How Cuomo’s Resignation Could Improve NY’s COVID Response

Most of New York’s counties are reporting enough community transmission to call for universal indoor masking, as far as federal guidance is concerned. Medical centers are steadily admitting more patients across all age groups. State numbers show 1,300 New York residents are hospitalized—the highest tally since May. And after a strong start earlier this year, the state’s vaccine rollout has stagnated—with full vaccination coverage plateauing under 60%.

Those are just a few of the COVID issues on Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul’s plate when she takes over the governorship on August 24th. Her predecessor—Governor Andrew Cuomo—announced Tuesday that he was stepping down a week after the state attorney general’s investigation found that he had sexually harassed 11 women.

“The New York State Department of Health remains focused on our mission to protect the health and safety of all New Yorkers,” a department spokesperson told WNYC/Gothamist when asked about Cuomo’s COVID legacy and Hochul’s takeover. “And we continue to manage the public health response to the ongoing and unprecedented global pandemic.”

Cuomo leaves a mixed legacy when it comes to his pandemic response. His state was America’s first major casualty of the COVID tsunami, as the virus swiftly capitalized on the high-density population of New York City. Critics say his administration should have taken better cues from China, Italy or other countries devastated during the pandemic’s early days.

“I want to remind all New Yorkers of an important lesson and one that I will carry with me for the rest of my life: And that’s what you New Yorkers did in battling COVID,” Cuomo said during his resignation on Tuesday. “The enemy landed in New York state. COVID launched the attack here. It came on planes from Europe, and we had no idea.”

After those early setbacks, the departing governor was heralded for his clear and regular communication around COVID-19—as the nation struggled to receive similar guidance under President Donald Trump. New York beat back the virus and lowered casualties during its second wave over the winter by nearly 40 percentage points. That happened despite the winter wave recording four times as many cases.

“The irony is that we essentially anointed Cuomo as our COVID hero more than a year ago,” said Mitra Kalita, the publisher of Epicenter NYC, a newsletter and community journalism outlet developed to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. “To have him depart now, as we’re entering another phase of the pandemic that I would argue is as much of a crisis as just a few months ago—the timing does seem ironic.”

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo delivers briefing on Coronavirus pandemic, May 5th, 2020

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Governor Cuomo became renowned for his data-laden COVID briefings. But critics say his administration consistently lacked transparency during the pandemic.

Governor’s office

Yet, the governor’s handling of COVID arguably fueled his downfall. While Lindsey Boylan, a former aide, first publicly described sexual misconduct against Cuomo in December 2020, that allegation only gained mainstream traction after State Attorney General Letitia James released a report on COVID-19 in nursing homes a month later.

That report centered on Cuomo’s so-called March 25th directive, in which nursing homes were required to accept COVID-positive patients being discharged from hospitals during spring 2020. James’ office found the state had dramatically undercounted deaths at nursing homes for months, even after the directive was rescinded.

“[The directive] was one of a lot of mistakes that the state made, and it probably wasn’t the worst one in terms of its consequences,” said Bill Hammond, a senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center. “The stonewalling that happened to surround that policy was kind of emblematic of a larger issue with the state’s pandemic response, which was a lack of transparency and a lack of honest self-analysis.”

Moreover, the governor’s adversarial relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio often left the state’s ground zero—New York City—with mixed messaging around the pandemic. The two administrations disagreed on everything from which tests were best to when the reopening would happen.

“Obviously, this is beneficial to the city’s COVID response,” a senior city health official, who asked for anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic, said of the departure. “At every turn, the Governor has impeded local officials from doing the right thing for their communities, including but not limited to, accelerating re-openings faster than we wanted, limiting us from imposing localized restrictions, and obstructing our rapid vaccine roll out through excessive bureaucracy and agreements with favored hospitals.”

Here’s what else Cuomo leaves behind with the pandemic.

What Hochul Needs To Immediately Tackle

Hochul will have to reinvigorate a vaccination effort that’s left many New Yorkers, particularly New Yorkers of color, unprotected against the delta variant. Black New Yorkers make up 17% of the state’s population but just 13% of people who’ve received at least one dose of vaccine. Cuomo has often leaned on these communities for support, as they make a huge portion of his base.

“Vaccination is the best strategy we have to get out of this pandemic, and so tons of attention needs to be put into jump-starting what has kind of slowed down or even stalled in some ways across NY,” said ​​Dr. Denis Nash, an epidemiology professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health. ​​”How do we re-energize it, how do we reimagine it in ways that are going to get some more traction, especially in geographic areas and in sociodemographic groups that are especially vulnerable to bad COVID outcomes?”

At the same time, Nash says, the state needs to double down on masking and testing, which will help keep people safe while they wait to become eligible or for their vaccines to take effect. Strong school and workplace COVID policies—not just recommendations—should be a top priority for the new governor, he added.

Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul tours the New York State COVID-19 Vaccination site and thanks health care workers at Jones Beach State Park, January 21st, 2021

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Along with implementing new policies, the incoming governor should think hard about how to communicate them, says Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiology professor at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. Cuomo served as a consistent source of COVID information for the public, particularly in the early months of the pandemic. Now, El-Sadr says, Hochul needs to figure out who will be the new voice people rely on.

“Whether it’s the new governor or someone else, there needs to be somebody who takes on the reins of communicating,” El-Sadr said.

El-Sadr also urged the incoming governor to change how the state characterizes the pandemic to the public—to frame it more as an ongoing reality and less as a battle that can be decisively won.

“For many people, there’s been this hope that there will be one day when we get to zero, that there’d be one day when we say COVID is gone,” she said. “That narrative is not the realistic one. We need to change the narrative into one in which we are talking about how to live with this virus, how to be able to function as a society as safely as possible in the context of continuing transmission of this virus.”

How NYC Might Be Impacted

As Governor Cuomo readies to leave office, experts see an opportunity to hit the reset button on New York’s COVID response—starting in the five boroughs. First, they hope that Lt. Gov. Hochul can mend the often adversarial relationship between the state and New York City officials.

“So to have a governor and a New York City mayor who are in tandem, on everything from vaccine policies to whether gyms should be open or not would really be a blessing right now,” said Kalita of Epicenter NYC.

Both Nash and El-Sadr agree. They’re hoping the Hochul administration gives a fresh perspective on the pandemic and transcends politics in favor of science-based policies.

“Maybe this represents a turning point, a good opportunity for positive change in how the state handles the pandemic,” Nash said. “Maybe we could lead the way a little bit more than we have been.”

Such cooperation is crucial at a time when people are hungry for guidance. Mitra said the city has returned to an era when demand for COVID tests is beginning to outstrip supply. She added that schools and businesses are also feeling the pressure around decision-making as the reopening deepens.

But the governor’s scandal-ridden year has seen him pull back from his regular briefings on the pandemic. And while New York beat the federal timeline on vaccination and made enough progress to trigger an early reopening, the Cuomo administration has largely left COVID policy up to local governments as the delta variant rose to prominence.

Governor Cuomo Updates New Yorkers on State's COVID-19 Response, November 30th, 2020

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Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio often clashed over policy while trying to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governor’s office

“I can’t think of any measure that the governor has taken since May to appreciably slow the delta variant,” said New York City Councilmember Mark Levine, who chairs the council’s health committee. “No action on vaccine mandates. No action on mask mandates. For months, as the storm was gathering, really the only narrative coming from Governor Cuomo was celebrating the reopening.”

Part of Cuomo’s absence is also likely due to progress. In June, New York state was reporting record lows in cases and hospitalizations. The emergency declaration expired late that month, giving local governments more power to handle their affairs.

But Cuomo’s pandemic powers had also been curbed by the state legislature in the spring, meaning he would need its approval to set broad COVID policies going forward. The governor cited this restriction when he recommended—but didn’t reinstate a mandate for—universal indoor masking in early August.

Yet even with this constraint, critics said he could have called a special legislative session to tackle a new mask law. Other statewide policy has sat idle amid Cuomo’s scandals, such as a bill to criminalize fraudulent vaccine cards. The state legislature passed the measure in June, but the governor hasn’t signed it even as vaccine passports become more essential to New York life.

Levine hopes to see mask mandates return for public indoor places until the delta variant has run its course. He also wants clearer statewide guidelines on school vaccine requirements and a plan for booster shots with vulnerable communities, like the immunocompromised.

Are Cuomo’s COVID Scandals Over?

That remains to be seen. Prior to Cuomo’s resignation, the state assembly’s judiciary committee was investigating the nursing home scandal, his use of public resources to support his book on the pandemic and alleged preferential testing for friends and family during the pandemic’s first weeks.

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, a member of the committee, told WNYC/Gothamist that it will meet on Monday to discuss whether to continue these investigations, but at the moment, their status is “unclear.” The state attorney general’s office said it had no update on its separate examination of the nursing home scandal, but also clarified that “our nursing homes investigation is into [the] nursing homes, not the governor or [State] Department of Health.”

Governor Cuomo announces all state mass vaccination sites will be open to walk-in appointments, April 27th, 2021

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Hammond from the Empire Center thinks the pandemic investigations need to continue to repair the state’s shortcomings around health transparency. For example, half the states in the country are reporting their breakthrough infections—rare instances where the virus bypasses a person’s vaccine-reinforced immunity. New York isn’t one of them—even though such numbers can demonstrate how the virus is overwhelmingly infecting unvaccinated communities and boost confidence in the shots.

“It would send a signal to people that aren’t vaccinated that they ought to get vaccinated,” Hammond said. “And it may also put into context questions about whether masks would be advisable and how schools should reopen.”

Other data gaps still plague New York’s COVID communication. For example, the New York Department of Health still hasn’t established an online tracker for COVID variants.

As the pandemic charges forward, history will decide if Cuomo is remembered for his pandemic scandals or for successfully fighting the virus. New York ranks second in total and per capita COVID deaths—but most of those fatalities came during the state’s first wave when the nation was scrambling to fight the disease. And despite being the original epicenter, it now ranks in the bottom half of states in terms of overall cases per capita.

“But whatever good [Cuomo] did during that first wave in the heat of the crisis ended up being turned into a drawback,” said Hammond, adding that this saga offers a warning for elected leaders. “Rather than leading the state on a truly constructive process of learning from this catastrophe, he took the position that there was nothing to learn and that he had done everything just right.”

Brigid Bergin contributed to reporting.

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