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Ex-health official: Cuomo pandemic response top-down, demoralizing

Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at a press

Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at a press conference at the Lenox Road Baptist Church in Brooklyn on July 10. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

ALBANY — Tucked into the sexual harassment investigation of ex-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is a detailed transcript in which a former high-ranking state Health Department official describes a series of internal problems with the Cuomo administration’s response to COVID-19, including controversies the administration tried to tamp down.

For instance, forcing statewide test results to be routed through the governor’s office first, rather than a reporting system to alert local health officials. Making unrealistic demands — in screaming phone calls — about swab tests and vaccine rollouts.

Prohibiting state health officials from collaborating with county and city health officials through online webinars. A frustrated staff contemplating producing its own report on nursing home cases.

Then there was the time when President Donald Trump personally called Dr. Howard Zucker, then the state health commissioner, to try to get New York to roll out use of hydroxychloroquine as a virus treatment and staff told Zucker "we can’t do that."

Morale became so low in summer 2020 many high-ranking deputies and division leaders began resigning — tallying about 28 as of May 2021.

It is all laid bare in the sworn testimony of a woman described as "state entity employee 2" in the transcript, which was published Wednesday by the attorney general’s office as part of a release of documents related to the sexual harassment investigation that resulted in Cuomo’s resignation in August.

The Health Department didn’t immediately comment, nor did a Cuomo spokesman.

When the pandemic hit New York in 2020, the Cuomo administration said it was scrambling to react to make daily decisions in a rapidly changing situation, rushing to establish mass testing sites and temporary hospitals. It defended some of its top-down approach by saying it didn't want counties and cities providing conflicting policies. It also acknowledged a handful of Health Department departures last year, saying stress played a role.

But the former governor also at times said he didn't trust health experts and often defended his handling of the pandemic as exemplary compared to almost all other states. Behind the scenes, health experts were bristling.

Though the former official’s name is redacted in the transcript, she says she's the physician who administered a coronavirus swab test to Cuomo during a live news conference in May 2020. That physician was Dr. Elizabeth Dufort, who had served as medical director in the division of epidemiology before resigning in late 2020.

In the interview with attorney general investigators, the physician talked about inappropriate comments Cuomo made during an offstage practice run for the swab test ("gentle but accurate, I heard that before") and during the news conference ("You make that gown look good").

The incident was not the most serious allegation facing Cuomo, who was accused by one female staffer of groping her buttocks and breasts. Nor was it previously unknown — media outlets reported some of the comments at the time.

But beyond the harassment investigation, the physician’s testimony shed some light on behind-the-scenes pressure and actions the agency faced during the initial COVID-19 outbreak and peak of cases. Among the disclosures:

  • In the early days of the pandemic, health staff were told to route data through the executive chamber first, before putting it into a system county agencies could use to make quarantine determinations. This was a change from past practices. Dufort and others went to the agency counsel who asked if they wanted "to be whistleblowers" on the issue. She said no, they just wanted change. Soon, however, commercial labs came online for testing and the issue became moot, she said.
  • The administration blocked the agency from working with local health departments in various ways, from holding unofficial and online meetings to sending out health guidance. That echoes complaints voiced by a number of county executives around the state. "We had to stop doing webinars with them. We couldn't collaborate with them on evaluations of different problems and projects," Dufort told investigators.
  • Cuomo's office wanted the agency to come up with a plan to distribute 40 million doses of the COVID vaccine in one month, which agency officials knew wasn’t possible. But they nevertheless spent a weekend developing "these plans that we knew were not based in reality."
  • The physician heard from colleagues who were concerned about data on nursing home cases and deaths and considered "writing up a paper that they said would never see the light of day based on the lack of approvals." Cuomo had been criticized for underreporting nursing home numbers.
  • The executive chamber at times rejected surveys developed by staff in favor of some produced by McKinsey & Company, a high-priced consulting firm. Then Dufort would be asked to present the work because she was a physician.
  • Top level staff began departing in spring 2020. Dufort left late in the year. By May 2021, at least 28 had left. "Although there has been maybe one or two more since then. So it might be in that range," she told investigators. "Most of those are the director level folks. A couple of highly experienced individuals."

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