Former New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker spent a lot of time with then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zucker was often seen coming and going to Cuomo's office on the second floor of the state Capitol and appeared alongside him at nationally televized briefings on the crisis.
But Zucker told legislative investigators the reality was a lot different, despite their proximity.
"There was only one health care professional on the [New York COVID-19 Task Force], a senior DOH official, and that senior DOH official did not have regular meetings with the former Governor during the pandemic and found it difficult to speak directly with the former Governor, as senior Executive Chamber employees guarded access to the former Governor," said a report released by the state Assembly on Monday, referring to Zucker.
Cuomo's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the early days of the crisis was largely lauded as he gave slideshow presentations to a nervous public glued to their TVs and stuck at home. But the results of investigations have painted a different picture.
Testimony from former state health officials and an investigative report by the state Assembly portray a pandemic response by former Gov. Cuomo's administration has one focused on burnishing his reputation, said Assemblyman Ron Kim, a longtime critic of the former governor.
"They didn't want to waste an opportunity to elevate one man during the pandemic to make him a hero despite all the facts and truth that was out there," Kim said.
The latest report once again shows how the Cuomo administration withheld data on nursing home deaths during the pandemic, kept health officials like Zucker at arm's length and even went as far as directing Zucker in how to answer questions under oath.
"They do seem completely obssessed with hiding the truth about nursing homes," said Bill Hammond, a health policy analyst and researcher at the Empire Center.
The former governor's book "American Crisis" was meant to highlight his leadership during the pandemic. On Monday, his spokesman Rich Azzopardi continued to defend the legacy left by Cuomo, pointing to the meat of the legislative report not concluding a March 25 directive discharging COVID-19 patients to the facilities led to a spike in deaths in nursing homes.
The report, nevertheless, was not "a fair and balanced report," Azzopardi said.
But with Cuomo gone, state officials still must contend with the pandemic and a rise in cases as the holiday season begins.
"We needed to legislate and fix a broken system to provide disparate services for older adults," Kim said. "He hid all that data away from us where we could not properly legislate."
As the Assembly report was released, state lawmakers assessed the pandemic's impact on older New Yorkers and what services they need.
"We have the ability of hindsight right now and I think it's important to recognize that and also looking forward in what we can continue to do," said Assemblyman Jake Ashby.
Challenges remain for programs that provide services for older New Yorkers to remain in their homes, including finding enough people to fill open jobs. But two years into the crisis, officials like Office for the Aging Acting Director Greg Olsen believe the state is well positioned amid efforts to vaccinate more people and help those vulernable to the virus.
"Because we have relationships with 59 county offices for the aging and 1,200 community-based organizations," Olsen said, "we're doing really well in not only the vaccination efforts but getting people the services that they need."