeks.

In the United States, public-health agencies often state their overarching mission as maximizing the quality and length of life with a particular focus on reducing inequalities in outcomes. But their legal authority to regulate residents’ civil liberties derives from a narrow source: the responsibility to protect public safety, as delegated to states in the police-powers clause of the Tenth Amendment. Just as average citizens lack the ability to stop a terrorist or extinguish a wildfire, they also lack the expertise and technology to address major health threats. Individuals cannot, for example, identify a product that caused an E. coli O157 outbreak and take it off grocery-store shelves.

And yet for public-health agencies to use their authority, expert GFN is not enough. They also need broad community consensus that the government is justified in invoking its police powers. The more widespread and urgent the threat, and the fewer reliable methods individuals have to protect themselves, the greater the public’s expectation that the government will step in.

Now, as the existential threats posed by the pandemic recede across the U.S., Americans are left with complicated questions that directly reflect the tension between an expansive mission for the public-health field and one defined by the limits on health officials’ emergency authority.

Americans can now be divided into two populations: the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. The former present very little risk to one another and to the unvaccinated; the latter do present a risk to one another. Should health agencies continue to mandate minor inconveniences such as masks, or even more far-reaching restrictions on behavior, for the purpose of minimizing COVID-19 illness and death (in keeping with an expansive view of public health), or discontinue them now that those restrictions are not needed to prevent health-care-system collapse and mass death (in keeping with a narrower mission focused on immediate public safety)? Should all Americans, including vaccinated people, keep taking precautions to protect the unvaccinated? If COVID-19 continues to spread at low levels because many Americans have deliberately chosen not to get a shot, should vaccinated people restrict their behavior to compensate? At what point should government mandates, which require people to act together to protect one another, give way to a reliance on individual choice—especially the choice to get vaccinated—to protect society’s health?

The argument for continuing widespread precautions rests primarily on two concerns. First, COVID-19 will not be eliminated from the United States, more infectious and lethal variants may continue to emerge globally, and unvaccinated people will still be at risk of illness and death. Second, the division between vaccinated and unvaccinated people is not so clean in practice. Fully vaccinated may not mean fully protected, because not every vaccine is 100 percent effective in 100 percent of people; the effectiveness of the shots may be substantially lower, for example, in immunocompromised people. Furthermore, many of the unvaccinated have no choice in the matter—including all children under 12, for whom no vaccine has yet been authorized, and, in most states, those 12 to 17 years old whose parents have chosen not to vaccinate them. Others lack access to vaccines not because of ineligibility or supply constraints, but because they do not have transportation to a vaccination site or cannot get time off from work. Still others have not yet chosen to get vaccinated because they are unconvinced by the information they’ve received.

Some jurisdictions are setting vaccination thresholds for lifting restrictions on businesses and social settings; this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state would lift most remaining limits once 70 percent of adults had received at least one dose of a vaccine. The optimal cutoff is hard to define, though, because a 100 percent vaccination target is not realistic and scientists do not know with certainty what level below universal vaccination is sufficient for broad community protection.

Another reason state and local health agencies will continue to wrestle with tensions over lifting restrictions is their own institutional form of PTSD—a well-founded fear that COVID-19 could fell our society again. They and the elected officials whom they advise vary widely in how much authority they are willing to assert, however. Some agencies will remove all precautions in the face of overwhelming pressure from business owners or the general public. Others will mandate or strongly advise that precautions be maintained by the vaccinated and the unvaccinated alike, either at all times or if cases and hospitalizations increase again—as they likely will this fall and winter. Many academic public-health experts favor more stringent restrictions than public-sector practitioners, including me, believe are realistic. Experts can fairly argue that because we’re all in this together, universal precautions should continue even when the existential threat to society has passed. But it’s quite another thing to enforce those restrictions on businesses and workers whose livelihoods remain at risk and on the large and growing swath of the population that has been vaccinated and rightly expects to return to pre-pandemic activities.

Ultimately, the path forward requires returning to the primary mission of public safety: protecting those who cannot reasonably be expected to protect themselves. In the U.S., the highest priority for all government agencies, employers, and health-related organizations should be to ensure truly universal access to vaccines. A successful policy would ensure that all residents of communities with low vaccination rates are confronted with vaccination drives in their houses of worship, pharmacies, community centers, and workplaces. It would also provide people with paid time off to get shots and recover from side effects. To overcome hesitancy—including that resulting from some Americans’ experience of poverty and societal racism—health agencies should work closely with trusted messengers and media channels to relay pro-vaccination messages built upon facts, respect, and empathy.

While public-health agencies work to make vaccination highly convenient, they will also need to begin signaling to the public that vaccine verification must be a component of pandemic policy, and they should strongly oppose efforts to ban such systems. Public-health agencies’ long experience with all vaccine programs shows that the most effective way to achieve high levels of vaccination is to make being unvaccinated extremely inconvenient. Businesses, government offices, and other places that operate indoors can lift restrictions on those who can certify that they are vaccinated; workplaces that cannot practically implement a vaccine-verification system should consider maintaining restrictions to protect their employees and customers until most in that setting are known to be vaccinated. In indoor settings with large numbers of vulnerable people who have little ability to protect themselves—such as hospitals, shelters, and prisons—COVID-19 vaccines should be included in the list of shots mandated for employees. Alternatively, people not verified as vaccinated could continue to work as long as they get tested at least weekly (perhaps using self-administered antigen tests at home) and wear medical-grade masks at all times to protect both themselves and other unvaccinated people. Child care and primary and secondary schools represent a more complex policy challenge, because unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals will mix, and parents have markedly different thresholds for the level of COVID-19 risk they are willing to accept. (Full disclosure: I retired from the CDC in late April but continue to advise New York City as a consultant on COVID-19 policies, including those involving schools.) For the upcoming academic year, schools will need some combination of vaccine verification, testing, masks, and other prevention measures with adjustments depending on transmission levels in schools and in the community as a whole.

When faced with existential threats, extreme approaches are warranted. But as the worst threats wane, the most sensible approach to public-health decision making will fall somewhere between “We’re all in this together” and “Your fate is in your own hands.” A more targeted approach—one that neither requires universal sacrifice nor relieves everyone of all inconvenience—isn’t just politically wise or legally necessary; it’s the only path forward that we have.

Continue Reading


LI high school baseball in 2021: Aces wild



LI high school baseball in 2021: Aces wild

Velo, velo and more velo.

Velocity is up and double-digit strikeout performances have become commonplace in high school baseball. Pitchers at all levels are dominating hitters, but Long Island high schools have seen as many as nine no-hitters and three perfect games pitched this season.

Welcome to baseball in the spring of 2021. Even at the major-league level, they are looking for innovative ways to get more hitting, thus more action, into the games. Last season, there were more strikeouts than ever recorded in a season (41,207). And there were more strikeouts than hits for the first time. And there have been six no-hitters in the majors in 2021.

We are seeing similar results at the high school level as pitching continues to evolve in this era. And that evolution of pitchers is taking control of the game. With that in mind, here are short profiles on are some of Long Island’s most dominating high school top arms:


Clarke, Sr.

Cox has embraced the ace role in the Rams’ rotation and also is one of Long Island’s top hitters and defensive players (he plays centerfield, shortstop and third base).

“He’s a fantastic athlete,” Clarke coach Tom Abruscato said. “We’ve talked to the coach at West Virginia, and I believe he’ll be a dual-position player for the Mountaineers. They’ll use him in either centerfield or at third base and as a closer.”

Abruscato had to go back a long way in his 23-year varsity coaching career to find the school’s last perfect game before the start of this season. Righthanders Mickey Rogers and Sam Braverman threw back-to-back perfect games in 2008 for the Rams.

Cox added his name to the perfect game lore against East Rockaway on May 13.

“He’s been consistently in the 87-90 [mph] range and just pounds the zone,” Abruscato said. “He throws a hard knuckle-drop and a changeup for strikes. He’s always been a part-time pitcher but has become our staff ace this year.”

Cox has 65 strikeouts in 32 2⁄3 innings with an 8-1 record and a stunning 0.00 earned run average. He’s allowed 12 hits and 13 walks.

2021 Numbers

WL … ERA … ER … IP … H … SO … BB

8-1 ,,, 0.00 … 0 … 32.2 … 12 … 65 … 13 …12

College: West Virginia


Newfield, Sr.

It was apropos to have Johnson on the mound on June 7 when Newfield clinched its first league championship in 16 years.

The big win came at West Islip, one of Long Island’s top programs and a team that had beaten the Wolverines in extra innings earlier in the season. Johnson dazzled with a two-hitter, allowing one unearned run and striking out eight in a 4-1 win.

“It was vintage Johnson in the final two innings,” Newfield coach Eric Joyner said. “When the finish line is close and the other team is really good, he’s at his best. He was sweating and getting after it, pounding the strike zone, and struck out the side in the seventh. His velocity increased and the breaking ball was more tightly wrapped.”

Johnson has been nearly unhittable. He’s struck out 56 and walked nine in 36 innings with an ERA of 0.97. He has a 5-0 record with three saves.

“He has helped our team win games that looked lost,” Joyner said. “You can only do so much as coaches. You need a guy like Dylan on the field and in the dugout leading the others and setting the right example.’

Johnson was excited about Newfield’s first title since 2005.

“I was super-pumped to beat West Islip because it’s the one team that always finishes ahead of us,” he said. “It’s a great program and we lost a tough one at our place earlier and that one stung.”

Johnson is committed to St. John’s University.

2021 Numbers

WL … ERA … ER … IP … H … SO … BB

5-0 (3 sv) ,,, 0.97 … 4 … 36 … 12 … 56 … 9

College: St. John’s


Sachem East, Sr.

Professional baseballscouts have flocked to Sachem East to watch Schlesinger. The 6-3, 185-pound lefthander, who has an overpowering fastball that reaches 94 mph, is the next must-see Long Island prospect since Hauppauge’s Nick Fanti, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015.

“Rafe is the real deal,” Sachem East coach Kevin Schnupp said. “There are four or more scouts at every game to see him throw. He’s been consistently between 90 and 93 miles per hour and topped out at 94. He’s developed such late life on his pitches.”

Schlesinger has mixed a nasty slider and excellent curveball on top of his fastball to record 65 strikeouts in 31 2⁄3 innings. He’s walked 12 and allowed 16 hits and four earned runs for an ERA of 0.88. His record is 2-1.

“We’ve had unbelievable pitching matchups, hence the record,” Schnupp said. “We’ve faced five No. 1 pitchers this season. It’s been tough on our hitters, but Rafe loves it. He’s a big-time competitor.”

Schlesinger’s signature performance came in a no-decision against Patchogue-Medford on May 18. He fired a no-hitter for 6 1⁄3 innings and struck out 17.

Sachem East (14-3) is in second place in Suffolk League I.

“We wouldn’t be there without him,” Schnupp said. “He’s a game- changer.”

Schlesinger is committed to the University of Miami.

2021 Numbers

WL … ERA … ER … IP … H … SO … BB

2-1 ,,, 0.88 … 4 … 31.2 … 16 … 65 … 12

College: Miami


Roslyn, Sr.

Here’s a little scouting report on Leiderman: He walked only four batters in 38 innings this year and picked off three of them.

“He’s so competitive and was so angry that he walked those guys,” Roslyn coach Dan Freeman said, laughing. “So he picked them off. He’s a huge piece of a once-in-a-lifetime team here at Roslyn. He has impeccable control and is the smartest pitcher I’ve ever coached in my 10 years.”

Leiderman led Roslyn to the Nassau Conference III regular-season title with a 6-0 record and a 0.00 ERA. He struck out 52 and allowed 11 hits.

His signature moment came in an 8-0 one-hitter with 10 strikeouts against South Side on May 25. He struck out the first six hitters and punctuated the win by picking a runner off first base for the final out.

“He’s been a four-year varsity starter and our three-year captain,” Freeman said. “He has an incredible baseball IQ. He studies hitters and pounds the zone. Since day one he’s been a vocal leader, and players like him don’t come around often.”

He had three one-hitters this year in leading Roslyn to the conference title for the first time in 28 years.

He’s committed to play at the University of Chicago.

2021 Numbers

WL … ERA … ER … IP … H … SO … BB

6-0 ,,, 0.00 … 0 … 38 … 11 … 52 … 4

College: University of Chicago


Longwood, Sr.

Ventimiglia has been a tough-luck pitcher this season. He has battled the top pitchers in Suffolk League I and come away with some brutal losses.

Ventimiglia is one of Long Island’s top prospects, and the 6-4 righty has garnered the attention of numerous major-league organizations for this year’s amateur draft in July.

Ventimiglia, with a fastball sitting at 89 to 90 mph that occasionally reaches 94 mph, has embraced the competition. He’s struck out 42 in 26 2⁄3 innings and has a 1.22 ERA with a 4-3 record.

“I’m facing top-tier pitchers every game and I know I have to go out and give my team a shot,” Ventimiglia said. “There is no room for mistakes every time I get out there. We’re playing small ball to try and win these games. It’s absolutely 100% preparing me for the next level.”

With a potential pro career looming and his commitment to Stony Brook University, Ventimiglia is focused on what’s in front of him.

“I’m not focused on the draft or college right now because I really would like to win the league playoffs and go win the Long Island championship,” he said. “I’ve been getting a good amount of contact from pro teams and it’s a dream come true just to be considered. It’s hard not to get excited. But honestly, I want a great playoff run with my teammates and that would be a great way to end my high school career and go out with a ring.”

2021 Numbers

WL … ERA … ER … IP … H … SO … BB

4-3 ,,, 1.22 … 5 … 28.2 … 19 … 42 … 17

College: Stony Brook


John Downing, Chaminade, Jr.

Struck out 39 in 38 2/3 innings with nine walks. He’s 5-0 with a 1.33 ERA. Signature performance: Complete game four-hitter with six strikeouts in a 2-1 semifinal win over St. John the Baptist.

Josh Knoth, Patchogue-Medford, Soph.

Struck out 65 in 36 2/3 innings with six walks. He’s 4-1 with one save and an ERA of 1.71. Signature performance: 16 strikeouts in eight innings vs. Sachem East on May 18.

Tyler O’Neill, Mepham, Sr.

Struck out 49 in 38 innings with four walks. He is 4-1 with an 0.23 ERA. Signature performance: No-hitter with nine strikeouts and one walk vs. New Hyde Park on May 25.

John Rizzo, East Islip, Sr.

Struck out 68 in 42 innings with six walks. He’s 5-1 with one save and an ERA of 0.51. Signature performance: One-hitter with 20 strikeouts vs. Hills West on May 8.

Colin Rhein, North Babylon, Sr.

Struck out 54 in 34 innings. He’s 4-1 with a 1.44 ERA. Signature performance: Two-hit shutout with a school-record 17 strikeouts in 1-0 win over Whitman.

Kyle Rosenberg, Wheatley, Jr.

Struck out 38 in 31 innings with eight walks. He’s 5-0 with one save and 1.35 ERA. Signature performance: Complete game with 10 strikeouts vs. Cold Spring Harbor on May 7.

Continue Reading