The man who was hailed by Democrats and journalists alike as the country’s shadow leader during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic is finally facing scrutiny for a number of missteps that critics say cost potentially thousands of lives.
Andrew Cuomo’s daily addresses during the early days of lockdown provided comfort to many in a time of uncertainty. No other figure in the country was admired more by the legacy media and Hollywood than the governor of New York. Politico declared him a ” social media superstar,” a New York Times columnist said Cuomo’s leadership style helped ” sooth our battered nerves,” while he regularly appeared on his brother Chris Cuomo’s CNN show to crack jokes about their family life.
His so-called leadership earned him a book deal and an Emmy Award. At one point, the idea was even floated that he step into the race for the Democratic presidential candidate when the field appeared underwhelming.
But now, with former President Donald Trump exiting stage right, the sheen has seemingly worn off, and Cuomo’s inflexibility, micromanagement, and costly decision-making has been thrust to the forefront.
On Monday, the New York Times reported at least nine senior state health officials have resigned from their positions, including the medical director in the division of epidemiology. The news came after the state bungled the initial rollout of the vaccine, all while states with significantly fewer resources such as West Virginia and South Dakota led the country in distribution.
As vaccines began expiring in healthcare facility refrigerators, Cuomo’s staff seemed more concerned with continuing his longtime feud with fellow Democrat Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City. As the mayor’s staff pleaded for the state to loosen its strict vaccination requirements, Cuomo refused to budge.
Cuomo relented the next day, just two days after he stepped in to nix the city’s plan to vaccinate 25,000 police officers.
“We went to work every day,” Lieutenants Benevolent Association President Lou Turco said. “Obviously, there’s an importance to us. When are they getting to us? I think this all falls on the state. The state is the one deciding who gets it and when they get it.”
The vaccine fiasco appears to be due to Cuomo’s obsession with micromanaging and a suspicion of civil servants who disagree with his policies. Despite the state readying a vaccine distribution strategy for years, Cuomo shelved that plan in favor of one that outsourced the process to hospital systems.
“The governor’s approach, in the beginning, seemed to go against the grain in terms of what the philosophy was about how to do this,” said Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, a former deputy commissioner at New York City’s Health Department. “It did seem to negate 15 to 20 years of work.”
When that plan failed, he maintained his blame on state and local health officials, mocking the very experts he criticized Trump for ignoring.
“When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts because I don’t,” Cuomo said last week.
Cuomo’s habit of deflecting blame repeated itself when he was asked about a damning report issued last month by New York Attorney General Letitia James that claimed the state’s Department of Health had been undercounting nursing home deaths “by approximately 50 percent.”
James’s report found: “Preliminary data obtained by [the Office of the Attorney General] suggests that many nursing home residents died from Covid-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes, which is not reflected in DOH published total nursing home death data.”
In response, Cuomo said: “Where this starts is, frankly, a political attack from the prior federal administration and HHS and their great spokesman Michael Caputo, who was a protege of Roger Stone.”
Caputo blasted Cuomo for signing a March executive order mandating nursing homes throughout the state to accept residents previously hospitalized for the coronavirus. That executive order was later rescinded in May, but numerous public health experts blame Cuomo’s order on ultimately killing thousands of elderly people and spreading the coronavirus throughout the state’s most vulnerable populations.
In response to James’s report, New York’s health commissioner released figures showing the number of confirmed and presumed deaths in both nursing homes and hospitals stood at 12,743 as of Jan. 19. New York as a whole has had 1.43 million cases and 43,354 deaths.
James’s report has brought Cuomo’s handling of the nursing homes back into the spotlight, but it makes the media’s initial coverage back in spring 2020 all the more curious. Networks like CNN indulged in what, in retrospect, seems like a bizarre vaudeville act between the Cuomo brothers. At one point, younger brother Chris gushed, “Obviously, I’ll never be objective. Obviously, I think you’re the best politician in the country.”
Although he has insisted that he was following federal guidelines when it came to the nursing home debacle, Cuomo has displayed questionable judgment and vacillated between expressing outrage about insufficient assistance from the federal government to letting tens of millions of dollars in supplies and facilities go to waste.
Cuomo, with assistance from New York City leaders, oversaw the creation of a $52 million temporary hospital at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens that ultimately only treated 79 patients. Doctors working at the pop-up hospital, which was closed down after just over a month, were compensated as much as $732 an hour.
And as Trump obliged Cuomo’s demands for more aid, the USNS Comfort, a 1,000-bed military ship, hardly got any use, treating just 3% of all the city’s hospitalizations during its time in port. The conversion of the Javits Center in Brooklyn into a field hospital lasted just over a month, another multimillion-dollar project that served little use.
Just mere weeks after he warned New Yorkers that the state’s ventilator shortage could lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths, Cuomo said he was ” relatively comfortable” with its ventilator and personal protective equipment — so much so that the state had “a stockpile” and began shipping surplus to other states.
Where Cuomo takes New York from here remains unclear. After nearly a year of harsh lockdown policies that bankrupted an uncountable number of businesses, he now says the state “simply cannot stay closed until the vaccine hits critical mass.”
“The cost is too high. We will have nothing left to open. We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely,” he tweeted in January.
From the beginning of March to November 2020, over 300,000 people in New York left the city alone, with many citing poor economic conditions and rising crime.
“I literally talk to people all day long who are now in their Hamptons house who also lived here, or in their Hudson Valley house, or in their Connecticut weekend house, and I say, ‘You got to come back! We’ll go to dinner! I’ll buy you a drink! Come over, I’ll cook!'” Cuomo said in August.