Emergency management consulting firm Olson Group Ltd. expects to have a final contract by the end of the week to start reviewing the impact of New York's response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the next year.
The Olson Group, based in Alexandria, Virginia, is prepared to review the state's policies and decisions related to the coronavirus and their impact on schools, businesses, nursing homes and more for a maximum of $4.3 million.
Olson Group Ltd. President Kyle Olson expects the review will begin within days of finalizing the agreement with Gov. Kathy Hochul's office and the state Office of General Services.
"I would expect that we would be looking at being in effect no later than Monday," Olson told Capital Tonight in an exclusive interview Thursday. "That's my guess."
The firm, which specializes in advising government agencies during or after a crisis, will conduct the review in two, six-month-long phases. The company assisted with the pandemic response for New Jersey, New Hampshire and the city of Houston, Texas.
A team of about 30 people, including data collectors, legal counsel, analysts, health experts and others employed by the firm across the U.S., will focus on preliminary findings in the first half of the review and a deep-dive into state agencies' response in the second half. Olson estimates the work will take 32,000 hours over the 52-week period.
"We're confident that we have the personnel and we have the experience and we have the metholdologies to successfully carry out this project," Olson said.
State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Commissioner Jackie Bray will oversee the review. But as of Thursday, Olson said the firm has only had contact with the governor's office and OGS. They expect to meet with Bray and Homeland Security before work begins to discuss the timeline and other details.
"Commissioner Bray did not participate in the vendor selection," DHSES spokesan Jordan Guerrein said in a statement Thursday. "Once the contract begins, DHSES will be in charge of assisting the vendor in performing their responsibilities, including interacting with state agencies and information gathering."
The firm will give the governor and the state Department of Homeland Security an update and preliminary report after the first six months. The firm will issue a final report with recommendations for future public health emergencies when the review is complete. It will be up to the governor's office to release the findings to the public.
The state issued a Request for Proposal accepting bids for the review this summer. Companies that advised New York's COVID-19 response were ineligible to apply.
Olson said the firm has not donated to Kathy Hochul's campaigns, or other political candidates. The Olson Group works with two subcontractors, Elite Business Strategies and Connected Consulting. Olson is unaware of any political contributions made by either independent firm, he said.
Some officials have expressed concerns the governor's office will compromise the strength and neutrality of the review, but Olson stressed the firm has a successful track record with projects in other states and honest reputation to uphold.
"From our perspective, we've been contracted to produce an accurate report and we're going to do that," Olson said. "You know, people will be people, but we have our own reputation to think of. ...The Olson Group has a reputation and it's one that we've worked hard to maintain over the last 17 years of being an honest broker."
The firm's review of New York's pandemic policies is not an investigation, Olson said, adding the firm does not have the subpoena power to compel someone to answer questions.
"It's how can we be better next time — there's a key difference there," he said. "You know, we're, we're not gumshoes. We're emergency management specialists."
The team will schedule workshops and have flexible schedules to connect with staffers or agencies who might be difficult to track down, including meetings in person, at various times of day or virtually.
Olson is confident the review will be finished in one year and the firm will not need more time to issue its final report.
The firm will report evidence of potential misconduct to Homeland Security, according to the governor's office.
"The Olson Group had the highest composite scores in accordance with the scoring criteria and process established in the [Request For Proposal]," Hochul's press secretary Hazel Crampton-Hays said Thursday. "DHSES will be overseeing the work. Agencies will be expected to fully comply, and if the firm identifies actual or potential misconduct, DHSES would report that in accordance with the law."
The review will include examining the science and rationale behind a March 2020 memo from the state Health Department that advised COVID-positive patients in nursing homes and adult-care facilities to be allowed to return home to the facility to recover. The memo was issued in the early days of the pandemic under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration. The state's controversial underreporting of COVID nursing home deaths will also be studied.
Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo's spokesman, did not return a request for comment Thursday if the former governor or his staff will cooperate with the firm and answer questions about the administration's COVID-19 decision-making as part of the review.