Cuomo’s Family Members Were Given Special Access to Coronavirus Testing

(The Washington Post) -
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at his offices in New York, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (Brendan McDermid/Pool Photo via AP)

As the coronavirus pandemic swept through New York early last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration arranged for his family members and other well-connected figures to have special access to state-administered coronavirus tests, dispatching a top state doctor and other state health officials to their homes, according to three people with direct knowledge of the effort.

As part of the program, a state lab immediately processed the results of those who were tested, the people said, even as average New Yorkers were struggling to get tested in the early days of the pandemic because of a scarcity of resources. Initially, the lab was only capable of running several hundred tests a day for a state with 19 million residents.

The use of state resources to benefit people close to the governor raises serious ethical questions, experts said. New York law prohibits state officials from using their positions to secure privileges for themselves or others.

Administration officials declined to comment on Cuomo family members receiving testing priority, citing laws protecting health privacy. Officials said that home tests were provided to members of the public in communities that were hard-hit.

“We should avoid insincere efforts to rewrite the past. In the early days of this pandemic, when there was a heavy emphasis on contact tracing, we were absolutely going above and beyond to get people testing – including in some instances going to people’s homes – and door to door in places like New Rochelle – to take samples from those believed to have been exposed to COVID in order to identify cases and prevent additional ones,” Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said in a statement.

“Among those we assisted were members of the general public, including legislators, reporters, state workers and their families who feared they had contracted the virus and had the capability to further spread it,” he added.

The revelation of the testing program comes as the Cuomo administration is battling controversies on multiple fronts, including an investigation by the state attorney general into allegations of sexual harassment by the governor, which he has denied, and a federal inquiry into the state’s reporting of covid-linked deaths in nursing homes.

Among those who benefited from the priority testing program was Cuomo’s brother Chris, who was diagnosed with covid-19 in late March of 2020. The CNN anchor was swabbed by a top New York Department of Health doctor, who visited his Hamptons home to collect samples from him and his family, the people with knowledge of the matter said.

Chris Cuomo and CNN spokesman Matt Dornic declined to comment.

The same doctor, Eleanor Adams, now a top adviser to the state health commissioner, was also enlisted to test multiple other Cuomo family members, according to two people familiar with the program.

The coronavirus test specimens were then rushed – at times driven by state police troopers – to the Wadsworth Center, a state public health lab in Albany, where they were processed immediately, the people said. At times, employees in the state health laboratory were kept past their shifts until late into the night to process results of those close to Cuomo, two people said.

The specimens were shrouded in secrecy, marked only by initials or numbers. Results were then provided to the family members, the people with knowledge of the matter said.

The operations troubled some administration officials, who believed that it was an improper use of resources that helped those with influence over average New Yorkers, according to the people. The Albany Times-Union first reported that health officials were told to prioritize testing Cuomo relatives.

During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, tests were exceedingly rare in New York, a state that soon became the nation’s hotspot of covid-19 cases.

In February 2020, the Centers for Disease Control was routing tests to be handled at its central lab in Atlanta, leading to massive delays and frustration over faulty test kits. At the end of that month, the Wadsworth Center, New York’s public health lab in Albany, received approval to begin covid-19 testing in state. “That moment would change history,” Cuomo wrote in his book “American Crisis,” which touts his leadership skills during the pandemic.

The lab could proceed under an FDA emergency use authorization for specimens that met clinical or epidemiological criteria, described at the time as “clinical signs and symptoms associated with COVID-19, contact with a probable or confirmed COVID-19 case, history of travel to a geographic locations where COVID-19 cases were detected, or other epidemiologic links for which COVID-19 testing may be indicated as part of a public health activity.”

The Wadsworth lab began with a handful of tests and ramped up, but was still only able to process several hundred tests a day during the first week of March, state officials said at the time. Meanwhile, media reports were full of accounts from New Yorkers desperate to get tested – including some with symptoms and recent travel history who were turned away due to scarcity.

“I knew we were in trouble when four of my family members called asking how they could get tested,” Cuomo wrote in his book.

By March 6, there was still “very limited testing capacity,” according to Cuomo’s account, and members of his social media team “had to work overtime” to try to dispute Trump’s promise that “anyone who wants a test can get one.”

On March 11, Cuomo held a press briefing in which he assailed the CDC for failing to adequately respond to the testing needs of the country and of New Yorkers. “Too little, too late,” he said of their efforts.

At that point, Cuomo said the state lab at Wadsworth was only able to run “several hundred” tests a day.

Around mid-March, the state quietly began the VIP program that benefited Cuomo family members and other high-profile figures, according to the three people with familiar with the operation.

Adams, a public health expert, had to spend a number of days testing the governor’s family members, the people with knowledge of the matter said.

Adams did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but officials with knowledge of the effort said it was not her idea and she was simply carrying out orders.

Separately, nurses working for the state were dispatched in two-person swabbing teams to test “dozens” of VIPs, some living in penthouses in Manhattan, according to one person with direct knowledge.

“We referred to them as ‘specials,’ ” the person said.

Those tests were then driven to the Wadsworth lab by state troopers for expedited processing, according to the person with knowledge

The person said names of the patients were closely held by an assistant working for state health commissioner Howard Zucker and obscured throughout the expedited testing process, often through the use of numbers or letter initials or aliases. Such a process also skirted the effort to collect demographic data used to drive public health decisions in response to the deadly pandemic.

“It made it impossible to reconcile the data at the end of the day,” the individual said.

When reached by phone on Wednesday, Zucker hung up on a Post reporter. He did not immediately respond to written questions.

The priority testing program raises several ethical concerns, experts said.

Lisa Lee, an epidemiologist and bioethicist at Virginia Tech, said the idea of preferred testing during a period of scarcity of resources is the “antithesis” of the concept of collective sacrifice and “morally problematic.”

“The special treatment by knowing someone, or by being a well-off person is extremely frustrating, particularly when we’ve seen over and over again the absolute incredible disparities with covid-19. The people who really needed testing, needed treatment and needed attention early on were the people who were the least well-off and the most exposed,” she said, referencing essential workers.

New York law bans state officials from using or attempting use “his or her official position to secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions for himself or herself or others, including but not limited to, the misappropriation to himself, herself or to others of the property, services or other resources of the state for private business or other compensated non- governmental purposes.”