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Gov. Cuomo's coronavirus nursing home scandal: 5 things to know

Written by on February 12, 2021

New Yorkers are still adapting to the new normal nearly one year after the Empire State was effectively shut down – if not significantly slowed down – amid concerns surrounding the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But even as time passed and certain lifestyle changes – face masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing – have become daily habits, long-asked questions still loom in relation to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s response to certain aspects of the pandemic.

Namely, some officials and the public have criticized the Cuomo administration’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes – and the data surrounding those circumstances.

A scathing report from New York Attorney General Letitia James describes how the governor’s office may have undercounted the number of COVID-linked nursing home deaths by more than 50%.

CUOMO AIDE TELLS NY DEMOCRATS ADMINISTRATION HID NURSING HOME DATA TO KEEP IT FROM TRUMP DOJ: REPORT

And one of the biggest bombshells arose late Thursday, when the New York Post revealed that Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, admitted during a conference call with Democratic leaders that the administration hid unfavorable information about the state’s nursing home COVID-19 deaths out of concern that it “was going to be used against us.”

Here’s a rundown of some of the more important events or details of Cuomo’s nursing home scandal:

1. COVID-19 DATA

The first-known infection in the state was discovered March 1 in a health care worker who recently returned from Iran. Two days later, the state got its second case, a lawyer from the suburb of New Rochelle.

By March 10, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had declared a “containment area” in New Rochelle that shuttered area schools and houses of worship. That same day, the metropolitan area saw its first fatality: a man who worked at a harness track in Yonkers and lived in New Jersey.

By March 12, the state had banned all gatherings of more than 500 people, darkening Broadway theaters and sports arenas. A day later, the first New York resident died, an 82-year-old woman with emphysema.

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio closed New York City’s schools March 15.

More severe restrictions came March 20, when Cuomo ordered all nonessential workers to stay home, barred gatherings of any size and instructed anyone out in public to stay at least 6 feet from other people. At the time, only 35 New Yorkers had been killed by the virus.

By the end of March, New York’s death toll from the outbreak surpassed 1,000.

As of Friday, there were 1,522,785 cases reported in New York, and 45,597 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

According to a Thursday report from The Associated Press, more than 9,000 recovering COVID patients in the Empire State were released from hospitals into nursing homes early in the pandemic under a controversial directive from Cuomo’s administration.

GOV. CUOMO’S CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE, DEFLECTIONS ON NURSING HOME DEATHS IN NEW YORK: A TIMELINE

The new number of 9,056 recovering patients sent to hundreds of nursing homes is more than 40% higher than what the state health department previously released. And it raises new questions as to whether a March 25 directive from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration helped spread sickness and death among residents, a charge the state disputed.

2. POLICY STIRS CONTROVERSY

The Cuomo administration’s March 25 directive barred nursing homes from refusing people just because they had COVID-19. It was intended to free up space in hospitals swamped in the early days of the pandemic. It came under criticism from advocates for nursing home residents and their relatives, who said it had the potential to spread the virus in a state that at the time already had the nation’s highest nursing home death toll.

In its reply to an AP freedom of information request from May, the state health department this week released two figures: a previously disclosed count of 6,327 admissions of patients directly from hospitals and a new count of 2,729 “readmissions” of patients sent back from a hospital to the nursing home where they had lived before.

Before the state released any data, the AP conducted its own survey and found at least 4,500 such patients.

State health officials contend that asymptomatic nursing home employees, not recovering COVID-19 patients, were the driving factor in nursing home outbreaks. And they have repeatedly noted that by law, nursing homes weren’t supposed to accept anyone they couldn’t adequately care for.

“At least 98% of nursing home facilities in the state had COVID in their facility before their first admission or readmission, and as we’ve seen across the nation, the major driver of infections appears to be from asymptomatic staff through no fault of their own,” said state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker in a statement to the AP.

He added that the March 25 directive followed federal guidance, and that the percentage of coronavirus deaths statewide that happened in nursing homes didn’t change from the spring to the fall — after the directive was reversed.

3. STATE HEALTH DEPARTMENT DATA RELEASED

In July, an internal report from within Cuomo’s office found his March 25 directive that sent thousands of recovering coronavirus patients into nursing homes was “not a significant factor” in the outbreak, stirring criticism.

Scientists, health care professionals and elected officials assailed the report released in the beginning of July for flawed methodology and selective stats that sidestepped the actual impact of the March 25 order, which by the state’s own count ushered more than 6,300 recovering virus patients into nursing homes at the height of the pandemic.

Some also accused the state of using the veneer of a scientific study to absolve the Democratic governor by reaching the same conclusion he had been floating for weeks — that unknowingly infected nursing home employees were the major drivers of the outbreaks.

The report contended the virus’ rampant spread through the state’s nursing homes was propelled by more than 20,000 infected home staffers, many of whom kept going to work unaware they had the virus in March and April. Another 17,500 workers were infected through early June.

The 33-page state report flatly states: “that nursing home admissions from hospitals were not a driver of nursing home infections or fatalities.” But the Cuomo administration didn’t release how exactly they reached the report’s conclusions, which backed up Cuomo’s repeated defenses.

The report noted that the number of residents dying at nursing homes peaked on April 8, around the same time as COVID-19 deaths statewide, but nearly a week before the peak of coronavirus patients being transferred from hospitals.

It also said 80% of the 310 nursing homes that admitted coronavirus patients already had a confirmed or suspected case among its residents or staff before the directive was issued. And it contends the median number of coronavirus patients sent to nursing homes had been hospitalized for nine days, the same period that the study said it likely takes for the virus to no longer be contagious.

Some subsequently accused the state of using the veneer of a scientific study to absolve the Democratic governor by reaching the same conclusion he had been floating for weeks — that unknowingly infected nursing home employees were the major drivers of the outbreaks.

4. CUOMO GETS BOOK DEAL, EMMY

Cuomo said in August he would be releasing a book in which he reflected on his experience with pandemic so far, and offered leadership advice and a glimpse into his relationship with then-President Donald Trump.

Crown released Cuomo’s “American Crisis” in October.

“In his own voice, Andrew Cuomo chronicles in ‘American Crisis’ the ingenuity and sacrifice required of so many to fight the pandemic,” according to Crown, “sharing his personal reflections and the decision-making that shaped his policy, and offers his frank accounting and assessment of his interactions with the federal government and the White House, as well as other state and local political and health officials.”

Cuomo was praised over the course of several months before his book release, while also facing criticism for the high number of deaths at New York nursing homes.

He had said in July he was thinking of a book, commenting during a radio interview on WAMC that he wanted to document the “entire experience, because if we don’t learn from this then it will really compound the whole crisis that we’ve gone through.”

Months later, in November, it was revealed that he would receive an International Emmy award for his once-daily televised briefings regarding COVID-19 in the state.

The International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, whose members include media and entertainment figures from over 60 countries and 500 companies, announced at the time that Cuomo was being honored with the academy’s Founders Award for using his briefings to inform and calm the public. Previous recipients include former Vice President Al Gore, Oprah Winfrey, and director Steven Spielberg.

5. SCATHING AG REPORT LEADS TO DEFLECTION, BOMBSHELL ADMISSION

Data released in late January showed New York may have undercounted the number of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes by more than 50%, solidifying previously reported concerns regarding the Empire State’s pandemic response at such facilities.

A 76-page report released by James’ office on Jan. 28 found New York State may have undercounted COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents by thousands –  backing up the findings of an Associated Press investigation last year that focused on the fact that New York is one of the only states in the nation that count residents who died on nursing home property and not those who later died in hospitals.

The method of counting allowed Cuomo to boast that his state had a lower percentage of nursing home deaths compared to other states.

CUOMO SAYS ‘EVERYBODY DID THE BEST THEY COULD’ ON NURSING HOME DEATHS, WHITE HOUSE AVOIDS PROBE QUESTION

But such an undercount would have meant the state’s official tally of 8,711 nursing home deaths to the virus was actually more than 13,000, boosting New York from No. 6 to highest in the nation.

“While we cannot bring back the individuals we lost to this crisis, this report seeks to offer transparency that the public deserves,” James said in a statement at the time.

Cuomo later told reporters that “everybody did the best they could.”

Secretary to Governor Melissa DeRosa and NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo as he makes an announcement and holds media briefing at 3rd Avenue office.  (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Secretary to Governor Melissa DeRosa and NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo as he makes an announcement and holds media briefing at 3rd Avenue office.  (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“It’s not about pointing fingers or blame, it’s that this became a political football, right?” Cuomo noted during the press conference. “Look, whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home … people died. People died. … By the way, the same people are dying today.”

The AP analysis in August concluded that the state could be undercounting deaths by as much as 65%, based on discrepancies between its totals and numbers being reported to federal regulators. That analysis was, like James’ report, based on only a slice of data, rather than a comprehensive look.

James’ investigators looked at a sample of 62 of the state’s roughly 600 nursing homes. They reported 1,914 deaths of residents from COVID-19, while the state Department of Health logged only 1,229 deaths at those same facilities. One unnamed facility, for example, had an official death toll of 11 but the attorney general’s probe found that 40 had actually died.

The report from James, a fellow Democratic official, undercut Cuomo’s frequent argument that the criticism of his handling of the virus in nursing homes was part of a political “blame game,” and it was a vindication for thousands of families who believed their loved ones were being omitted from counts to advance the governor’s image as a pandemic hero.

But then, late Thursday, Secretary to the Governor DeRosa, his top aide, revealed during a recent conference call that the Cuomo administration hid unfavorable information about the state’s nursing home COVID-19 deaths out of concern that it “was going to be used against us,” the New York Post first reported.

Speaking to Democratic leaders during a recent conference call, DeRosa said the governor’s office officials “froze” after then-President Donald Trump turned the pandemic into “a giant political football” and began tweeting about the state’s shoddy handling, according to the report.

“He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes,” DeRosa reportedly said. “He starts going after [New Jersey Gov. Phil] Murphy, starts going after [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom, starts going after [Michigan Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer.”

Trump then instructed the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the state’s response, she continued.

“And basically, we froze,” she reportedly said. “Because then 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 give to you guys, what we start saying, was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation.”

She reportedly added: “That played a very large role into this.”

According to the Post, DeRosa asked the group for “a little bit of appreciation of the context.”

“So we do apologize,” she said, according to the report. “I do understand the position that you were put in. I know that it is not fair. It was not our intention to put you in that political position with the Republicans.” 

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She released a public statement on Friday, in which she tried to clarify her statements and wrote: “I was explaining that when we received the DOJ inquiry, we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request to deal with the federal request first. We informed the houses of this at the time.”

“We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout,” she said, in part. “As I said on the call with legislators, we could not fulfill their requests as quick as anyone would have liked.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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