Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivering a COVID-19 update at Northwell Health in...

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivering a COVID-19 update at Northwell Health in Manhasset on May 19, 2020. A state report said communication problems and errors sewed mistrust, sometimes with the public, sometimes with various state agencies and sometimes with local officials. Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY — A long-anticipated report released Friday concluded former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s channeling and controlling New York’s COVID-19 response through his office — and not through state and local health agencies — was a “significant and obvious mistake.”

A spokesman for the former governor defended the administration’s “rational, centralized response” to marshal an array of agencies and health facilities amid a “chaotic lack of a national response” to the pandemic — while also noting the report did not attack Cuomo's controversial nursing home policies.

The report, commissioned by Gov. Kathy Hochul, sought to assess New York’s performance under Cuomo in 2020 and 2021 as the pandemic spread and offer recommendations for the next health crisis.

The consultant, the Virginia-based Olson Group, praised New York’s “proactive stance,” especially regarding early testing, contact tracing and nursing home vaccinations.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A state report released Friday concluded former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s decision to channel and control decisions about New York’s COVID-19 response through his office was a “significant and obvious mistake.”
  • A spokesman defended the administration’s “rational, centralized response” amid a “chaotic lack of a national response” to the pandemic
  • Cuomo's “top-down” approach resulted in “unnecessary confusion at a time when New Yorkers needed clarity,” according to the report.

It said New York's death toll in nursing homes was “not substantially inconsistent” with facilities nationwide, despite a directive that compelled nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients from hospitals at the pandemic's onset. But the Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank based in Albany, said the comparison to national numbers is flawed because it uses federal data that wasn't being collected until May 2020, months after the pandemic hit.

Still, Olson said while New York's nursing home policies were rushed, the state ultimately “provided appropriate guidance that was consistent with universal best practices … at the time they were issued.”

But New York was woefully unprepared — like many other states — to handle a health crisis of such magnitude and duration, the report said. Personnel, health care equipment and planning were inadequate.

Further, communication problems and errors sewed mistrust, sometimes with the public, sometimes with various state agencies and sometimes with local officials.

For instance, the report said the Cuomo administration’s reporting of nursing home admissions and deaths — excluding people who became ill at a nursing home but later died at a hospital from a tally of nursing home deaths — might have made sense on some level but it “fueled public mistrust of the government’s data.” An attorney general's 2021 report found it led to the Cuomo administration undercounting nursing home deaths by about 50%.

Olson, in several instances, cited Cuomo’s well-known “top-down” approach to management.

“As Governor Andrew Cuomo engaged directly in the management of the response, there was a movement away from the state’s established public health and emergency management structure, pandemic response plans and interagency procedures toward the promotion of 'top down' initiatives,” the Olson report said. It resulted in “unnecessary confusion at a time when New Yorkers needed clarity.”

In a statement, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said: “Governor Cuomo and the state of New York brought the unified force of government to bear to stand up field hospitals, turn 261 disparate hospital fiefdoms into one centralized system, amass (personal protective equipment) and stand up a statewide testing system that was able to do more than most individual countries on the globe.”

He added: “We all lived through this and no rational person can believe that a coordinated centralized response is inferior to having decisions made by a gaggle of faceless bureaucrats.”

The report comes days after Cuomo testified before a congressional panel investigating the COVID-19 pandemic, with his administration’s handling of nursing home deaths a main focus of investigators.

Among the communication mistakes Olson cited:

  • Following reports of milk shortages, the administration ordered 300 tractor trailer loads of raw milk to be diverted from cheese plants to milk bottling plants. This created an oversupply of milk, which dairies had to dump.
  • Local officials felt the state became a competitor for resources, especially vaccines. In some instances, the state took over local vaccine sites, which officials said resulted in duplication and less efficiency. State agencies found themselves bidding against one another occasionally for equipment from vendors.
  • Counties had to wait for Cuomo press conferences “daily to find out what the new rules were, then received guidance on the new rules up to two weeks later.”
  • The mad rush to obtain and distribute equipment in the early weeks of the pandemic led to errors such as: “New York-Presbyterian, a network of 13 hospitals and medical centers in and around the city, received 300 ventilators from the stockpile and all were missing parts or had damaged parts.”

In a set of recommendations, the consultant said: “The state should strive to limit the ability of a politician to make medical decisions. For example, there were many instances where the state was putting out opposing guidance” to the national Centers for Disease Control. For instance, policy and guidance on mask wearing wasn't always in sync with the federal government.

In a side note about data collection for the report, Olson noted not everyone who was in the thick of the state's pandemic efforts cooperated with the probe, without naming them: “Regrettably, a number of key officials were unwilling to participate in the interview process, many citing concerns about possible litigation and other legal actions related to their roles in the state’s pandemic response.”

YOU'VE BEEN SELECTED

FOR OUR BEST OFFER ONLY 25¢ for 5 months

Unlimited Digital Access.

cancel anytime.