Top health officials told to prioritize COVID testing for Cuomo’s relatives

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ALBANY — High-level members of the state Department of Health were directed last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker to conduct prioritized coronavirus testing on the governor’s relatives as well as influential people with ties to the administration, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Members of Cuomo’s family including his brother, his mother and at least one of his sisters were also tested by top health department officials — some several times, the sources said.

The medical officials enlisted to do the testing, which often took place at private residences, included Dr. Eleanor Adams, an epidemiologist who graduated from Harvard Medical School and in August became a special adviser to Zucker. Adams conducted testing on Cuomo’s brother Chris at his residence on Long Island, according to the two people.

“If their job was to go test an old lady down in New Rochelle, that’s one thing — that’s actually good,” one of the people with knowledge of the matter said. “This was not that.”

Others who were given priority testing include Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and his wife, as well as Patrick J. Foye, head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and his wife. Members of the media, state legislators and their staff also were tested in similar fashion.

Officials in the Cuomo administration said the testing in those early days of the pandemic in March 2020 was not preferential, and they noted public nurses were being driven to private residences in New Rochelle — the site of the state’s first outbreak — to test people who were symptomatic or who had been exposed to the virus. During that period, State Police troopers were largely being tasked with driving those samples to the Wadsworth Center laboratory in Albany, which was initially the primary testing spot for coronavirus.

“It’s being a little bit distorted with like a devious intent. … We made sure to test people they believed were exposed,” an official in Cuomo’s office said on background. “All of this was being done in good faith in an effort to trace the virus.”

Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, characterized the allegations of preferential treatment as “insincere efforts to rewrite the past.”

“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 — including 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 prevent additional ones,” Azzopardi said. “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.”

Still, one of the people familiar with the matter said that the people with close ties to the governor, including his relatives, would have their samples moved to the front of the line at Wadsworth and be given priority. They were referred to as “critical samples.”

Another person familiar with the matter said the “sampling missions” had unsettled some of the high-level health department officials tasked with collecting the samples at private residences — including Adams, who had previously worked in the health department’s New York City regional office for the Healthcare Epidemiology & Infection Control Program.

“To be doing sort of direct clinical work was a complete time-suck away from their other duties,” the person said. “It was like wartime.”

Adams was instrumental in the efforts to control the state’s first outbreak last year in New Rochelle, where she previously had a private medical practice. But she was often pulled from those duties to conduct the individual testing that could have been done by a registered nurse, one source said.

The state Department of Health declined requests this week to make Zucker or Adams available for interviews. The Times Union told officials it wanted to question Adams about how she felt about being directed to conduct priority testing on people with close ties to the governor, including his brother.

“You’re asking professionals who took an oath to protect a patient’s privacy to violate that oath and compromise their integrity,” said Gary Holmes, a health department spokesman. “More than 43 million New Yorkers have been tested, and commenting on any of them would be a serious violation of medical ethics. We’ve built a nation-leading testing infrastructure to ensure that anybody who needs a test could get one. That work continues today.”

Chris Cuomo, an anchor for CNN, announced March 31 that he had tested positive for coronavirus and would be quarantining in his Long Island residence in Southampton, where he continued doing his nightly show despite being ill.

“My brother Chris is positive for coronavirus — found out this morning,” the governor said during his daily briefing on March 31. “Now, he is going to be fine. He’s young, in good shape, strong — not as strong as he thinks — but he will be fine. But there’s a lesson in this. He’s an essential worker. … He’s just worried about his daughter and his kids. He hopes he didn’t get them infected.”

The testing of Chris Cuomo took place in the early stages of the pandemic, at a time when many members of the public struggled to obtain coronavirus tests.


While it was not unusual for those with symptoms to be tested in their residences at that time, much of the work was done by public health nurses, and they were often being transported by law enforcement officers, including parole officers.

National Guard troops also had assisted in those early stages of testing, taking on tasks such as ensuring that people who had been quarantined remained in their residence and delivering food to those who had been asked to stay home.

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