As the coronavirus pandemic swept through New York early last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration arranged for his family members and other well-connected figures to have special access to state-administered coronavirus tests, dispatching a top state doctor and other state health officials to their homes, according to three people with direct knowledge of the effort.
As part of the program, a state lab immediately processed the results of those who were tested, the people said, even as average New Yorkers were struggling to get tested in the early days of the pandemic because of a scarcity of resources. Initially, the lab was capable of running only several hundred tests a day for a state with 19 million residents.
The use of state resources to benefit people close to the governor raises serious ethical questions, experts said. New York law prohibits state officials from using their positions to secure privileges for themselves or others.
Administration officials declined to comment on Cuomo family members receiving testing priority, citing laws protecting health privacy. Officials said that home tests were provided to members of the public in communities that were hard-hit.
“We should avoid insincere efforts to rewrite the past. In the early days of this pandemic, when there was a heavy emphasis on contact tracing, we were absolutely going above and beyond to get people testing — including in some instances going to people’s homes — and door to door in places like New Rochelle — to take samples from those believed to have been exposed to COVID in order to identify cases and prevent additional ones,” Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said in a statement.
“Among those we assisted were members of the general public, including legislators, reporters, state workers and their families who feared they had contracted the virus and had the capability to further spread it,” he added.
Among those who benefited from the priority testing program was Cuomo’s brother Chris, who was diagnosed with covid-19 in late March of 2020. The CNN anchor was swabbed by a top New York Department of Health doctor, who visited his Hamptons home to collect samples from him and his family, the people with knowledge of the matter said.
Chris Cuomo declined to comment.
In a statement late Wednesday, CNN spokesman Matt Dornic said: “We generally do not get involved in the medical decisions of our employees. However, it is not surprising 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.”
The same doctor who tested Chris Cuomo, Eleanor Adams, now a top adviser to the state health commissioner, also was enlisted to test multiple other Cuomo family members, according to two people familiar with the program.
The coronavirus test specimens were then rushed — at times driven by state police troopers — to the Wadsworth Center, a state public health lab in Albany, where they were processed immediately, the people said. At times, employees in the state health laboratory were kept past their shifts until late into the night to process results of those close to Cuomo, two people said.
The specimens were shrouded in secrecy, marked only by initials or numbers. Results were then provided to the family members, the people with knowledge of the matter said.
The operation troubled some administration officials, who believed that it was an improper use of resources that helped those with influence over average New Yorkers, according to the people. The Albany Times-Union first reported that health officials were told to prioritize testing Cuomo relatives.
The revelation of the priority testing program comes as the Cuomo administration is battling controversies on multiple fronts, including an investigation by the state attorney general into allegations of sexual harassment by the governor, which he has denied, and a federal inquiry into the state’s reporting of the covid-19-linked deaths of nursing home residents.
During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, tests were exceedingly rare in New York, a state that soon became the nation’s hot spot of covid-19 cases.
In February 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was routing tests to be handled at its central lab in Atlanta, leading to massive delays and frustration over faulty test kits. At the end of that month, the Wadsworth Center, New York’s public health lab in Albany, received approval to begin coronavirus testing in-state. “That moment would change history,” Cuomo wrote in his book “American Crisis,” which touts his leadership skills during the pandemic.
The lab could proceed under an FDA emergency use authorization for specimens that met clinical or epidemiological criteria, described at the time as “clinical signs and symptoms associated with COVID-19, contact with a probable or confirmed COVID-19 case, history of travel to a geographic locations where COVID-19 cases were detected, or other epidemiologic links for which coronavirus testing may be indicated as part of a public health activity.”
The Wadsworth lab began with a handful of tests and ramped up but was still able to process only several hundred tests a day during the first week of March, state officials said at the time. Meanwhile, media reports were full of accounts from New Yorkers desperate to get tested — including some with symptoms and recent travel history who were turned away because of scarcity.
“I knew we were in trouble when four of my family members called asking how they could get tested,” Cuomo wrote in his book.
By March 6, there was still “very limited testing capacity,” according to Cuomo’s account, and members of his social media team “had to work overtime” to try to dispute President Donald Trump’s declaration that “anyone who wants a test can get one.”
On March 11, Cuomo held a news briefing in which he assailed the CDC as failing to adequately respond to the testing needs of the country and of New Yorkers. “Too little, too late,” he said of the CDC’s efforts.
At that point, Cuomo said the state lab at Wadsworth was able to run only “several hundred” tests a day.
Around mid-March, the state quietly began the VIP program that benefited Cuomo family members and other high-profile figures, according to the three people with familiar with the operation.
Adams, a public health expert, had to spend a number of days testing the governor’s family members, the people with knowledge of the matter said.
Adams did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but people with knowledge of the effort said that it was not her idea and that she was simply carrying out orders.
Separately, nurses working for the state were dispatched in two-person swabbing teams to test “dozens” of VIPs, some living in penthouses in Manhattan, according to one person with direct knowledge.
“We referred to them as ‘specials,’ ” the person said.
Those tests were then driven to the Wadsworth lab by state troopers for processing, according to the person with knowledge.
The person said the names of the patients were closely held by an assistant working for state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and obscured throughout the priority testing process, often through the use of numbers or letter initials or aliases. Such a process also skirted the effort to collect demographic data used to drive public health decisions in response to the deadly pandemic.
“It made it impossible to reconcile the data at the end of the day,” the individual said.
When reached by phone on Wednesday, Zucker hung up on a Post reporter. He did not respond to written questions.
Gary Holmes, a spokesman for New York State Department of Health, said in a statement: “You’re asking professionals who took an oath to protect a patient’s privacy to violate that oath and compromise their integrity. More than 43 million New Yorkers have been tested, and commenting on any of them would be a serious violation of medical ethics.”
Beau Duffy, a spokesman for the New York State Police, said that “thousands” of samples were brought to Wadsworth 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 and did not know how many came from private homes. “I’m not sure there were specific records kept,” he said.
The priority testing program raises several ethical concerns, experts said.
Lisa M. Lee, an epidemiologist and bioethicist at Virginia Tech, said the idea of preferred testing during a period of scarcity of resources is the “antithesis” of the concept of collective sacrifice and is “morally problematic.”
“The special treatment by knowing someone, or by being a well-off person is extremely frustrating, particularly when we’ve seen over and over again the absolute incredible disparities with covid-19. The people who really needed testing, needed treatment and needed attention early on were the people who were the least well-off and the most exposed,” she said, alluding to essential workers.
New York law bans any state official from using or attempting to use “his or her official position to secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions for himself or herself or others, including but not limited to, the misappropriation to himself, herself or to others of the property, services or other resources of the state for private business or other compensated non-governmental purposes.”
A 2019 presentation for state employees prepared by the state ethics commission cites two examples of violations: one former senior Cuomo administration official who used state employees to clear his yard after a storm, and another who used his position to help secure his son a job. The former administration official was fired by Cuomo in 2012, and the second was forced into early retirement, according to the presentation, which states that such violations are “chipping away at our public trust.”
In his book, Cuomo describes how he reacted when he learned his daughters and ex-wife may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus. “The detective work of contact tracing fell to me,” he wrote. “First, we needed to get my ex-wife Kerry, Cara’s mother, tested, because she had definitely been in contact with a positive person and that was the protocol. In the meantime, those people in contact with Kerry needed to be quarantined.”
Cuomo does not say who administered the tests for his family members but writes that they came back negative.
Later in the book, he writes that the March 14 announcement of the first covid-19 death in New York, that of an 82-year-old woman in Brooklyn, came “on the heels of the scare with my family.”
Then Chris Cuomo, the governor’s brother, announced on March 31 that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Andrew Cuomo mentioned it during his daily briefing, which earned a regular and large television audience during the first few months of the pandemic.
“My brother Chris is positive for coronavirus,” the governor said. “Found out this morning.”
In his book, Andrew Cuomo wrote that the diagnosis was “frightening” — even though his younger brother was not in an at-risk group.
“He was fortunate to have the best doctors available and all the help he needed,” he wrote, adding that Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, spoke with Chris Cuomo to provide him medical advice.
As one of the highest-profile media personalities to fall ill with the virus, Chris Cuomo and CNN treated his diagnosis as a public service announcement. Throughout his illness, Cuomo broadcast his show from his basement in his Hamptons house and gave viewers regular updates on his progress, including through interviews with his brother, the governor, and the network’s resident medical expert, Sanjay Gupta.
The revelation that one of the network’s biggest stars received special medical treatment from his brother’s administration raises ethical questions for CNN.
The network has already come under criticism for allowing Chris Cuomo to interview his brother repeatedly during the pandemic, giving the governor a major platform to tout the work of his administration. In doing so, CNN temporarily waived a rule it had in place that banned Chris Cuomo from interviewing his brother to avoid a personal conflict of interest. The network told the Associated Press that it made an exception because it felt the communication between the brothers during the health crisis “was of significant human interest.”
In recent weeks, Chris Cuomo has declined to cover various controversies that have engulfed the Cuomo administration, including allegations of sexual harassment against the governor, saying he cannot report on the stories because they involve his brother.
Alice Crites and Robin Givhan contributed to this report.