Foss: Loss of brainpower in Department of Health raises questions

Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday - Governor's Office

Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday - Governor's Office

Follow the science.

All along, this has been Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mantra when it comes to COVID-19.

He listens to experts. He looks at the data. He follows the science.

“This is a virus,” the governor told NBC’s Chuck Todd back in June. “It doesn’t respond to politics.”

The implication was that Cuomo’s strategy for combating the coronavirus was similarly apolitical – fact-based, objective, reasonable. Those who questioned the governor’s approach didn’t just disagree with him – they didn’t believe in science.

They weren’t looking at the data, and they weren’t listening to the experts.

Indeed, the governor seemed to enjoy projecting an image of himself huddled together with a team of experts, using data to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions on whether to reopen indoor dining or allow high-risk high school sports to resume.

Now, in the wake of a troubling New York Times article detailing a rash of resignations and retirements among top state health officials in recent months, it’s worth asking what’s really going on behind the scenes.

Has Cuomo been listening to the experts in the New York State Department of Health?

Or has he marginalized them, prompting an exodus of valuable expertise in the midst of a pandemic?

The New York Times report suggests the latter, noting that at least nine of the state’s top level health officials have quit “over being sidelined and treated disrespectfully.”

“Even as the pandemic continues to rage and New York struggles to vaccinate a large and anxious population, Cuomo has all but declared war on his own public health bureaucracy,” the article observes.

A big point of tension has been Cuomo’s habit of announcing major changes in pandemic policy at his press briefings without informing his public health staff, who are then expected to match their health guidance to his public proclamations.

Rather than keep his experts in the loop and defer to their experience and judgment, it seems Cuomo surprised them time and time again, causing morale to plummet within the Department of Health.

According to the article, state officials “were blindsided” by the news that vaccine distribution would be coordinated by hospitals rather than county health departments – a decision that came under intense scrutiny when the state bungled the vaccine rollout.

Those resigning or retiring from DOH include the director of the bureau of communicable disease control, the medical director for epidemiology, the deputy commissioner for public health and the state epidemiologist. Jill Taylor, director of the state’s public health lab, the Wadsworth Center in Albany, has also resigned.

This is a huge loss of brainpower, at a critical time.

COVID-19 is still raging, and New York’s vaccine distribution is far from perfect.

Ideally, the state’s experts in communicable diseases and public health would be working closely with the governor on COVID-19-related matters. Instead, the agency appears to be in disarray, as key people leave in frustration.

Cuomo has always been a micro-manager, and his controlling impulses appear to have hobbled a pivotal state agency, while also confounding county health departments all over the state.

Follow the science has always been more of a slogan than an actual strategy for beating COVID-19, easier to say than to actually do.

How much has Cuomo’s decision-making been driven by science, and how much by political considerations?

It’s difficult to know the answer.

But as we approach the one-year anniversary of COVID-19’s arrival in New York, it’s a question that needs to be asked.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: News, Sara Foss

One Comment

The evidence suggests there never was a lot of brain power at the DOH. and it overwhelming suggests that there is none between Cuomo’s ears.

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