New accounts detail how New York health officials were told to prioritize coronavirus testing of people connected to Andrew Cuomo
Seven individuals 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.
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.
But 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 at length to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity out of 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 frenetic weeks in March 2020, officials working at testing sites rapidly assembled a system that gave special treatment to people described by staff 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.
And 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 state Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday urged New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics to open an investigation into the testing protocol. Separately, James is leading a probe into allegations of sexual harassment by Gov. Cuomo.
“The recent reports alleging there was preferential treatment given for COVID-19 testing are troubling,” according to a statement by her spokesman, who noted that the attorney general’s office 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.
“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,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi.
“Without these men and women, the COVID response operation would have been severely crippled,” he added. “We’ve worked day and night for more than a year to fight this pandemic and it’s absurd and offensive that blind sources are twisting and distorting the facts.”
New York 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.”
A spokeswoman for Cole did not respond to requests for comment.
A senior administration official who spoke to The Post at the request of the governor’s office said he was involving in running multiple test sites and never saw any preferential treatment for individuals based on their political connections. That official said that priority testing was often arranged for essential personnel and staff on site through expedited processing at a lab in New Jersey.
But other medical staff who worked at state testing sites said they were told to provide special access for people with ties to 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 — to test patients in private residences and hotel rooms, with instructions that those individuals were part of Cuomo’s orbit.
The nurse said the situation felt morally problematic — especially as scores of ordinary New Yorkers were waiting to get tested.
“We would always hear, ‘This is coming from the governor’s chamber.’ What the hell does that mean?” said the nurse.
Members of Cuomo’s extended family received favored treatment at a state-run testing center in late spring of 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 staff at the site quickly mobilized to assist fashion designer Cole, who is married to Andrew 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 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-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’s tasks — including scheduling testing, entering results and reaching out to 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 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 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 datasheet 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.
Among them were people “who had the resources and educational wherewithal” to go to private doctors, said the person, who declined to share names of those individuals because of health privacy laws, adding: “There is no reason why state testing teams should have been diverted to these people.”
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 10:00, a priority at 11:00.’ I can’t say that I know that they were all important to the governor, but that is what we were told.”
Beau Duffy, a spokesman for the New York State Police, told The Post last week that “thousands” of samples were transported to a state lab for testing during the early months of the pandemic. He said most of the samples came from state testing sites, nursing homes, drive-in sites and county offices. Duffy said he did not know whether there were specific special requests for family members or other VIPs. “I’m not sure there were specific records kept,” he said.
At times, Wadsworth employees worked late into the night to process results of priority cases, two people said. The specimens were shrouded in secrecy, marked only by initials or numbers.
Initially, Wadsworth was the only New York state facility granted authority to run tests for covid-19, and 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.
At the time, results would often 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 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 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 for the state, coordinating testing issues for high-risk settings such as nursing homes. Cuomo’s home in Southampton is roughly 90 miles from New York City.
Adams, who is now a senior adviser to Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Zucker hung up on a Post reporter last week and has declined to address the descriptions of preferential testing. “You’re asking professionals who took an oath to protect a patient’s privacy to violate that oath and compromise their integrity,” Holmes, the DOH spokesman, said in a statement last week.
Azzopardi, the governor’s spokesman, declined to comment on the number of trips Adams took to Cuomo’s residence.
In a statement last week, CNN defended Cuomo, 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 weekday nightly CNN show “Cuomo Prime Time,” is one of the cable network’s biggest stars. On March 31, the night he announced his covid diagnosis on the air, the Empire State Building was lit up red and white to acknowledge front line workers and their sacrifices.
“I tested positive,” he told viewers.
A day later, Cuomo discussed on his show how his chills had been so bad he had chipped a tooth, but expressed relief that his greatest fear — passing the virus on to his wife and children — had not come to pass.
The Trump administration “can say that anyone who wants a test can get one, and they know that’s BS, because you and I both know that we know people in our lives who can’t get tested,” he said. “And when they do get tested, they can’t get results, until they’re already over the illness.”
Two people with knowledge of the situation said that Cuomo inquired with Adams about getting access to an antibody test — a relatively limited commodity at the time.
During an April 7 show, Cuomo also quizzed Zucker about the availability of antibody tests and where one could go to get such a test. Zucker explained that he had spoken with the FDA commissioner about ramping up the Wadsworth lab’s ability to get thousands of those tests done each day.
Later in that show, Cuomo shared stories of those who had died from the coronavirus and expressed gratitude for his own situation. “Now look, me, I’m one of these — I’m one of the lucky ones. I got everything I need to get better on this.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.