New details into the special access to COVID-19 testing provided to relatives of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and other well-connected New Yorkers reveal that at least 100 people were prioritized during the first month of pandemic response efforts at an operations hub in New Rochelle, New York.
The Washington Post reported on Monday night that those with priority status got expedited results, waiting only hours, compared to the delay of up to a week that other New Yorkers faced early on in the pandemic.
In addition to Cuomo’s brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, among other members of the governor’s family who received preferential treatment, the Post said that designer Kenneth Cole, the governor’s brother-in-law, had benefited from priority testing.
State officials countered reports last week that suggested people were given special treatment because of their connections to Cuomo.
A senior adviser to the governor, Rich Azzopardi, said in a statement that there was no such “VIP” program as the Post described.
“When priority was given, it was to nurses, guardsmen, state workers and other government officials central to the pandemic response and those they were in direct contact with, as well as individuals believed to have been exposed to COVID who had the capability to spread it further and impact vital operations,” Azzopardi said.
But five people including three nurses describing how cases were fast-tracked told the Post that officials working at testing sites created a system that where staff could label certain samples as “priorities,” “specials,” “inner circle” or “criticals.”
The identities of those who were part of the system were shrouded in secrecy and held close by a top assistant to Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, two people familiar with the practice told the Post.
Azzopardi said that any priority system “was built by those in charge of running the sites and the Governor had no knowledge that tests were being prioritized at those sites.”
When asked about Cuomo family members receiving special treatment at testing centers, Azzopardi said in an email to the Post, “To the extent this occurred, the Governor was not aware.”
New York Department of Health spokesman Gary Holmes also said in a statement to the Post that the premise that New Yorkers got preferential treatment because of their connections to the governor “is not factually accurate.”
“From a public health perspective ‘where have you been,’ and ‘how many people might you have exposed’ are the questions that guided who was given priority — not ‘who you know,’ ” Holmes said.
In spite of those statements, one nurse told the Post she was dispatched from an operations center in New Rochelle to test patients in private residences and hotel rooms and was told that those individuals were part of Cuomo’s orbit.
“We would always hear, ‘This is coming from the governor’s chamber.’ What the hell does that mean?” said the nurse.
“They were treated like royalty,” the nurse said of Cuomo’s family. “I didn’t understand why they were able to jump the line.”