Several high-ranking health officials left the New York State Health Department over the summer, as Governor Andrew Cuomo steamrolled over his own public health officials when it came to New York’s pandemic policy.
In less than half a year, the deputy commissioner for public health, the director of communicable disease control, the medical director for epidemiology, and the state epidemiologist have left, the New York Times reported, reflecting a growing sense of frustration from exhausted and overburdened public health officials as the governor disregards them.
New York state’s lackluster vaccination program came about after Cuomo disregarded pre-existing vaccination programs that had been developed by the Department of Health and local health departments. Cuomo and his aides instead placed the brunt of the vaccine responsibility on already-strained hospitals.
“When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t trust the experts,” Cuomo said at a press conference in January. “Because I don’t.”
Cuomo has been using his steady stream of press conferences to make announcements regarding the state’s pandemic response; health officials have been dismayed to hear Cuomo making major announcements without consulting them, but expecting them to tailor their own health guidance to his own.
Health officials found out rules about indoor dining and indoor fitness from press conferences, as well as who would be eligible for a vaccine in New York when.
The criticism against Cuomo came from unnamed health officials who refuse to give their names out of fear of professional consequences in another blow to the governor, who has claimed additional executive powers during the pandemic. New York Attorney General Letitia James released a scathing report on how the state and nursing homes covered up the true death toll of nursing home residents by as much as 50%.
As health department plans on mass emergency vaccines developed since 9/11 sat unused, and local health departments waited, the Cuomo administration dumped the burden of vaccination on hospitals. In New York City, the Greater New York Hospital Association, a major to the governor, was chosen as the vaccine hub, not the experienced city Health Department, which had a system of mass vaccines in schools.
Dr. Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the City University of New York, said forcing hospitals to handle vaccinating much of the public meant the government forfeited control over the vaccine program.
“That was the bottleneck,” Dr. Nash said. “To put hospitals in charge of a public health initiative — for which they have no public health mandate, or the skills, experience or perspective to manage one — was a huge mistake, and I have no doubt that’s what introduced the delays.”