Cuomo Over Nursing Home Virus Toll, New Claims of Cover-Up
The governor's top aide admitted in a private conversation that data on nursing homes, where more than 10,000 New Yorkers died during the pandemic, was withheld.
On Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his administration faced fresh accusations that they had covered up the scale of the death toll of the coronavirus in New York's nursing homes, after a top aide to the governor revealed that the state had suppressed data because the Trump Justice Department feared an investigation.
In what was supposed to be a private conference call with Democratic lawmakers, the remarks made by the top aide, Melissa DeRosa, came as a cascading series of news stories and a court order left Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, struggling to control the political fallout over his nursing home supervision, where more than 13,000 people died in the state pandemic.
Lawmakers on both sides called for the governor to be deprived of the emergency powers he had exerted during the pandemic, while Republicans ordered the resignation of senior officials from the Cuomo administration and new federal investigations.
The jarring revelation from Ms. DeRosa came when she was asked about continuing delays in delivering nursing home death data to lawmakers. She said that "basically, we froze" after the Department of Justice demanded information last summer.
At the time, similar demands from the State Legislature were also facing the governor's office.
"We were in a position where we weren't sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice, or what we were going to give to you guys, and what we were beginning to say, was going to be used against us, and we weren't sure if an investigation was going to take place," Ms. DeRosa said during the call, according to a partial transcript later released by the governor's office after her remarks appeared in The New.
According to Ms. DeRosa, the Justice Department never officially opened an investigation. But at the heart of his carefully crafted reputation as a capable chief executive with a deference to facts, as embodied by the frequent news conferences that he held early in the epidemic, the extreme criticism of the governor's record on nursing homes has hit. Before it finished, Mr. Cuomo also wrote a memoir of his studies on the pandemic, providing "leadership lessons."
The persistent concerns about how many people died in resident nursing homes are trying to overshadow the legacy of Mr. Cuomo.
Just two weeks ago, in a scathing article, state attorney general Letitia James, who was an associate of the governor, accused the Cuomo administration of thousands of undercounted coronavirus-related deaths linked to nursing homes.
On Friday afternoon, Democrats in both the State Senate and Assembly met privately to discuss whether the Legislature should curtail the emergency powers that allowed the governor to set virus-related restrictions and gave him total control over the implementation of the vaccine. There was no immediate action planned.
In a statement before the meeting, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate majority leader and a Democrat, said, "Crucial information should never be withheld from entities empowered to pursue oversight," adding that she would address "next steps" with her conference.
Condemnation from Republicans, who jumped on the remarks as signs of duplicity or even violence, was even louder.
It's time to step beyond the lies and eventually reveal the real truth," said Representative Tom Reed, a Southern Tier state Republican who called for a Thursday night federal investigation."
Around a third of the 43-member Democratic conference in the Senate signed a public letter in favor of the repeal of the enlarged powers of the governor "as expeditiously as possible" ahead of Friday's meeting.
While the state recognized that last spring the pandemic tore through nursing homes, the health department of Mr. Cuomo had declined to report how many nursing home residents had died since being hospitalized, saying it was difficult to collect and check such details and was being carefully audited.
Mr. Cuomo has also consistently sought to blame former President Donald J. Trump and political partisanship for the nursing home issue, and has pushed back hard on claims of a cover-up, simultaneously claiming that his administration was committed to evidence and implying that figures were beside the point after some additional data was released.
We're below the national average for nursing home accidents, so who cares? "In late January, Mr. Cuomo said, claiming that the percentages were unimportant. Died in a hospital, in a nursing home, died? They've gone.
Mr. Cuomo, who was in Washington to meet President Biden on Friday, did not comment on the remarks made by Ms. DeRosa.
But there were other Democrats expressing concern. State Senator Andrew Gounardes, a Brooklyn Democrat, called the disclosures "a betrayal of public trust," adding, "Full accountability needs to be given for what has happened, and the legislature needs to reconsider its wide grant of emergency powers to the governor."
Ms. DeRosa, the top non-elected official in the state, tried to explain the context of her remarks early on Friday. She characterized the administration's delays in supplying state lawmakers with information as a kind of triage, since a response to federal authorities had to be prioritized.
"I was explaining that we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature's request to deal with the federal request first when we received the D.O.J. inquiry," she said. We told the houses at the time about this," referring to the Legislature's upper and lower chambers."
She said that in our responses to the D.O.J., the administration was "comprehensive and transparent, and then had to focus our resources immediately on the second wave and vaccine rollout."
We could not satisfy their request as fast as anyone would have liked," she said, "as I said on a call with legislators.
The study by Ms. James compelled the health department of the state to make public more than 3,800 previously unreported deaths of residents who died outside a facility, like in a hospital, and were not included in the official nursing home count of the state.
Since then, the number of deaths linked to nursing homes and long-term care facilities in New York has only ballooned, from 12,743 in late January to around 15,000 confirmed and suspected deaths as of this week.
After a six-month battle between the Cuomo administration and the Empire Center, a conservative-leaning think tank, which demanded a full accounting of nursing home deaths under the Freedom of Information Law of the state, the administration released the new figures in response to a court order.
This week, the virtual meeting between Ms. DeRosa and other senior government officials, including the health commissioner and budget director of Mr. Cuomo, and top Democratic state legislators, was intended to bridge a growing divide between the office of the governor and the legislature.
Legislators regularly challenged the state health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, at hearings in early August regarding the full scope of deaths related to nursing homes. They were disappointed with Mr. Zucker's inability outside nursing homes and long-term care facilities to report the number of resident deaths.
At the time, Dr. Zucker told state lawmakers, "I'm not prepared to give you a specific number." "We look at all the numbers, we look at the data, when the data comes in and I have the opportunity to piece through it, then I will be happy to provide you and the other committee members with that information."
The State Senate and Assembly formally wrote to the health department a few weeks later, on Aug. 20, demanding those estimates, as well as additional details.
The Justice Department then demanded nursing home data from four states, including New York, on Aug. 26, to decide if a formal investigation into the treatment of deaths in nursing homes by those states will be initiated.
As a result, Cuomo officials said they asked legislative leaders for extra time to respond to their request for data as they answered the federal inquiry.
By Sept. 9, the administration reacted reasonably quickly to the concerns from the Justice Department in writing. But, almost six months later, state health officials did not respond to questions from the Legislature until this week.
"Ms. DeRosa told Democratic lawmakers at Wednesday's meeting that Mr. Trump had turned nursing homes "into a giant political football," conceding that the lack of accountability of the state could have complicated the re-election campaigns of some lawmakers.
And she noted that the information that the state obtained from nursing homes was frequently muddled and needed strenuous clean-up work.
Ms. de Rosa said, apologizing and promising better data in the future, "I am just asking for a little bit of appreciation of the context." "The role you were put in, I do understand. It's not fair, I know.'
But the representatives remained unconvinced.
"Today we don't have enough time to explain," Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, the Health Committee's Democratic chairman, "all the reasons I don't give any credit at all."