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Cuomo offers rare admission of error on withholding of nursing home COVID death numbers

Governor Andrew Cuomo's office

Gov. Andrew Cuomo broke days of silence over escalating accusations that he and his top aides deliberately withheld for months, key COVID-19 death numbers of nursing home residents who succumbed to the virus. He apologized to families of residents who died in the homes during the pandemic for the anxiety that the withholding of those numbers created.

In a rare admission of error, Cuomo said the months-long secrecy by his administration over the accurate number of nursing home residents who died of the virus, created a “void.” He said in a “toxic political environment,” that void became filled with confusion, misinformation and conspiracy theories. And he told the families of the 15,000 long-term care residents who died of COVID that he’s sorry that it created so much anxiety for them.

“And now people are left with the thought ‘did my loved one have to die,’ and that is a brutal, brutal question to pose to a person,” Cuomo said. “Everything was done by the best minds in the best interest. And the last thing that I wanted to do was to aggravate a terrible situation.”

Cuomo repeated a defense first given by his Chief of Staff, Melissa DeRosa in a February 3 private meeting with top Democratic lawmakers that was later leaked to news media outlets. The governor said Department of Health staff were busy trying to fulfill a request by the federal Justice Department, for more information on the nursing home deaths, in what they feared was a prelude to a federal investigation.  He said they didn’t have time to also comply with requests by Senate and Assembly committees for similar information.

“Federal government took precedence,” Cuomo said. “We told the Assembly that, we told the Senate that.” 

The governor’s defense is unlikely to satisfy his critics, including Democratic and Republican members of the legislature. They say the DOJ request did not come until late August, and they had been seeking the accurate nursing home death total since the previous April.

Legislative leaders also say that they were not told by Cuomo and his aides of the existence of the DOJ inquiry. The governor later clarified that the legislative staff was notified, but that he did not talk directly to legislative leaders.

Cuomo also continues to say that his controversial March 25 directive that required nursing homes to take back residents who had been hospitalized with COVID, did not increase the number of deaths. He said he agrees with a July report by his health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, which concluded that asymptomatic staff and visitors brought the disease into the homes.

Cuomo also defended Zucker, who has been a target of criticism. He said he fully trusts his health commissioner’s judgement, and believes that Zucker has always acted using the best science available at the time.

“I would trust Dr. Zucker with my mother’s care,” said Cuomo. “That’s why I trust him with your mother’s care.”

A bi-partisan group of critics have called for a full investigation by the state’s Attorney General and the federal Justice Department, of how the health department has handled nursing home policy during the pandemic. Attorney General Tish James’ January 28 report that found the Cuomo administration had undercounted nursing home deaths led to the health department’s first disclosure of the nursing home death numbers.

Cuomo said he does not think an investigation is necessary.

The Attorney General’s report was also highly critical of the state’s for-profit nursing homes, finding poor adherence to proper infection controls and providing inadequate Personal Protective Equipment to staff.

Cuomo is proposing a crack down on those homes. He said he’s crafting legislation in the state budget to enact reforms.

In a statement, Senate Minority Republican Leader Robert Ortt said it was the governor who conducted a “disinformation campaign” about the actual number of nursing home deaths, and he said the governor on Monday failed to adequately take the blame and apologize for that. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.