At least nine senior state health officials have quit the New York State Health Department since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, in part due to clashes with Governor Andrew Cuomo over his approach to battling the virus.
The senior officials who have resigned or retired from the state health department in recent months include the deputy commissioner for public health, Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, who left in late summer.
Following Weisfuse’s departure, the director of the bureau of communicable disease control and the medical director for epidemiology also left. Last month, a state epidemiologist also announced her departure.
Much of the tension between health officials and Cuomo stemmed from the governor’s refusal to rely on longstanding vaccine distribution plans. Cuomo dismissed vaccine distribution plans developed and tested at the local level over many years and implemented his own plan that involved tapping large hospital systems as distribution hubs, the New York Times reported Monday.
“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,” Weisfuse remarked to the Times. “It did seem to negate 15 to 20 years of work.”
The governor requested that federal officials to work only with New York state rather than with local officials in New York City, a decision that hamstrung the city’s efforts to set up its own vaccination sites, according to one city official.
Before the vaccine rollout dispute, officials related that the state health department was not heavily involved in decisions regarding permitting public gatherings and ordering businesses to shutter based on the spread of the virus in their areas.
Cuomo appeared to confirm his administration’s sidelining of health experts at his news briefing on Friday.
“When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts. Because I don’t. Because I don’t,” Cuomo told the press.
Last week, the state attorney general’s office released an initial report indicating that New York may have undercounted coronavirus nursing home deaths in the state by as much as half. Nursing home fatalities is an issue that has dogged Cuomo since New York logged more than 8,500 virus deaths among residents of those facilities.
About 43,000 people have died in New York after being infected with the coronavirus, the largest death toll of any state.