Nursing homes in upstate New York were left to secure their own COVID-19 tests in the early days of the pandemic as the coronavirus quickly spread through the facilities, killing numerous elderly residents while Governor Andrew Cuomo made testing available for his family and other connections, according to a new report.
A new report by the New York Post details how the manager of Steuben County, Jack Wheeler, requested in April 2020 that the state Department of Health provide enough tests for every resident and staff member of three facilities in his jurisdiction only to receive enough supplies for just one of the facilities.
While Steve Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, stepped up to help Wheeler in his search for tests — driving eight hours through neighboring counties to collect tests — Cuomo allegedly reserved tests for his family members, including his brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo, and his mother, as well as his closest associates.
“I’m furious because testing of the most vulnerable population should be the absolute priority and a simple request,” Wheeler told the New York Post. “But [that] high-level, connected people had that luxury when we couldn’t even get people in the nursing homes tested is just infuriating.”
A Cuomo spokesman denied allegations that those close to the governor had received special treatment, calling them “insincere efforts to rewrite the past.”
Meanwhile, Steuben County health director Darlene Smith worked to find tests for the third facility after the DOH’s western region coordinator, Dr. Gregory Young, called on the day that tests were scheduled to be administered to say that “decisions were being made in Albany,” though he had already approved the request earlier.
“Those nursing homes were raging with positive cases and deaths and the purpose of universal swabbing of both residents and staff was to identify positive cases, isolate the positive staff and … get the positive residents cohorted together to prevent further spread,” Smith said.
“We had to beg, borrow, and steal basically and were able to get test kits from other counties,” she added. “Now knowing [that] what limited supply there was was being hoarded now for friends and family — it’s criminal. It’s just really hard to understand.”
The DOH accused Wheeler of also trying to “rewrite history.”
“In the absence of any real federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, New York State stepped forward and from the very beginning did everything we could to protect our most vulnerable population,” spokesman Jonah Bruno said. “Anyone can attempt to rewrite history or rehash out of context conversations a year later, but that doesn’t change the facts.”
“New York State created the best testing infrastructure in the world, which tested every resident, in each of the state’s 613 nursing homes by the first week in June, and continues to support nursing home staff and more recently visitor testing, by providing facilities more than 1.1 million rapid tests,” he added.
However, emails show that DOH officials also rejected a proposed order by Onondaga County that would have allowed it to mandate testing of employees in county nursing homes, according to the report. The DOH offered no explicit explanation for the decision.
The report comes amid growing concerns over the governor’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic in nursing homes: In January, state attorney general Letitia James released a report that showed the administration may have underreported the number of COVID deaths among nursing home residents by as much as 50 percent.
Reports earlier this month detailed how Cuomo’s aides allegedly rewrote a July report by state health officials to conceal the number of nursing home residents who died from coronavirus in the state. They worked to hide the fact that more than 9,000 nursing home residents had died from the virus in the state at the time, according to reports from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
The allegations that Cuomo’s associates received special access to COVID tests will be part of an ongoing impeachment investigation into the governor, which began after several women accused the governor of harassment and misconduct.