In American Crisis, Governor Andrew Cuomo tells the riveting story of how he took charge in the fight against COVID-19 as New York became the epicenter of the pandemic, offering hard-won lessons in leadership and his vision for the path forward.
I normally don’t turn off my cellphone when I sleep, because the work of being governor is literally twenty-four hours a day, and the phone pings all night long. If I’m really tired, I will turn it off, but that doesn’t mean people can’t get me; it’s just harder. My office phone is always answered, at night by a New York State trooper. Callers must convince the trooper that their issue is really important. Some troopers are easier to convince than others. Some troopers decide that it’s safer to put all callers through, but as I joke to my team, those troopers learn quickly that it is not in fact safer when they are then assigned to different duties.
When my cellphone rang late on March 1, I hadn’t turned it off, but I didn’t get to it in time. Moments later, the landline rang. It was Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor and my top aide. Brilliant, tough, indefatigable, and widely respected, she is the quarterback on my team and is responsible for managing all the pieces.
“Governor, I’m sorry to stalk you with the multiple calls, but we just received a confirmation from Wadsworth.” This was the New York State Department of Health’s lab in Albany. “New York has its first case of coronavirus—a health-care worker who just returned to New York City from Iran. We believe the incident is isolated. I have Dr. Zucker on the other line. Can I conference him in?”
“Please put him through,” I said.
As the state health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, began to run through the patient’s background, symptoms, and literal steps taken between landing at JFK airport and reaching her apartment in Manhattan, it seemed as though white noise washed over the line. I couldn’t prove it, but I knew this wasn’t New York’s first coronavirus case. And I knew the country wasn’t prepared.
The good news that night was that this was a fairly straight-forward case, which would hopefully not cause great public alarm: The thirty-nine-year-old woman had traveled to Iran to provide health services and returned to New York feeling ill, but she knew to take precautions and did not come in contact with many people. She had been traveling with her male partner and had worn a mask. She took an Uber from the airport to her apartment and then called ahead to the hospital to make arrangements to be tested. In many ways it was the best-case scenario: an informed health-care worker who did the right thing.
However, even this single case in the state of New York presented complications and foreshadowed what was to come. What flight did she take? Could she have infected people on the plane? Who was responsible for contacting all the passengers on the flight? How about the Uber driver? Were the proper precautions taken at the hospital? These were the operational issues that we would need to figure out and standardize quickly, and they were mind-boggling when we considered the volume of cases we could anticipate given what we already knew about the virus.
When the call came in, the Ebola crisis from years earlier flashed in my mind—how we handled it, what went right, and what went wrong.
A few weeks earlier, we had received the first taste of what was to come. On February 6, I was sitting at my desk in my New York City office at 633 Third Avenue in Manhattan working on a speech. My director of administration, Stephanie Benton, came in because I had an important call. Stephanie organizes the executive chamber operations and has been with me since I started as attorney general, fourteen years ago. She can juggle ten balls at a time and always does it with a smile. I am fully aware that my ability to function and get things done is dependent on Stephanie and the strong team around her.
On the phone line was Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a powerful agency that operates bridges, tunnels, and airports, as well as the Port of New York. Rick called to tell me that federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials had contacted him about passengers on a cruise ship nearby who they believed were positive for COVID-19. HHS wanted to dock the ship at a Port Authority facility and New York to take charge of the patients.
The novel coronavirus—formally the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which is the virus that causes the disease we’ve come to know as COVID-19—was at that time thought to be largely contained in China, with a few scattered cases in Washington and California. But this was the first case that would come knocking on New York’s door.
When the call came in, the Ebola crisis from years earlier flashed in my mind—how we handled it, what went right, and what went wrong. In 2014, a health-care worker who had been helping out with an Ebola outbreak in Africa returned to New York after having contracted the disease. He rode the subway, ate in a restaurant, and visited a bowling alley before he knew he was sick. People got scared. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and I held a joint press conference, because we shared control of the Port Authority, to announce a policy to screen people at the airports and, if necessary, quarantine them. When another health-care worker arrived at Newark airport, also returning from Africa, airport officials ordered the woman held in quarantine in a tent at the airport, where she was given nothing more than granola bars and a cellphone, which she quickly used to call CNN. We hadn’t forgotten the pitfalls of forced quarantine.
As would happen again and again over the course of this emergency, dozens of questions flooded my thoughts: What if the patients said they wanted to leave? What was the Department of Health’s authority to hold patients? If patients agreed to come with us, where should we bring them? Do they need a hospital? Do the hospital and medical staff need to take special precautions? If we are quarantining them in a hotel, do we have the legal authority to force them to stay? Can they leave the hotel room at all? How do they get meals? Can housekeeping staff enter the room? What medical assistance do they need? How long will they be sick?
Excerpted from American Crisis by Andrew Cuomo. Copyright © 2020 by Andrew Cuomo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
By Andrew Cuomo
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