At least nine senior New York state health department officials have resigned or retired in recent months because they believe they have been sidelined and treated disrespectfully by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, The New York Times reported Monday.
With his actions on the pandemic, Cuomo has “all but declared war on his own public health bureaucracy”, the Times said.
Morale at the health department plummeted when the pandemic first hit the state, and health officials learned about the state’s coronavirus policy from the governor’s News conferences, the Newspaper said.
Cuomo and the state health department chief defended their actions.
“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 said, according to the Newspaper.
State Health Commissioner Dr Howard Zucker called the pandemic “a period of extraordinary stress and pressure and a different job than some signed onto”.
While Zucker acknowledged that several staff members have left, he told the Times that “many others joined the agency with the talents necessary to confront this new challenge”.
Ultimately, the state’s performance is the best measure of its success, Zucker said.
The Times said the state did stumble in the early weeks of its vaccination campaign, but that it has improved, with hospitalizations and the statewide positive test rate steadily declining in recent weeks.
Cuomo took over pandemic policy from state and local public health officials because he said they had no understanding of how to conduct a large-scale operation like the vaccination campaign, the Times reported.
Cuomo’s office and not health officials set policy on indoor dining, gym openings and capacity limits on social gatherings, according to the Times.
Health officials also said they weren’t deeply involved on final decisions about allowing public events or the state’s coronavirus cluster-zone strategy, the Times said.
On Jan 29, a day after a report by the state attorney general criticized Cuomo’s administration for undercounting COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, the governor said at a News conference that criticism over his handling of deaths at nursing homes originated with the administration of President Donald Trump looking to shift blame for a tragedy.
“When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts,” Cuomo said during the News conference. “Because I don’t. Because I don’t.
“Where this starts is, frankly, a political attack from the prior federal administration,” Cuomo said. “What I would say is everyone did the best they could. It’s not about pointing fingers or blame, it’s that this became a political football.”
The report from New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat and an ally of Cuomo, found the state has been undercounting the number of COVID-19 deaths for months.
Hours after the report was released, Zucker released the full nursing home death count, which was 43 percent higher than the previous total given by his department.
Until then, the state had reported only nursing home deaths that occurred in the homes themselves. Residents who were transferred to hospitals and died there were counted as hospital deaths.
Zucker had said repeatedly recently that the state was checking nursing home death numbers for accuracy before releasing them.
But on Jan 29 he said, “When I saw the attorney general’s report, I decided we need to finish that up quickly and get these numbers out in real time.”