The Cuomo administration largely ignored a county official’s pleas for COVID-19 tests for nursing homes at the pandemic’s height last spring — even as the governor allegedly secured the then-scarce tests for his relatives, The Post has learned.
The slight is the latest stumble in Cuomo’s pandemic response, particularly with respect to nursing homes, where thousands of residents have died of confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus.
Troubled by reports of COVID-19 running roughshod through nursing homes early in the pandemic, Jack Wheeler, the manager of upstate Steuben County, requested in April 2020 that the state Department of Health provide enough tests for every resident and staff member of three facilities in his jurisdiction.
The DOH, however, only came through with enough supplies for one of the three facilities, Hornell Gardens, with the precious diagnostic tests then hard to find, Wheeler told The Post.
That lackluster response came, as The Albany Times-Union reported last week, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo allegedly pulled strings to secure tests for bigwigs connected to his administration, as well as relatives including his brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo, and their elderly mother, Matilda.
"I’m furious because testing of the most vulnerable population should be the absolute priority and a simple request," Wheeler told The Post. "But [that] high-level, connected people had that luxury when we couldn’t even get people in the nursing homes tested is just infuriating."
Instead, Wheeler said he had to turn for help to Steve Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, to find tests for a second facility, Elderwood at Hornell.
Acquario undertook an eight-hour drive through several neighboring counties in search of spare tests to make ends meet.
"I knew where there might be some extra test kits in counties where they could afford to spare them, so I met them to pick up the kits at various drop-offs," Acquario told The Post. "[Wheeler] and his county attorney reached out to me in despair and desperation. They were truly in a crisis."
"It was up to eight hours of driving, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat."
Darlene Smith, Steuben County’s health director, meanwhile worked to secure tests for the third facility, the Fred & Harriett Taylor Health Center.
The request for tests for that facility was initially approved by Dr. Gregory Young, the state DOH’s western region coordinator.
But at 6:30 a.m. on April 10 — the day that the tests were scheduled to happen — Young called to say that "decisions were being made in Albany," according to Smith.
"I knew then that it was completely not going to happen," Smith told The Post.
As with Elderwood at Hornell, local officials were eventually able to scrounge up enough tests for the testing effort at the Fred & Harriett Taylor Health Center, but only after leaving no stone unturned.
"Those nursing homes were raging with positive cases and deaths and the purpose of universal swabbing of both residents and staff was to identify positive cases, isolate the positive staff and … get the positive residents cohorted together to prevent further spread," said Smith.
"We had to beg, borrow, and steal basically and were able to get test kits from other counties," she continued. "Now knowing [that] what limited supply there was was being hoarded now for friends and family — it’s criminal. It’s just really hard to understand."
A Cuomo spokesman has denied allegations of preferential treatment outlined by The Times-Union, calling them "insincere efforts to rewrite the past."
The DOH similarly said Sunday that Wheeler’s account was an attempt at revisionist history.
"In the absence of any real federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, New York State stepped forward and from the very beginning did everything we could to protect our most vulnerable population," said spokesman Jonah Bruno. "Anyone can attempt to rewrite history or rehash out of context conversations a year later, but that doesn’t change the facts.
"New York State created the best testing infrastructure in the world, which tested every resident, in each of the state’s 613 nursing homes by the first week in June, and continues to support nursing home staff and more recently visitor testing, by providing facilities more than 1.1 million rapid tests."
The allegations of preferential treatment will be part of an ongoing impeachment investigation into Cuomo — originally launched amid allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct lodged by several women.
Additionally, state Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt (R-Lockport) has filed a formal ethics complaint over the allegation.
Emails obtained by The Post through the Freedom of Information Law show that Steuben County wasn’t the only jurisdiction to have a request for more stringent testing in nursing homes denied.
In mid-April 2020, officials in Onondaga County drafted a proposed emergency order that would empower them to mandate testing of employees in county nursing homes.
They submitted the proposed order to state DOH officials for approval on April 15 — and received a response rejecting it the very next day, without an explicit explanation for the ruling, email correspondences obtained by The Post show.
Less than a month later, however, on May 10, Cuomo mandated that all nursing home staff statewide be given diagnostic tests twice weekly.
The governor handed down that directive as he quietly issued a partial reversal of an infamous March 25 mandate forbidding nursing homes from turning away residents on the sole basis of a coronavirus diagnosis.
The March order, which took effect even as Cuomo publicly acknowledged COVID-19’s threat to seniors, has dogged the governor throughout the pandemic.
Also at issue is the administration’s accounting of the sky-high death tolls in nursing homes.
A damning report issued in January by state Attorney General Letitia James found that the administration may have underreported the number of coronavirus deaths among nursing home residents by as much as 50 percent.
And the next month, top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa was caught on an audio recording admitting to top state Democrats that the administration obscured the true toll because it feared a federal probe.
This report originally appeared in the New York Post.