The N.Y. Health Department became a “toxic work environment” early in the pandemic, a high-ranking doctor told officials investigating ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
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“I’m going to show you how fast and easy it is to take the test. And demonstrate why there should be no reluctance. This is Dr. Elizabeth Dufort, who is in the appropriate P.P.E. wear. Nice to see you, doctor. You make that gown look good.” “Head up a little bit.” “Head up.” “Close your eyes.” “Close my eyes.” “Why do I need to close my eyes? You can question the doctor. That’s OK. Why do I need to close my eyes?” “For comfort.” “Comfort.” “It might make you tear a little bit.” “If I fall asleep?” “Then we’ll have you sit down.” “That’s it? That’s it. Nothing else. Told you. Thank you very much, doctor. That is the whole test. I’m not in pain. I’m not in discomfort. Closing my eyes was a moment of relaxation. There is no reason why you should not get the test.”
Joseph Goldstein and
Long before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resigned in August amid a sexual harassment scandal, he was lauded as a hero of the pandemic, whose daily Covid-19 briefings left viewers feeling less isolated during New York’s devastating first wave.
But his pandemic leadership has since come under reappraisal, in large part because of the high death toll among nursing home residents and a slow-burning scandal over whether Mr. Cuomo tried to cover it up. His deal to write a book about his leadership during the pandemic is being investigated by a state ethics panel, and he could be forced to forfeit millions he made from the book.
Now his reputation as an effective governor during a public health emergency is coming under further scrutiny, as recently released testimony from a former high-ranking state health official accuses the governor’s office of repeatedly stymieing and undermining the state’s public health experts in the first year of the pandemic.
One edict from that office made it more difficult for the Health Department to initially track a dangerous syndrome associated with Covid-19 that has appeared in hundreds of children across the state, according to the new testimony. The governor’s office blocked state Health Department employees from coordinating with their counterparts in New York City and other local health departments, the official said.
These are among the new details that emerged from the testimony of the official, who was interviewed over Zoom in May as part of an attorney general’s investigation that found that Mr. Cuomo, 63, had sexually harassed nearly a dozen women. Her testimony was part of a trove of evidence from the investigation that was released earlier this month. Though her name is redacted in the transcripts, the details she describes make clear she is Dr. Elizabeth Dufort, the former medical director of the state Health Department’s division of epidemiology.
During one of the governor’s daily briefings in May 2020, Dr. Dufort had swabbed Mr. Cuomo’s nose in a televised demonstration of a Covid-19 test. The moment was meant to encourage New Yorkers to get tested, but the encounter with the governor left Dr. Dufort uncomfortable, she told investigators.
“You make that gown look good,” Mr. Cuomo had said as Dr. Dufort, 44, approached him, covered in protective equipment. In her sworn testimony, Dr. Dufort said that comment and an earlier one the governor had made to her were inappropriate.
In her interview with investigators for the attorney general, Dr. Dufort discussed Mr. Cuomo’s imprint on the state Health Department, and how a top-notch public health agency had ended up mired in dysfunction just when it was needed most.
“I was upset that we couldn’t work with New York City,” Dr. Dufort said. The result, she said, was that senior health officials at the city and state level “couldn’t really share any valuable information.”
Routine work by the state’s disease experts — even something as mundane as preparing a flyer explaining the ins and outs of quarantine and isolation — had to be cleared by what Dr. Dufort refers to as “the chamber,” shorthand for the “executive chamber,” as the governor’s office and top advisers are often called in Albany, she testified.
Bottlenecks in that process meant some public health guidance would be released late or never at all. At one point, her failure to get out a Covid-19 guidance document she had written for state health providers reduced her to tears, she said.
The “chamber” sometimes seemed more concerned about managing the flow of information than coordinating an effective response, she testified. For a stretch at the beginning of the pandemic, as cases skyrocketed, the governor’s office sent in an official “who was very up front with us that he did not have public health experience” to lead the department’s pandemic response.
“He was a close individual to the governor who fixes situations,” she said.
The official, whose name is redacted in the report, insisted that the main state laboratory that was analyzing Covid tests in the pandemic’s early days, Wadsworth, report its results to the governor’s office before the test results were released to local health departments. This was inappropriate, Dr. Dufort said, both because she worried that it violated strict privacy provisions, and because it could delay getting the results to New York City and other counties.
The senior health official in charge of data ran into the hall crying after getting the directive and was told she could quit if she disagreed, Dr. Dufort recalled.
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, characterized Dr. Dufort’s testimony as “second- or thirdhand interpretations from an employee whose only interaction with the governor or his top staff was during a live Covid briefing.”
“The fact that this line of questioning was even pursued in this unrelated matter speaks volumes about how this entire situation was politicized and weaponized,” Mr. Azzopardi added.
Dr. Dufort described a state agency that grew mired in dysfunction as a result of near constant meddling from the governor’s office. More than two dozen state public health employees, most of them at the director level, she said, resigned under the frustration and strain.
Morale in the department was extremely low, she testified. Senior officials were working constantly, without permission to even take weekends off, for more than six months. There was inappropriate yelling and pressure from above.
A broad inquiry. The New York State Assembly released the findings of its eight-month impeachment investigation into former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s behavior while in office and potential abuses of power by Mr. Cuomo and his top staff. Here’s what the report found:
Sexual harassment. The inquiry found “overwhelming evidence” Mr. Cuomo engaged in sexual harassment, reinforcing a damning report by the state attorney general. Multiple women have accused Mr. Cuomo of harassment that included groping, unwanted kisses and lewd remarks.
Nursing home deaths. Mr. Cuomo’s administration “materially misrepresented” the extent of deaths that occurred in nursing homes in the early months of the pandemic, according to the report. The official tally might have undercounted the true toll by as much as 50 percent.
Book deal. The report also found that Mr. Cuomo used state workers to produce his pandemic memoir, and one assemblyman said that it would be “reasonable” to infer a connection between the $5.1 million book deal and the manipulation of nursing home death data.
“We described it to each other as sort of a toxic work environment,” she testified. Dr. Dufort, who declined to comment for this article, resigned in December.
Political interference came from the highest levels. Dr. Dufort described a call between President Donald J. Trump and Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, in which Mr. Trump pushed for New York “to roll out the distribution of hydroxychloroquine statewide.” On that one, health officials did push back — the anti-malarial drug, which Mr. Trump had been promoting as effective against Covid-19, turned out to be ineffective — and the rollout never happened.
But other times, health officials simply spent hours spinning their wheels. At one point, Dr. Dufort and her colleagues were asked by the chamber to come up with a detailed plan for how to quickly distribute up to 40 million vaccine doses in a single month. It was an unrealistic scenario, both because manufacturing limits ensured that doses would roll in far more slowly, and because New York did not even have enough eligible adults to use up 40 million doses.
She and colleagues nonetheless worked on this scenario well into one weekend night. “The governor wants it,” she testified that she was told. In the end, New York received only about 300,000 vaccine doses a week early on, and Mr. Cuomo instituted such rigid rules that some doses sat unused for weeks.
The governor’s famous rivalry with Mayor Bill de Blasio was on display throughout much of the pandemic, most disastrously in March when Mr. Cuomo shot down Mr. de Blasio’s idea of instituting a shelter-in-place order as the novel coronavirus tore across the city. Several days later he instituted a similar measure. But the delay added to the devastation of the first wave in New York.
Dr. Dufort’s testimony added a new dimension to the rivalry that Mr. Cuomo had with Mr. de Blasio and other local officials. The consequences were felt in even the smallest day-to-day work of doctors and epidemiologists working in New York’s public health agencies.
Each week at the beginning of the pandemic, New York’s public health authorities convened regular webinars in which they imparted the latest Covid-19 guidance to doctors. Initially, the city and state health departments had tried to work together, but that soon ended. “We had to cancel our webinars with our New York City Department of Health peers,” Dr. Dufort explained, adding that she was deeply upset about it.
“With that governor, the state — if the city did something, no matter how good or how effective, the state had to do it some different way,” Mr. de Blasio said in a press briefing last week, confirming the dysfunction she described. “It was a global pandemic,” he added. “It was wrong that the professionals were not really allowed to talk to the professionals and get the kind of answers that would protect people’s health.”
Dr. Dufort said she never heard who exactly had given the order to stop collaborating with the city Health Department, but that she understood from her boss that the order came from the “executive chamber.” Typically, the State Department of Health relies on local health departments to actually implement its directives, so the move by Mr. Cuomo’s office to sideline its partners, she testified, seemed to make no sense.
“I got the sense, like, they didn’t fully understand the public health system to understand what our role is in it,” she said.