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At least nine top Cuomo administration health officials have resigned, retired or been reassigned amid the coronavirus crisis that’s devastated New York — while embattled Health Commissioner Howard Zucker has kept his job.
The flood of departures was reported Monday by the New York Times, which tied them to dissatisfaction with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and cited sources who complained that pandemic policy is set entirely by Cuomo and a close circle of aides rather than health experts.
“When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts,” Cuomo acknowledged in a stunningly blunt answer to a reporter’s question Friday.
“Because I don’t. Because I don’t.”
A health care industry source called it “hard to reconcile that comment with ‘We’re gonna let the science lead us’ or ‘We follow the science.’”
“Well, who is providing the science?” the source said.
Meanwhile, Cuomo has stood by his top health expert, Zucker, despite ongoing controversy over the Health Department’s March 25 directive for nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients — which critics have blamed for spreading the virus among highly vulnerable residents, with disastrous results.
Last week, Zucker also came under fire following Attorney General Letitia James’ revelation that the DOH downplayed the total number of nursing home deaths by withholding the number of residents who died in hospitals.
James’ report prompted Zucker to finally release figures showing that 12,743 residents had died in nursing homes and hospitals as of Jan. 19.
A day earlier, the official DOH list of nursing home fatalities only included 8,711 who had died in the facilities.
Questions about James’ report also led Cuomo to callously ask at a Friday news conference, “But who cares [if they] died in the hospital, died in a nursing home? They died.”
A former DOH executive told The Post that morale among his ex-colleagues couldn’t be lower.
“Everyone I know wants to get out. The attitude is, `Everyone is stupid except for the for people in the governor’s office,’” the source said.
“People in the department feel they’re being set up for failure. They’re told to do this, that or the other thing — and if it doesn’t work out, they’re told they’re failures.”
Another source said some of the health experts who’ve bailed were bullied out of their jobs by Cuomo aides.
“They call you day and night and expect you to respond. It’s just abuse,” the source said.
The officials who’ve left their posts include Dr. Elizabeth Dufort, former medical director in the division of epidemiology and Dr. Jill Taylor, former head of renowned Wadsworth Center research lab in Albany, the Times said, without identifying any others by name.
But DOH Executive Deputy Commissioner Sally Dreslin — the only person, other than Zucker, whose name appears on the March 25 directive — went on leave in late April, complaining that she was “stressed out,” a source said.
Dreslin has since returned to work at the Department of Mental Health with the vague title of “special assistant” and an unspecified job that’s less “high pressure,” another source said.
In July, The Post reported that the DOH’s chief nursing home regulator was about to retire, following the deaths of more than 6,200 residents.
Mark Kissinger was not involved in the March 25 directive, sources said at the time, adding that Cuomo had yet to find anyone “dumb enough” to take his job.
Others who’ve left the DOH include former interim deputy commissioner Keith Servis, a 35-year year veteran, and Jennifer Rentas, who lasted just three months as assistant secretary of health before leaving in September.
Neither Servis nor Rentas left for new jobs, according to their LinkedIn profiles.
Deputy Health Commissioner Brad Hutton, who ran the Office of Public Health, also left in August with plans to work on “infectious disease and public health issues nationally,” the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.
Hutton’s LinkedIn profile says he now runs a consulting company in the upstate Capital Region.
In a prepared statement., Zucker said that the state was facing “an intense period of extraordinary stress and pressure and a different job than some signed onto.”
He also claimed that “many others joined the agency with the talents necessary to confront this new challenge,” adding that the proof of that “is in the performance numbers.”
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