The administration of former Governor Andrew Cuomo has reportedly hampered New York’s COVID-19 pandemic response by blocking the Department of Health from working with local health officials, a former top state health official testified.
That explosive claim, as well as accusations of Cuomo fueling a toxic workplace for state employees, came to light during a testimony by Dr. Elizabeth Dufort, the former director of epidemiology for the Department of Health.
Dufort’s revelations are contained in thousands of pages of transcripts of interviews with Cuomo and his accusers. New York Attorney General Letitia James released the documents publicly three months after releasing a report that concluded the Democrat governor was harassing 11 women.
The report ultimately helped to remove Cuomo from office. He resigned on August 23.
James, a Democrat who is now running for governor, had previously refused to release the transcripts while several prosecutors investigated Cuomo for possible criminal conduct. But she is now releasing them on a rolling basis after filing a criminal complaint against Cuomo.
While many of the interviews focused on harassment allegations, Dufort’s testimony describes how Cuomo’s heavy-handed political style contributed to the firing of dozens of top state health officials during the pandemic.
At one point, Dufort said state health officials “would try to do public health work, but it would never be approved, it would never get to the health care providers, the public or the local health departments.”
“We were not allowed to work with our colleagues in local health departments and the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, which is a critical component in an outbreak response to collaborate with different facets of public health,” she continued.
Dufort noted that the local health officials have actually implemented the outbreak response.
“So in general, so if we couldn’t work with them in the way we normally do our ability to do our job, we’d really be hindering ourselves,” she said.
Cuomo did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the testimony Friday.
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What the state health officer says about Cuomo
Dufort, who resigned last year, spoke to investigators in part because Cuomo made comments about her physical appearance during a COVID-19 press briefing in May.
While Dufort conducted a COVID-19 test on Cuomo in a personal protective suit, the governor said, “You make that dress look good.”
She later told the researchers, “As a professional woman, I can of course recognize people’s concern about that comment. It probably wouldn’t be said to an experienced male doctor. At the time, I thought it was an inappropriate joke and wanted to move on.”
Further, Dufort said she and other health officials oppose performing the test in a room full of people in the state capitol, citing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the potential risk to journalists and others.
The health officials “were concerned that the CDC did not recommend that you iron out in a room with someone else,” she said, adding that the Cuomo administration was rejecting safer alternative options.
Dufort also spoke of a conversation she had with the governor while performing a shine test on him for the press event.
“I said I promise to be gentle… but it must be accurate. It will be gentle and accurate,” she said, referring to the exchange.
“And then the governor said some sort of joke, gentle but accurate, I’ve heard that before. And somewhere around the word before I cut it,” she added.
Dufort also noted why she chose not to file a formal complaint about the comment.
“I thought it was an inappropriate comment. I just wanted — I was in the middle of a pandemic with a lot of work and I didn’t think it would necessarily rise to the level of an official report in my view,” she said.
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What health official says about Cuomo’s COVID response
Dufort described a series of cases where the Cuomo administration seemingly rejected or ignored the recommendations of public health officials.
During the early battle to ramp up testing, she noted that the Executive Chamber had to agree to share state data with local health officials and suppliers.
At the time, she told superiors, “I am concerned that lab results were not reported in a timely manner to the local health departments or to the doctors, as they should.”
Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the state Association of County Health Officials, addressed the testimony in a statement released Friday.
“Despite the change in state approach at the time, (local health departments) immediately turned around and worked to remain integrated into the COVID-19 response efforts, providing numerous critical services from contact tracing to vaccine distribution and lots of others,” Ravenhall said.
Meanwhile, Dufort also raised questions about the state’s COVID-19 cluster strategy that imposed restrictions on activities in communities with a higher number of cases.
“The zones were very complicated. There were metrics that our employees would work on, but it would only announce that people met the metrics if they came from (the Cuomo administration,” she said.
“Some areas met the stats and would be labeled a zone and others met the stats and wouldn’t be labeled a zone,” she added.
Dufort also discussed how the Cuomo administration withheld the real death toll from COVID-19 in nursing homes for months, which was also investigated by federal officials and the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
“I was not personally involved in the nursing home issues, but I heard from colleagues involved that they were concerned about releasing data that was not released and writing a paper that they said would never see the light of day based on the lack of approvals,” she said.
In another example, Dufort noted that health officials were trying to get COVID-19 guidelines for schools to open safely, but it would come out after schools opened,” citing delays caused by Cuomo’s administration.
She noted that “feedback would be provided by people (in Cuomo’s administration) who have no knowledge of public health or medicine.”
“But thankfully that feedback was small,” she added.
Dufort also addressed how the Cuomo administration was pushing for COVID-19 testing of people not warranted or a priority, citing allegations that priority testing was being given to New Yorkers close to the governor, including his brother, Chris Cuomo. .
Dufort recalled how one of her employees was yelled at by a member of Cuomo’s leadership team during the test.
“And it was disturbing that it was by someone who really wasn’t clear, didn’t know or understood how infectious diseases work or that the core concepts around containing them or how to try to control them,” she testified.
Focusing on her reasons for stepping down, Dufort said Cuomo’s administration is also banning top health officials from taking time off, despite declines in the number of cases and concerns about mental health and burnout.
“Well, in the early months it was just the sheer amount of work that was required and we felt that was appropriate,” she said.
“In the summer it became more of a concern for staff as rates fell and they just needed a break before rising again in the fall,” she added.
Dufort estimates that about 28 top state health officials have resigned or left the agency during the pandemic in connection with the former governor’s leadership.
She claimed the dismissal was due to “a toxic work environment and inability to do the public health work they believed they should be doing for New York State.”
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