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Review of Governor Hochul’s Covid response is not independent enough (Editor’s Opinion)

Gov. Kathy Hochul will hire an independent consultant to analyze New York State’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The task is to “identify what worked and what didn’t, and examine how the state could have improved its response” and create a playbook for future emergencies.

There is no question that given the scale of the public health disaster that has befallen our state, a “follow-up” to New York’s pandemic response is needed. More than 72,000 New Yorkers have died, millions have fallen ill, and state-mandated school and work closures have transformed the lives and fortunes of millions more.

The question is how “independent” an adviser commissioned by and subordinate to the Executive Chamber can be. Hochul can do more to reassure New Yorkers that their government is not interfering with the adviser’s work or suppressing insights that could be politically damaging.

Her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, provides a cautionary tale.

At the start of the pandemic, the Cuomo government urged nursing homes to accept Covid-positive patients, likely leading to new infections in this vulnerable population. A year later, Cuomo employees rewrote key parts of a Health Department report to obscure the true number of Covid deaths in nursing homes. According to research by Attorney General Letitia James and Tim Knauss of Syracuse.com, the death toll was 50% higher than the state reports. The scandal was one of many that contributed to Cuomo’s decision to step down in August 2021.

With Cuomo’s departure, Hochul came under increasing pressure from families of nursing home patients, Republicans in the Legislature and good government groups to undertake a review of the state’s pandemic response.

In May, a coalition led by Reinvent Albany and the Empire Center for Public Policy urged the governor to take a side in investigating plane crashes, likening the human and societal toll of the pandemic to “many hundreds of plane crashes.” They wanted Hochul to appoint a commission of experts to conduct public hearings, review state records, interview current and former officials (by subpoena if necessary), and present a final report to the public.

Instead of appointing a commission, Hochul hires an adviser in the state treaty. The adviser, to be selected by September, will report to the governor within six months and provide a final report in a year.

The country’s call for proposals emphasizes the need for the review to “maintain a high level of independence”. It is not clear how this is to be achieved when the adviser reports directly to the Executive Chamber.

It is also not clear whether the consultant’s work will be carried out in public or whether the public is allowed to participate at all. Will it include county and city officials who have had to implement state public health guidelines, whether or not they made sense for their communities? Any competent review of the response to the pandemic should include interviews with past or current administrators who planned and conducted them. Unlike a commission appointed by the governor or the legislature, a counselor does not have subpoena authority to compel testimony from reluctant witnesses. A consultant seeking future collaboration with the state might also be vulnerable to pressure to retract, change, or even bury its findings.

At the very least, Hochul was able to allay some of those concerns by publicly committing to delivering the consultant’s final report — in its entirety and without interference or amendments — directly to the people of New York.

At most, it could reverse course and use its executive powers under the Moreland Act to appoint a commission of experts to study the state’s response to Covid-19. A Moreland commission may not be less vulnerable to the governor’s interference (see Cuomo and his Moreland Commission investigating public corruption), but it would have more tools at its disposal to get to the bottom of controversial and significant decisions that have been made , before we knew anything about how the virus spreads.

Looking ahead to the next pandemic is just as important as looking back. New York State needs to make the right investments in public health, surveillance and preparedness while the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic are still fresh.

Via editorials from Syracuse.com

Editorials reflect the collective opinion of the Editorial Board of Advance Media New York. Our opinions are independent of the reporting. Read our mission statement. The editorial board members are Tim Kennedy, Trish LaMonte, Katrina Tulloch and Marie Morelli.

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