Rep Lee Zeldin during a press conference via Zoom on Dec. 30, 2021.

Rep. Lee Zeldin and a number of New York State Republican officials today criticized the Hochul administration’s pandemic response, which Zeldin said has exhibited “utter incompetence.”

In a press conference held this morning via Zoom, Zeldin, who is running for governor, faulted Gov. Kathy Hochul for what he characterized as a flawed and poorly executed COVID-19 testing program, with too few test sites, nonuniform hours of operation and long waits for people seeking tests.

He said both New York State and the federal government have been caught “off-guard” by the new variant. He said officials have “obsessed over” an approach focused on “firings, fines, threats, mandates.”

“Even before the first day the Omicron variant was discovered in New York, Governor Hochul has been warning of a winter surge for months and leading aggressive efforts to protect New Yorkers,” said the governor’s press secretary, Hazel Crampton-Hays.

The governor’s efforts, she said, have included “taking action to boost hospital capacity and address staffing issues, deploying vaccine pop-up sites and millions of tests across the state, launching new incentives for the vaccine hesitant and robust booster campaigns, and staying in constant communication with local partners to provide support on the ground.”

Zeldin and the elected officials who joined him for the press conference, including Second District Assembly Member Jodi Giglio, said they have heard too many complaints from constituents who are frustrated and angered by lack of sufficient PCR tests, long lines at testing sites and an inadequate supply of home test kits to meet demand.

“We should be pouring money into acquiring and distributing the tests we need to ensure New Yorkers have access to readily available, efficient testing,” Zeldin said. He said New Yorkers’ hard-earned tax dollars should be invested in “hard-working New Yorkers who need that responsiveness from Albany.” Instead, he said, “unfortunately, what we’re seeing is billions of dollars spent prioritized towards people who aren’t even legally in the country. So we need the priorities to be set correctly.”

In response to a question from a reporter, Zeldin said he was not suggesting the state should not test undocumented residents but was referring to the state’s Excluded Workers Fund, which he acknowledged had nothing to do with COVID testing.

The Excluded Workers Fund was a $2 billion fund established in the $212 billion state budget this spring to provide assistance to undocumented immigrants who lost 50% or more of their income in 2020 but had no access to unemployment insurance or federal stimulus checks because they were undocumented. Under the program, administered by the State Department of Labor, undocumented workers could receive up to $15,600, if they were able to verify that they were state residents, ineligible for federal unemployment benefits and lost income as a result of the pandemic.

Senator Republican Leader Rob Ortt said New York since the pandemic began “has been far more focused on lockdowns…on punishing and threats and creating an atmosphere of fear.” Without citing specifics, he said other states have responded differently and have fared better in “both their economic numbers” and “no tangible difference in deaths.” Some even have had better outcomes and better results, Ortt said.

As the first epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States in 2020, New York was hit hard by the virus in every respect at a time when not much was known about the virus or how to treat people infected with it. There were no vaccines or antiviral therapeutics. Roughly half of New York’s nearly 60,000 COVID-19 fatalities occurred in April and May of 2020. At that point, most other states were reporting COVID-19 cases and deaths that were negligible in comparison.

On June 1, 2020, when COVID fatalities in New York reached more than 155 per 100,000, the 10 states that would impose the least restrictions throughout the pandemic had fewer than 20 deaths per 100,000. Those states saw death tolls rise gradually during 2020 and then spike by triple-digit percentages during the 2020-21 winter surge. All but three of the 10 least restrictive states saw their death tolls climb well above 200 per 100,000 — three of them above 250 per 100k — by Dec. 1, 2021. By comparison, New York’s death toll rose from 155 per 100,000 on June 1, 2020 to 299 per 100,000 on Dec. 1 this year, a 23% increase.

Giglio said she has heard complaints from constituents that testing is not available.

“We’ve learned a lot since this pandemic started and one thing that we’ve learned is that mandatory vaccinations is not preventing the virus from spreading, but testing and finding out who has it and making sure that these people stay away from the people so that it’s not spread as quickly as it is. And the tests just have not been available,” Giglio said.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.