Ayyyeee… What’s Goodie Everyone. So I got some tea and it involves The Govenor of New York and Covid-19 testing.
New York Govenor Andrew Cuomo’s relatives and other well connected New Yorkers were among those given preferential treatment at state coronavirus testing centers. State troopers were on standby to rush their samples to a lab to be expedited. Those with priority status got results within hours or a day, compared with the wait of up to a week that other New Yorkers faced at the time. Several people with firsthand knowledge of testing practices said that some people with access to power were able to largely bypass the overburdened resources available to the general public when the pandemic first gripped New York last year.
People familiar with the efforts said they were also told to treat individuals differently because of their connections to the governor. The individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the fear of retribution by Cuomo’s office described the behind the scenes operations and their feelings of discomfort with a system that they believed at times prioritized political connections over medical need.
During the early weeks in March 2020, officials working at testing sites rapidly assembled a system that gave special treatment to people described by staffers as “priorities,” “specials,” “inner circle” or “criticals,” according to five people, including three nurses, who described how resources were redirected to serve those close to the governor and other cases that were fast tracked. At one of the first pandemic operations hubs in the state, the testing priority status of more than 100 individuals were logged in an electronic data sheet that was kept separate from a database for the general public, according to a person with direct knowledge of the practice. Two individuals said clothing and footwear designer Kenneth Cole, the governor’s brother in law, was among those who benefited from priority testing.
A top state physician whose pandemic portfolio involved coordinating testing in nursing homes was dispatched multiple times to the Hamptons home of CNN host Chris Cuomo, the governor’s brother, in testing visits that sometimes stretched hours, according to two people with knowledge of the consultations. After initial reporting on the practice by the Albany Times Union and The Post, the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) on Thursday urged New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics to open an investigation of the testing protocol. Separately, James is leading a probe of allegations that Gov. Cuomo sexually harassed subordinates.“The recent reports alleging there was preferential treatment given for COVID-19 testing are troubling,” according to a statement from the attorney general’s office, noting that it does not have the jurisdiction to investigate. Walter McClure, a spokesman for the ethics commission, said the panel “cannot comment on anything that is or might be an investigative matter.”
Cuomo administration officials said the state raced to ramp up testing in the early days of the pandemic and offered priority access to people involved in the immediate response to the public health emergency. Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said in a statement, “There was no ‘VIP’ program as the Washington Post describes when priority was given, it was to nurses, guardsmen, state workers and other government officials central to the pandemic response and those they were in direct contact with, as well as individuals believed to have been exposed to COVID who had the capability to spread it further and impact vital operations.”
New York State Department of Health spokesman Gary Holmes said in a statement that the premise that New Yorkers got preferential treatment because of their connections to the governor “is not factually accurate.” “From a public health perspective ‘where have you been,’ and ‘how many people might you have exposed’ are the questions that guided who was given priority not ‘who you know,’ ” Holmes said. “Those were the questions we were asking in the early days of the pandemic when we thought we could contain this virus on a case by case virus. We helped as many New Yorkers as we could then, just as we do now, while simultaneously building a nation leading testing infrastructure that has led to more than 44 million processed tests.”
In response to a request for comment on the visits to the home of Chris Cuomo, CNN spokesman Matt Dornic said, “As we have already said, we generally do not comment on employees’ medical care and we have nothing more to add.”
Medical staffers who worked at state testing sites said they were told to provide special access for people with ties to Gov. Cuomo, an arrangement they said made them deeply uncomfortable.“I’m trained that there is no such thing as a preferential medicine. We don’t say, ‘This person is more important, so their results are more important.’ That’s just not fair,” said one nurse who worked at two state-run testing sites. “Yet here we have somebody who is being pushed to the front of the line for no reason. It was like, ‘Oh, your test matters. And we know why. It’s because of who you are, not because of anything medical.”
The nurse described being dispatched from an operations center in New Rochelle an early hub used to mobilize state resources with instructions to test patients in private residences and hotel rooms who they were told were part of Cuomo’s orbit.
The nurse said the situation felt morally problematic, especially as many New Yorkers were waiting to get tested.
“We would always hear, ‘This is coming from the governor’s chamber,’ ” the nurse said. “What the hell does that mean?”
Members of Cuomo’s extended family received favored treatment at a state run testing center in late spring 2020, according to one nurse who witnessed a frantic effort to prepare for their arrival and get their samples to the Wadsworth Center, a state lab in Albany.“I remember them being like, ‘They’re coming, they’re coming,’ ” the nurse said, describing how site leaders announced when the family was approaching. “And they would say, ‘Have the state trooper ready. . . . Have it ready to go to Wadsworth.’ There was a lot of anxiety over those samples getting to the right place.”
“They were treated like royalty,” the nurse said of Cuomo’s family. “I didn’t understand why they were able to jump the line.”
Another nurse recounted how staffers at the site quickly mobilized to assist Cole, the fashion designer who is married to Cuomo’s sister Maria, by arranging a priority test and rushing his sample to a state trooper to be driven to Wadsworth.
When asked about Cuomo family members receiving special treatment at testing centers, Azzopardi said in an email, “To the extent this occurred, the Governor was not aware.”Last week, a New York State Department of Health spokesman declined to address whether the governor’s relatives received special treatment, citing medical privacy laws and ethics.
Two individuals who worked at the New Rochelle operations hub described how the priority system evolved at the start of the state’s pandemic response efforts. Initially, it began with staffers simply passing along scraps of paper or sticky notes with testing information that was coded to shield the identity of priority patients, they said. Those paper requests went to the top of the priority line, surpassing even those in the separate general database, stored in Microsoft SharePoint, who were listed as “1” for top priority because of exposure to a covid-19 patient or other medical criteria, according to accounts from the two people with direct knowledge.“It concerned me,” said one of those people.That person said that staff tasks including scheduling testing, entering results and contacting patients to share those results were regularly interrupted to assist those with priority status.
The identities of those who were part of the system were closely held by a top assistant to Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, according to the two individuals. Holmes, the Department of Health spokesman, did not respond to questions about the role that Zucker or his assistant played in the process.Azzopardi said that any priority system “was built by those in charge of running the sites and the Governor had no knowledge that tests were being prioritized at those sites.”The initial paper system to flag priority cases evolved in the spring of 2020 into a separate electronic data sheet that logged people by initials or numerical codes, according to one person with direct knowledge of how the system worked. Altogether, there were at least 100 people prioritized through the effort during the first month of pandemic response efforts at the New Rochelle operations center, according to the individual with visibility into the process, including knowledge of some of the names on the list.
Nurses were instructed to conduct the tests of VIP patients and then immediately walk the samples over to state troopers who were standing by, according to accounts from three nurses. Then, troopers would drive the tests to the Wadsworth Center, where results could be expected by the day’s end.
“The word was ‘priority,’ ” one nurse said. “They would say, ‘We have a priority at 10 o’clock, a priority at 11 o’clock.’ I can’t say that I know that they were all important to the governor, but that is what we were told.”
Wadsworth was the only New York state facility granted authority to run tests for the coronavirus, and it had limited capacity amid huge demand as the virus spread. In mid-March, the state announced that 28 in-state labs would be authorized to conduct tests and separately entered into a contract with BioReference, a New Jersey based lab, to process tests collected at state run sites. Wadsworth employees worked late into the night at times to process results of priority cases, two people said. The specimens were shrouded in secrecy, marked only by initials or numbers.
Results during that time would take a week after tests were sent to New Jersey through BioReference couriers, according to nurses and other individuals with knowledge of turnaround times. Priority tests continued to be sent to Wadsworth, according to people familiar with the practice. A pathway for getting faster results from BioReference developed around April and involved “purple sticker” priority patients, which often included site staff members or other essential workers involved in the pandemic response effort, and cut the results time to a couple of days. But people with knowledge of the program said that state trooper escorts were not used for those samples and that the process was distinct from the practice of prioritizing VIPs through testing at Wadsworth.
Among Cuomo relatives, Chris Cuomo’s family received attention that appeared to go beyond that of others, receiving multiple visits at their Hamptons home from Department of Health physician Eleanor Adams, according to two people familiar with the visits. At the time, Adams had a senior role in the state response, coordinating testing issues for high-risk settings such as nursing homes. Chris Cuomo’s home in Southampton is roughly 90 miles from New York City. Holmes, the DOH spokesman, said in a statement last week, “You’re asking professionals who took an oath to protect a patient’s privacy to violate that oath and compromise their integrity.”
CNN defended Cuomo in a statement last week saying that “in the earliest days of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, when Chris was showing symptoms and was concerned about possible spread, he turned to anyone he could for advice and assistance, as any human being would.”
Cuomo, the host of the nightly weekday CNN show “Cuomo Prime Time,” is one of the cable network’s biggest stars. On March 31, 2020, the night he announced his coronavirus diagnosis on the air, the Empire State Building was lit up in red and white to acknowledge front line workers and their sacrifices.
State officials strongly disputed that people were given special treatment because of ties to Cuomo. They said priority testing was available to many New York residents involved in the state’s pandemic response, as well as members of the general public, such as those who were at high risk.