Sworn testimony from a high-ranking New York State Department of Health official reveals new details about the turmoil associated with former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s public health response during the height of the pandemic.

Dr. Elizabeth Dufort, the former medical director of the department’s Division of Epidemiology, was interviewed on May 24th by investigators hired by New York State Attorney General Letitia James to probe sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo. Seven days earlier, Cuomo had commented on Dufort’s clothing and made a sexual remark when she swabbed his nose for a COVID-19 test during a televised press briefing. She said the experience had unsettled her.

But the bulk of Dufort’s five-hour-long interview was spent recounting a toxic work environment that she and her colleagues routinely faced inside Cuomo’s health department.

Dufort said public health experts like herself were often sidelined and overruled by the former governor and his top staffers, at a time when any misstep in the pandemic response might cost more lives of New Yorkers. She said these conditions led to her resignation — a path many of her colleagues and mentors also took.

Dufort’s interview transcript was released Wednesday, along with other witness testimony and Cuomo’s 11-hour conversation with investigators. The New York State Department of Health and Richard Azzopardi, a spokesperson for Cuomo’s campaign, didn’t return a request for comment on Dufort’s testimony.

Here are some key takeaways.

Optics Over Facts

Dufort described only having peripheral contact with Cuomo’s executive chamber during most of her six-year tenure at the New York State Department of Health.

She said that changed during the pandemic when suddenly the chamber loomed over her day-to-day activities. Cuomo and his personnel would often override decisions and public health policy made by health officials, Dufort said: “There was a desire for messaging to come from the Governor, not multiple people as it normally happens in an outbreak.”

In the autumn of 2020, the Cuomo administration implemented a color-coded system for conveying the infection rates for neighborhoods, boroughs, towns and counties. The system was ostensibly developed to ramp down risky indoor activity in areas with higher rates of community transmission. But in practice, Dufort said even high-ranking health officials such as herself had only a tenuous grasp on how the zones worked.

“The zones were very complicated,” she said, adding that sometimes they would run the calculations, and Cuomo’s office would change an area’s color designation to match. Other times they shared their calculations, and nothing happened in response.

Dufort’s staff “worked for hours and hours on these metrics and then nothing would be announced, and it was very unclear as to why. They would get very frustrated,” she said.

Vaccine Rollout

Towards the end of 2020, Cuomo’s executive chamber demanded that state health officials craft a plan to roll out 40 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in one month, even though this request far exceeded the vaccine supply the state expected to receive at that time. As they drafted the policy, state health officials were well aware they would have no way to enact such a plan.

Dufort said Department of Health officials had wanted to plan for vaccine rollout for months. But the actual proposals they’d submitted to the executive chamber had been ignored, so they worked on the unrealistic plan instead.

An excerpt from Dr. Elizabeth Dufort's testimony

An excerpt from Dr. Elizabeth Dufort's testimony

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An excerpt from Dr. Elizabeth Dufort's testimony

“I remember it was a weekend, spending day and night until later than 10:25 p.m. I can't remember how late, working on these plans that we knew were not based in reality,” she said.

Dufort said the futility of the exercise, when staffers were already so overworked, set off one of her colleagues, whose name was redacted from the transcript. “He kept yelling, ‘This doesn't make sense. Why are we spending our time doing this? It's not realistic scenarios.’”

A supervisor whose name was also redacted yelled back: “She said, ‘This is what you need to do. The Governor wants it.’”

Hydroxychloroquine

Dufort provided one example when she and her colleagues refused to obey the governor’s office. When researchers began looking into the effectiveness of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine in spring 2020, former President Donald Trump wanted data from New York studies released immediately. Cuomo’s office pressured the health department to comply, Dufort said.

“Data was not ready to be shared in a manner that would be ethical or appropriate because it wasn't half in or less,” she said. “I didn't have any legal recourse, but knew it was unethical.”

Eventually, she and her study partners refused to release the data, she said, though they thought they might be fired for it. They eventually published their findings in the medical journal JAMA.

Televised Nasal Swab Stunt

Ahead of his televised COVID test, multiple health experts, including former Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, tried to dissuade Cuomo from getting the nasal swab in the same room as other people, according to Dufort.

Doing so conflicted with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- due to the potential spread of the virus through the spray from a person’s nose or mouth during the procedure.

Former NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo receives COVID-19 test at televised press briefing, May 17th, 2020.

Former NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo receives COVID-19 test at televised press briefing, May 17th, 2020.

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Former NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo receives COVID-19 test at televised press briefing, May 17th, 2020.
Darren McGee/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo

The health officials tried to convince the former governor to go to a separate room with just a cameraman, Dufort said. He also refused to sit down for the swabbing, though that too conflicted with federal health guidance at the time. She said Cuomo told her it would look better if he were standing, and gradually, the health staffers gave up.

“We settled on the idea that this is really not a medical concern for the governor. It is not a medical procedure,” she said. “We still did everything that we could to have the journalists being farther back in a safe area.”

Executive Chamber Micromanaged Partnerships With Local Health Departments

Before the pandemic hit, Dufort said she had regularly communicated with local health departments whom she considered partners. The state health department typically offers oversight while city and county health officials conduct on-the-ground operations.

But during the pandemic, Dufort said Cuomo’s executive chamber told the health department officials all of their drafted guidance had to get the sign-off. That would often stall the release of public health policy for weeks. In some cases, the recommendations were never released, she said.

An excerpt from Dr. Elizabeth Dufort's testimony

An excerpt from Dr. Elizabeth Dufort's testimony

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An excerpt from Dr. Elizabeth Dufort's testimony

Dufort said her team was also instructed to halt informal calls with officials at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio quarreled publicly over the handling of the pandemic. Regular educational webinars for health care providers, hosted in conjunction with the city’s health department, were also canceled.

“We were not allowed to collaborate with our peers in the local health departments,” she said. “It was unclear...why we can't work with them or send out these important messages...From our public health point of view, it was not assisting the public.”

Dr. Jay Varma, who formerly served as a senior health advisor to Mayor de Blasio, tweeted in agreement with the situation Dufort described.

https://twitter.com/ZachReports/status/1458996637536333826

Toxic Culture and Burnout

Dufort said health department staff were discouraged from taking any days off — throughout the pandemic. Even during summer 2020, when COVID-19 infection rates were low, health department employees were barred from taking weekends off, and most weren’t eligible for overtime, she said in her testimony.

Dufort described witnessing unprofessional yelling and screaming behavior from executive chamber staffers towards Commissioner Zucker and other health department members. She said she had to console despondent colleagues who’d faced the wrath. Members of Cuomo’s executive team have recounted a similar environment in interviews.

Dufort said she and her coworkers counted 28 resignations since January 2020 — including many colleagues who left due to the harsh circumstances.

An excerpt from Dr. Elizabeth Dufort's testimony

An excerpt from Dr. Elizabeth Dufort's testimony

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An excerpt from Dr. Elizabeth Dufort's testimony

Concerned about her mental health and family, Dufort said she took three days off in October. After she returned, her supervisor emailed all members of the epidemiology division, saying, “any staff involved in COVID response efforts must be reachable on days off, if needed.”

Dufort resigned in December 2020, one in a series of high-profile resignations. She told investigators she quit for the same reasons her colleagues did:

“A toxic work environment and not being able to do the public health work they felt [we] are tasked to do for the State of New York.”