Every day, just before noon, hundreds of thousands of people tune in to watch New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily Powerpoint presentations on the state government’s latest response to the coronavirus. At a moment when the world seems to be spinning out of control, he has emerged via livestream as a reliable guide with a slide clicker—assuaging fears and delivering indispensable information.
Cuomo is flanked by his inner circle of aides at these briefings, including the woman who sits to his left, Melissa DeRosa. As secretary to the governor, DeRosa is behind every relief effort writ large in New York, now the epicenter of the international coronavirus outbreak, with more confirmed cases than any other country. She strategizes with state departments, and analyzes hospitalization and ventilator numbers. She briefs Cuomo, who then presents the facts to the public in easily-digestible bulleted lists and charts that have become appointment viewing for residents across the state and beyond.
Their strategy is simple: Be as transparent as possible, even when the news is bad.
When reached by phone, DeRosa told me that people want to feel like “soldiers” in times of crisis, equipped with all the necessary facts and figures to fight back.
“Even,” DeRosa said, “if those facts and figures are scary.”
“As long as you know what’s going on and feel like there’s a plan that you’re a part of, then you can galvanize, and survive, and endure, and get through it,” she added. “If you don’t, that’s when you hit real crisis.”
When her alarm goes off at 3:45 a.m. every morning, DeRosa pours a large coffee and settles in with the pile of reports that hit her inbox overnight. She reviews the deaths toll and latest PPE (personal protective equipment) figures, then presents them to Cuomo. Together, they craft his talking points for the daily press briefing. The rest of her day is spent coordinating tri-state relief efforts and shaping and executing state policies. She’s in bed by midnight, and up before dawn the next day to do it all again.
In an email to ELLE.com, Cuomo described DeRosa as an “invaluable” sounding board and one of the “best minds to meet the [coronavirus] challenge” in the state of New York.
“Melissa is invaluable not just to me – as a counsel, strategist, sounding board, and policy maker- but equally to the State and the entire team she leads,” he said.They have been working together since 2013, when she joined his administration as communications director. DeRosa worked her way up to chief of staff and, in 2017, was named secretary to the governor, the highest appointed position in the state. She’s the first woman in history to hold the role.
In New York politics, she’s known for steering massive statewide policies, including the $15 minimum wage, a paid family leave policy, and expanded insurance coverage for IVF. DeRosa oversees every vertical in Cuomo’s office from top to bottom, and the administration’s communications director Dani Lever described her as the kind of person who has “a plan for everything.”
Now, she’s in charge of coordinating a response to one of the state’s biggest challenges ever: widespread panic, dwindling healthcare supplies, and a growing death toll during a pandemic. At the time of publication, there were a total of 188,694 cases in New York and 9,385 virus-related deaths.
“We’ve dealt with snow storms, flooding, and hurricanes in New York, but those were all static events,” DeRosa said. “This is the first situation the world has had to endure that is as ongoing, and as constant for an indefinite period of time as the coronavirus pandemic is.”
DeRosa managed state decisions about restaurant closures and voting by mail, and is now also executing the governor’s overall public messaging strategy. Unpredictable, new challenges crop up “unexpectedly, every single day,” she said, “and as much as you try to anticipate, there’s really no way to predict what will arise.”
When NewYork-Presbyterian and Mount Sinai hospital in New York City decided to bar the partners of patients giving birth to slow the spread of coronavirus, she personally stepped in and led the policy shift that directed all public and private hospitals to allow healthy partners into delivery rooms to support their laboring partner.
“When you make a decision and then think to yourself, ‘I made this decision, whether it’s right or wrong, and I’m living by it,’ well, that’s just not how the world works,” she said. “A big part of the way we’re living right now hinges on being able to evolve and change in real time as the facts and circumstances change, [I have to be] comfortable with that.”
She’s also learned to tune out the online chatter about her boss, who has garnered a passionate fan base and attracted widespread attention, including inquiring minds wondering aloud whether the governor secretly has pierced nipples, which prompted an investigation by New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi.
“If anything it’s validating and encouraging,” DeRosa said. “I’m just glad to know that our press conferences and his leadership are reassuring the public at a time when I know a lot of people are scared and feeling vulnerable and looking for leadership.”