At least nine top New York health officials have left their posts since March of last year over Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic.
Health officials frustrated at Cuomo’s response to the pandemic have resigned or changed jobs as morale among public health workers has dropped. The governor ignored advice from his public health experts while using them as a foil during a recent press conference while answering questions on the pandemic, according to The New York Times.
“When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts,” Cuomo said Friday, referring to all government experts. “Because I don’t. Because I don’t.”
State health officials have grown increasingly irritated at Cuomo’s approach to the pandemic, claiming that the governor has issued top-down orders to combat the coronavirus without first notifying health department staff. Typically, he has announced an order then directed health officials to adapt to it with no prior warning.
One of the latest incidents occurred in Cuomo’s shaping of the state’s vaccine distribution plan. The governor scrapped a plan that health officials at all levels of state government had been working on in some fashion for about two decades. As the Times reported:
In the fall, Mr. Cuomo shelved vaccine distribution plans that top state health officials had been drawing up, one person with knowledge of the decision said. The plans had relied in part on years of preparations at the local level — an outgrowth of bioterrorism fears following Sept. 11 — and on experience dispensing vaccine through county health departments during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.
As a result, local officials across the state complained that their efforts to vaccinate were undercut by the Cuomo plan.
“Wait a minute, why are we not doing this?” Anthony J. Picente Jr., a Republican who is county executive in upstate Oneida County, said he remembered thinking.
Instead of leaving vaccination plans to be run by local officials, Cuomo instead “spoke with hospital executives, outside consultants and a top hospital lobbyist in closed-door meetings,” according to the Times. Hospitals were put in charge of vaccinating their own employees as well as area residents. The approach, critics say, resulted in bottlenecks and people placed in charge of a vaccination program they were not trained to handle.
“The governor’s approach in the beginning seemed to go against the grain in terms of what the philosophy was about how to do this,” former New York City Health Department Deputy Commissioner Dr. Isaac Weisfuse said. “It did seem to negate 15 to 20 years of work.”
Cuomo responded to allegations of mishandling the pandemic by asserting that he is fighting for New Yorkers. “If Times reporters think I push hospitals too hard and local governments too hard, I say I’m a fighter for the people of New York and I believe I’m saving lives,” he told the Times.
For months, Cuomo has been accused of mishandling the pandemic early on by forcing New York nursing homes to accept COVID-19-positive patients before they tested negative for the disease. The accusations have gained more attention recently, and New York’s top prosecutor, Letitia James, has determined that Cuomo’s administration may have attempted to cover up mistakes by undercounting the number of elderly who died in nursing homes from the coronavirus.
A report issued last week by James’s office stated: “COVID-19 resident deaths associated with nursing homes in New York state appear to be undercounted by DOH by approximately 50 percent.”
Cuomo deflected questions over his handling of the pandemic and nursing homes on Friday, blaming the federal government.
“What I would say is everyone did the best they could. When I say the State Department of Health, as the report said, the State Department of Health followed federal guidance. So if you think there was a mistake, then go talk to the federal government,” Cuomo said. “It’s not about pointing fingers of blame. It’s that this became a political football, right? Look, whether a person died in the hospital or died in a nursing home, it’s, the people died. People died.”
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