New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s Covid-19 press conferences have degenerated into political theater, with stock heroes and villains. He routinely praises New York’s Covid-19 response, criticizes other states, and lambastes President Trump’s statements and actions in comparison with his own unassailable leadership. But Cuomo’s recent discussion of what New York will do when the Food and Drug Administration approves a Covid-19 vaccine was noteworthy for demonstrating his hubris, his indifference to the health of his constituents, and his willingness to flout the law.
“Frankly, I’m not going to trust the federal government’s opinion and I wouldn’t recommend to New Yorkers based on the federal government’s opinion (sic). . . . New York State will have its own review,” the governor insisted. “When the federal government is finished with their review and says it’s safe. We’re going to put together our own review committee headed by the Department of Health that will advise me—we have the best hospitals and research facilities on the globe in this State.”
So instead of relying on the FDA, which has been evaluating drug safety and effectiveness for 60 years, Cuomo will rely on a state Department of Health that has no expertise in evaluating clinical trials to assess the safety and efficacy of new products. He will trust the same state Department of Health experts who, with Cuomo’s approval, ordered nursing homes to accept coronavirus patients from hospitals; prohibited them from testing new or returning patients for the virus to rule out active infection; and barred them from refusing to admit a resident “based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19”—a directive widely believed to have greatly increased New York’s Covid-19 death toll.
Cuomo’s assurances about New York’s health facilities echo his March 2 press conference, in which he told New Yorkers and his worried daughter that they “should relax” about the virus, “[a]nd excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers . . . we have the best healthcare system on the planet right here in New York.”
Cuomo says that we should distrust FDA evaluation of any forthcoming vaccine because the federal handling of the pandemic has been “political.” This from the same governor who delayed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school closing and shelter-in-place orders so that he could humiliate the mayor and make a display of his authority and power. These delays are estimated to have caused thousands of extra deaths. Cuomo also commissioned, hawked, and sold a childish poster lauding his response to the pandemic, which a New York Times art critic labelled “a work of political propaganda.”
On the same day as the press conference at which he stated his doubts about the integrity of the FDA, Cuomo and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, decrying Trump’s “politically-motivated decision making,” and pointing to revelations in Bob Woodward’s book that Trump sought to minimize the threat the virus posed in order to avoid public panic, called for a congressional investigation of Trump’s pandemic response. Yet during February and March, Cuomo, despite evidence of viral spread, repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus, describing it as a “bad flu,” and urged New Yorkers to stay calm and avoid panic. The governor’s complaint that Trump relied on political appointees rather than “career public servants” is ironic considering that Cuomo and his inner circle micromanaged the pandemic response of the state Department of Health, other state agencies, and local government officials.
It’s inconceivable that Cuomo does not know that his state has no legal authority to regulate vaccines. Congress gave that authority to the FDA, and no state may prohibit the sale and use of a drug that the FDA has approved. Congress intended the FDA to make uniform judgments about the safety and effectiveness of pharmaceutical products, including vaccines, and states may not second-guess those determinations with their own approval processes.
Cuomo’s assertion that New York will review the FDA’s determination does a disservice to New Yorkers by attempting to limit their access to, and undermine their confidence in, a vaccine that will be key to ending the Covid-19 pandemic. Every year, less than 50 percent of Americans get vaccinated against influenza. People cite concerns about vaccine safety and doubts about the effectiveness of vaccination as reasons for skipping flu shots. Several surveys indicate that many Americans share the same concerns about a possible Covid-19 vaccine and will forgo immunization. The governor’s comments will reinforce these fears, leading to fewer vaccinations and more Covid-19 infections, illnesses, and deaths.
Multiple FDA officials have stated that the agency will follow strict procedures, free of political influence, in deciding whether and when to approve a Covid-19 vaccine. But for Cuomo, their pledges, the law governing vaccine approvals, and the unnecessary deaths he could cause with his policies are apparently irrelevant. All that matters, it seems, is deflecting attention from his own failed pandemic response and pointing fingers at political opponents.
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