Cuomo’s family is said to have received special access to virus tests
By J. David Goodman and Ed Shanahan
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration arranged special access to government-run coronavirus testing for members of his family and other influential people as the pandemic descended on New York last year, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter.
The move to make testing of people closely tied to Cuomo a priority was carried out by high-ranking state health officials, one of the people said. It mostly happened in March 2020, as the seriousness of the virus was still becoming clear to the broader public and testing was not widely available.
Among those who benefited from the special treatment was the governor’s brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, and his family, who were tested several times in the pandemic’s early phase, this person said. The governor’s mother, Matilda Cuomo, and at least one of his sisters were also able to take advantage of the state-administered tests, the two people said.
Chris Cuomo announced on March 31 last year that he had tested positive for the virus.
That the governor’s administration effectively let well-connected people cut the line to determine whether they had been infected with a deadly virus that was ravaging the state was reported earlier by the Times Union of Albany, New York, and The Washington Post.
The revelation comes as Cuomo confronts the most significant crisis of his political career, with many of his fellow elected New York Democrats calling for him to resign in the face of multiple sexual harassment allegations and questions about his administration’s handling of the virus-related deaths of nursing home residents.
The state Assembly opened an impeachment investigation this week to examine both issues, while the state attorney general has started a separate inquiry, and federal agents are investigating the nursing home matter.
The revelation of preferential tests could present an additional challenge to the already embattled administration. State law prohibits officials from using their position to obtain “privileges or exemptions” for themselves or others, or to attempt to do so.
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesperson for Cuomo, did not explicitly deny that the administration had extended special treatment to anyone while also seeking to dispute the notion.
“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,” he said, adding that the effort included “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 to prevent others from developing the disease.
He added: “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.”
As the behind-the-scenes effort to secure tests for those with ties to the governor and the administration unfolded, most New Yorkers who believed they might have been exposed to the virus were confronted with what doctors, hospital administrators and health officials described as a confused and troubled state testing system. The result was widespread frustration and, for many people, concern about an illness that might be going undetected.
With the federal government scrambling to meet the demand for testing and New York becoming the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, the state-run Wadsworth Center in Albany was for a time the only laboratory in the state that was approved to perform virus tests. Even then, the Wadsworth lab had the capacity to process only a few hundred samples.
Many state residents could not get tested, and those with mild symptoms were often told to quarantine at home rather than attempt to be tested. Many never learned whether their COVID-like symptoms were the result of the novel virus.
Lab capacity in the state increased quickly last March but was still limited as of late in the month when Chris Cuomo was tested, according to one of the people with direct knowledge of the matter. His test came back positive.
A CNN spokesperson said the company did not typically comment on its employees’ medical decisions.
“However,” the spokesperson, Matt Dornic, added, “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.”
Some of the preferential tests, including those administered to Chris Cuomo and his family, were conducted by Dr. Eleanor Adams, a public health specialist and top aide to the state health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, the two people with direct knowledge of the matter said.
Once collected, the samples were rushed to the Wadsworth lab with State Police escorts, the people said, and staff at the lab were instructed to stay late into the night to process the tests. Results were often delivered by phone to those who were tested within hours after the samples were taken.
William Duffy, a State Police spokesperson, said there was “nothing extraordinary” about troopers being involved in the transfer of test samples to the state lab.
“That was the case for virtually all collections sent to Wadsworth early on,” Duffy said. “During the first weeks of the pandemic, troopers transported thousands of samples from around the state to Wadsworth for testing.”
State officials privately expressed concern at the time about some of the tests, particularly those for Cuomo’s family. But other efforts at rapidly turning around test results appeared to be more appropriate.
Rick Cotton, the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and his wife, Elizabeth Smith, who is the president of the Central Park Conservancy, had also tested positive for the virus in early March as part of the effort.
After their results came back, health officials quickly performed tests on Cotton’s senior staff members who had been in proximity to him, one of the people said.
The approach made sense to Health Department officials because the senior officials were involved in the pandemic response. Also tested early in the pandemic via the same preferential means were Cuomo, his health commissioner, Zucker, and the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Patrick Foye, one of the people said. Foye tested positive.
The same sort of approach followed a positive test within the Cuomo’s press team in March. Health officials engaged in a large contact-tracing effort, and several members of the governor’s staff were tested.
But the requests to test members of Cuomo’s family appeared to be different and raised concerns among those with knowledge of the effort. The directive to prioritize the tests — collecting them at home and rushing them to the lab in Albany — came from the governor, according to one of the people.
After Cuomo’s brother’s result came back positive, the governor spoke about it during a news conference March 31, one of his daily appearances that garnered a national following for the New York governor, a Democrat.
“This virus is the great equalizer. My brother, Chris, is positive for coronavirus. Found out this morning,” the governor said, without mentioning the preferential treatment the samples received. “But there’s a lesson in this. He’s an essential worker, a member of the press, so he’s been out there.”
The governor also appeared with his brother — who was quarantined in his basement — on CNN the same day.
“I know you’re working your tail off for everybody,” Chris Cuomo told the governor during the televised appearance. “I love you. I respect you. Stay safe.”