Tanzina Vega: This is The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega.
Andrew Cuomo: New York has been through hell. The finish line is in sight.
Tanzina Vega: New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has arguably been one of the most visible politicians during the pandemic. The national media praised his measured tone during his daily press briefings back in the spring when New York City was the epicenter of the virus. New Yorkers agreed. Polling in July showed that 72% of them approved of how the governor was responding to the crisis. For many, Cuomo’s apparent reliance on evidence and facts to guide his decisions was a relief from President Trump’s daily lies and misinformation about the virus. Here's Governor Cuomo, talking to NBC News back in March.
Andrew Cuomo: I don't operate on what I hope or what I would like to see you or what my expectation is, I operate on the data and on the numbers and on the signs.
Tanzina Vega: Recent reporting from the New York Times, however, show some cracks in that picture, according to The Times. Since the summer, nine senior New York State Health Department officials have left their positions for being "sidelined and disrespected", by Governor Cuomo. By not listening to their advice, some believe the governor has potentially hindered the state's ability to stop the spread of the virus and successfully roll out the vaccine. Here's what Governor Cuomo had to say during her roots and press viewing.
Andrew Cuomo: When I say experts and your quotes, it sounds like I'm saying I don't really trust the experts because I don't.
Tanzina Vega: Jesse McKinley is the Albany Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Jesse, thanks for joining us.
Jesse McKinley: Absolutely.
Tanzina Vega: What happened? Why is Governor Cuomo shifting from someone who said he trusted the experts to someone who says he doesn't?
Jesse McKinley: Well, I think that was a pretty shocking remark. I think a lot of draws dropped not only in the room but probably people listening nationwide and across the state. The point I think the governor was trying to make, although he might've been ham-handed about it, was that he did not trust federal experts and people who have given him bad advice in the past.
Now, keep in mind, this has been a steady refrain of the governor that he feels like the feds let them down, that the virus was coming when they didn't expect it but the thing that underscores this was our reporting in the paper on Monday, which basically showed that a lot of these so-called experts that he has sustained for are, in fact, leading his department of health and leaving that department a little bit in the lurch at a time in which the pandemic is still raging here in New York.
Tanzina Vega: Well, you found, in fact, in your reporting that nine senior New York State Health Department officials have left the department since the summer, is this tension that you're describing between Governor Cuomo and essentially state public health officials really what drove that?
Jessie McKinley: I think it's an undercurrent to almost all of those nine leaving. Keep in mind, Governor Cuomo, long before he became the pandemics layer that he was known last spring and then summer, was known for a very heavy-handed approach to state government and that included the state agencies like the Department of Health under his leadership. He's always been known as a tough boss but I think the intensity of the pandemic, I think that the fact that he and a very small cutter of aides were dictating policy often without the Department of Health knowing what was coming led to enormous tension and also, dispirited people in the department of health.
Some of the sources we spoke to spoke of all time, low morale inside of the Department of Health and made the point that oftentimes, in situations like this, where you're facing a huge crisis, people rise to the challenge and they feel like their expertise and their sets are valued. In many cases, the governor made these people feel like they were not valued and dunderheads at a time in which he alone knew the best way forward.
Tanzina Vega: I want to get into the governor's decision to work with private hospitals in just a moment but before that has the departure of these nine public health officials had any effect on the actual rollout of the vaccine distribution or efforts to control the spread of the virus?
Jesse McKinley: It's difficult to say at this point, but what is incontrovertible is that the governor instituted a different plan than the one that was on the books. Now keep in mind the Department of Health, as well as local departments of health do max vaccinations, they have done these, they have plans on the books. In 2009, they handled H1N1, there have been past outbreaks. There've been certainly public health vaccinations for everything from measles to other childhood illnesses.
This is something that local health departments know how to do, and that they have plans to do and in the case of this pandemic, the governor decided that they would do a different plan, often without informing the local health departments or even his own state department of health, that he had a different idea how to do this and that leads to what you were talking about in using large hospital systems as the primary point of contact for vaccinations, rather than leaving it up to local health departments or other authorities.
Tanzina Vega: Jesse, you're in Albany, I'm in New York City and I'm sure I'm not saying something here that isn't true when I say that the vaccine rollout, at least, in New York City has been a mess. Part of your reporting suggests that it's because Governor Cuomo decided to put the roll out in the hands of private hospitals, instead of in the hands of public health entities. What can you tell us about his decision there?
Jessie McKinley: His justification was three-fold, basically. One, he said, look, if you're going to vaccinate the frontline medical workers who everyone agreed from the feds on down to the state needed to be vaccinated at first, where to medical workers work? They work in hospitals, ipso facto, you should send the vaccines to the hospital chains and they'll inoculate their employees.
They also said that in terms of the Pfizer vaccine, which needed this extremely cold storage, the hospitals were more likely to have that. Also, I think there's a larger issue here that Governor Cuomo felt that they could operate regionally rather than being hamstrung by local jurisdictional lines, whether it be County lines or city lines or things like that, all of which may be justifiable. As you pointed out, the actual rollout was rocky, to say the least, and in some cases, incredibly frustrating for residents who were trying to get shots.
Tanzina Vega: Let's talk about whether or not Governor Cuomo had any political or financial ties to the hospitals and the hospital lobbyists that he worked with that was revelatory and your reporting here to achieve his new distribution plan.
Jessie McKinley: Well, money and politics are a common refrain at every level of government. The governor has said repeatedly that money has nothing to do with his decisions and that may well be true. In this case, one of the groups that was charged with vaccination was the Greater New York Hospital Association which is a major donor of the governor that was in the past campaigns and during his 10 plus years as governor of the State of New York.
There are obviously ties between lobbying groups and the governor that are involved in the vaccination efforts. Also, one of the things our reporting and recovered was that lobbyists have been involved since then, almost very beginning in formulating policy running data at some point advising the governor on courses of action. One of the insides of the state health department, in fact, we discovered that there was a lobbyist who had been given up an office and a desk and was contributing to the formulation of state policy right alongside state health employers.
Tanzina Vega: I think, Jesse, what's frustrating about this is that as people, including myself, are trying to get vaccine appointments for our elderly and older relatives and friends, it's just been a frenzy to try and do that and things are still not exactly where they need to be right now to think that the governor may have made this decision, not because of efficiencies or because it would have worked better for New Yorkers, but because of some perceived political gain.
Jesse McKinley: I'm not so sure about that thesis, but I do think the frustration is real in the governor's defense and to many states' defense. Part of this stems from it just not enough vaccine to go around, keep in mind that the State of New York is a state of 20 million people and at last count, I think they're getting about 300,000 doses a week.
Now anyone can do that math, that is going to take a long time to inoculate that entire population, and then multiply that by even bigger states like California and Texas and Florida of all, which are clamoring for vaccine as well. Also, the regulations that have been, or at least the guidelines have been set down by the federal government have very strict category 1a, category, 1b, category 1c that governments are trying to follow.
Having said all that, one thing that Governor Cuomo did was basically threatened healthcare providers, that if they gave the wrong vaccine to the wrong people at the wrong time, they could face legal sensors as well as fines. I think our reporting and other publications reporting found that that heavy-handed approach threatening Times may have had something to do with a slow rollout as well that the health care providers were scared of getting in trouble or scared of getting fined and slowed down their inoculations to the point where you saw the frustration you're talking about.
Tanzina Vega: Well, we know that Governor Cuomo is not one to back down from a confrontation. In fact, he directly responded to your report in the New York Times by saying, "If Times reporters think I push hospitals too hard and local governments too hard, I say I'm a fighter for the people of New York, and I believe I'm saving lives." That's a powerful statement. Jesse, what do you make of that response from Governor Cuomo?
Jesse McKinley: Well, I've covered the governor now for seven, eight, nine years, I've lost track, but he is now I think is not confident in his own abilities and his worldview. He definitely thinks that he's doing the right thing, he definitely feels that coming up with his own plans is a better way of doing it. His comments about healthcare, people inside of his own state health apparatus, have not been necessarily front flattering. A couple of weeks ago, even before our story published, he was basically saying that they were academics who didn't know how to get things done. Since our story has published, he said, basically, some people just aren't up to the job.
This is not a politician or a leader who feels that he's got anything wrong. He would point to the fact that the vaccination program has increased in speed in recent weeks, but then, by the same token, he has had troubles with keeping data straight. He's had troubles with releasing data, as indicated last week by a very damning report from the State Attorney General, a fellow Democrat, Tish James. They said that his health department was undercounting the number of people who had died in nursing homes. There are critics beginning to speak up and questioning whether or not his self-confidence has actually earned or is just bluster?
Tanzina Vega: Well, we can only hope that the vaccination rollout just gets better for all New Yorkers and folks across the country. Jesse McKinley is the Albany Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Jesse, thank you so much.
Jesse McKinley: Absolutely.
Tanzina Vega: Okay. You've been talking to us about this in your own states and you sent us some voice memos about how you thought your governor is handling COVID. Most of you, pretty happy.
Bobby: Hi, this was Bobby from Cleveland, Ohio. I'm very happy with the way my governor, Mike DeWine, has handled the pandemic. He gives daily briefings which include COVID updates. He even delayed the presidential primary election because he cares about Ohio lives. If he runs again, I'll vote for him and that will be the first time I've ever voted for a Republican.
Oren: Hi, my name is Oren and I live in Colorado. I think our governor, Jared Polis, has done a really good job and has shown really exemplary leadership. From the beginning of the pandemic, he has held regular and very informative news conferences. He always wears a mask when you see him in public. I think he's found a good balance between lockdowns and helping businesses stay afloat.
Gary: Hello, my name is Gary. I'd like to say Gavin Newsom has done a pretty good job in dealing with the COVID crisis, in that, he hasn't received much federal assistance from the past administration. Hopefully, he'll receive all that as needed, and all of them will get on the same page to work together in unison, federal states, counties, cities, and things will be better in the future.
Carrie: Hi, I'm Carrie from Sandy, Oregon. My governor, Kate Brown, has rocked it during the COVID pandemic. She's followed the advice of scientists closely and made tough interpretations on her own. It hasn't been easy. The advice has changed as we've learned more about how to beat this virus. Communicating the changes is hard, but she's handled it well. Most recently, she's taken flak from many over the prioritization of teachers over the elderly in the vaccine rollout. That's just a brutal call to have to make. I wouldn't trade her for anyone right now.
Participant: I live in California, so my governor is Gavin Newsome. I think he has done a magnificent job. Considering what a populous state we are and how hard that COVID-19 has hit the state. He locked us down early, and I think prevented a lot of deaths that could have occurred.
Tanzina Vega: Some of you are mixed.
Greg Kane: My name is Greg Kane and I run a restaurant in Pennsylvania. I feel Governor Wolf has made the hard decisions. He shut down parts of our economy to control the spread of COVID-19. He's been clear about masks and our part in keeping each other safe. Given that applause, my beefs are twofold. When he shuts down restaurants, he should enforce it. Secondly, there desperately needs to be a statewide database for residents to register with for the vaccine. This doesn't exist, and it's easily created.
Tanzina Vega: A few others, not so pleased.
Liz: I'm Liz in Dallas. Touting low taxes and light regulations, Governor Greg Abbott disregards the health needs of the most vulnerable. How else can you provide healthcare if low taxes is your platform? There's no unified response to this pandemic. He's putting citizens, students, teachers, staff, all of us in harm's way.
Eric: My name is Eric, I live in Queens, New York. I used to approve of Governor Cuomo's handling of the pandemic but I recently changed my opinion. This is mostly due to a graph of the New York Times put out showing that Andrew Cuomo banned indoor dining when the infection rate per every 100,000 people was at 40.2 people, and then he reopened indoor dining, and it's 66.1 so that a 26-person jump. Now, we're opening indoor dining, I just don't get it.
Tanzina Vega: Send us your take at firstname.lastname@example.org. Just record a voice memo and email it to us or give us a call the old fashioned way at 877-8-MY-TAKE, that's 877-869-8253.
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