A former top state Health Department infectious disease expert testified that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office barred the agency from working closely with the New York City Health Department and other county public health officials during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
Dr. Elizabeth Dufort, the former medical director of the state DOH’s office of epidemiology who personally administered Cuomo’s first COVID-19 swab test last year, made the bombshell claim during questioning by lawyers hired by state Attorney General Letitia James who investigated sexual harassment and other allegations leveled against the ex-governor.
“We were not allowed to collaborate with our peers in the local health departments
and New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene which is a critical component in an outbreak response to collaborate with different facets of public health,” Dufort, identified as state employee #2, said in more than 200 pages of witness testimony.
She noted that it’s the local health officials who implement policies, particularly during a pandemic.
“So generally, so not being able to collaborate with them in the way we normally would really hindered our ability to perform our jobs we felt,” Dufort said.
“And collaborate with other associations, organizations and community based or statewide associations or organizations. That would be normal during an outbreak response or certainly during a pandemic.”
Everything had to be approved in advance, Dufort said.
“We had to stop doing webinars with them. We couldn’t collaborate with them on evaluations of different problems and projects,” said Dufort, who resigned last December.
Asked who was preventing the collaboration with city and county health officials and holding other decisions up, she said her colleagues told her “it came from the executive chamber” — the governor’s office.
“There was a desire for messaging to come from the Governor, not multiple people as it normally happens in an outbreak. And there was a desire to ensure that everything was very consistent and exactly as desired by the Chamber’s leading of the outbreak response.”
The lack of communication between and local health officials occurred while Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio were locked in an ugly feud that lasted even during the worst of the pandemic as thousands of New Yorkers died from the killer bug.
She also testified that a top Cuomo aide, Linda Lacewell, would scream at state health officials in conference calls.
Cuomo landed in hot water in May 2020 when he commented on Dufort’s physical appearance after she administered a COVID-19 swab test to the governor.
“You make that gown look good,” Cuomo said as Dufort — clad in the personal protective equipment that had become standard for medical professionals during the pandemic — walked out of his live televised Albany briefing in May.
Dufort said the creepy and cringe-worthy gown remark was inappropriate — in addition to Cuomo telling her to be “gentle but accurate.”
“I interpreted it as something of an inappropriate comment versus a bad joke versus a comment that had sexual undertones and probably wouldn’t be said to a male physician, some sort of combination of those things,” Dufort told investigators.
“I was in the middle of a pandemic with a lot of work and I didn’t think it necessarily by my understanding rose to the level of like an official report.”
But Dufort said her husband was incensed and didn’t want her anywhere near Cuomo again after he heard the remarks.
“He was upset and sort of upset that I wasn’t going to take any action,” she told the AG’s investigators about her husband’s response.
“He didn’t want me to be alone with him again. He wanted me to bow to him, he said, `I don’t trust the governor. I heard other stories in Albany and now this. I don’t want you to be alone with him again,’” she recalled telling her.
The latest shocking details emerged after James on Wednesday released the transcripts of ten of Cuomo’s accusers and witnesses and the disgraced ex-governor’s own sworn 515-page testimony from the probe into an avalanche of harassment allegations that toppled his governorship.
James’ independent report substantiated claims that Cuomo sexually harassed or mistreated 11 women, including current and former staffers and a female state trooper. Facing likely impeachment, Cuomo resigned in August following the damning report’s release.
Other probes into Cuomo’s $5.1 million coronavirus book deal and actions taken in nursing homes during the pandemic are ongoing.