Five Points On The Nursing Home Scandal Consuming The Cuomo Administration

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/09/29: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo holds daily media announcement and briefing at 633 3rd Avenue, Manhattan. Governor discussed Stabilization and Recovery Program for the state as well as uptick of positive infections in some areas of the state. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he will meet with Orthodox Jewish leaders to address COVID-19 clusters in communities downstate. He emphasized importance of wearing masks, social distances and enforcement of compliance. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) holds daily media announcement and briefing in New York City. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The slow-motion trainwreck resulting from the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic has finally exploded. 

Since March, when the administration issued a memo requiring nursing homes to intake residents with positive COVID-19 diagnoses, a scandal has unfurled incrementally, picking up pace dramatically in recent days. Now it leaves New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) facing down punishments from his own party, and even, reportedly, federal probes. 

Here’s what went down: 

Cuomo sends out widely criticized March nursing home memo

On March 25, about three weeks after Cuomo assembled his COVID-19 task force, the Department of Health sent out a memo requiring nursing homes to admit residents even if they had tested positive, or were suspected to be positive, for the virus.

Amid outcry and an uptick in nursing home deaths, Cuomo backtracked in May, requiring nursing home residents to test negative at the hospital before being readmitted to the home. Still though, he defended the policy, saying at a press conference that only 12 percent of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities happened in nursing homes. 

In July, the health department released a report pinning the increased spread within nursing homes on employee transmission, shifting the weight of blame away from Cuomo’s memo. 

On August 3, DOH Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker testified before the legislature on COVID-19 and nursing homes. Soon after, members of the state legislature sent follow-up questions to the DOH, including some about the correct number of nursing home COVID-19 casualties. 

Days later, Bill Barr’s Department of Justice also sent the Cuomo administration letters with questions about nursing home deaths and COVID-19.

By September, a right-leaning think tank in New York called the Empire Center had filed a lawsuit, saying it had been stonewalled in attempts to get data on nursing home deaths. 

New York Attorney General releases scathing report revealing undercounted nursing home deaths

In late January, NY AG Letitia James released a preliminary report on findings her office had been gathering since March as it investigated claims of nursing home negligence and lack of adherence to protocol.

“Among those findings were that a larger number of nursing home residents died from COVID-19 than the New York State Department of Health’s (DOH) published nursing home data reflected and may have been undercounted by as much as 50 percent,” read a press release accompanying the report. 

The administration hadn’t included residents who died at the hospital in the nursing home casualty count, triggering accusations that Cuomo was purposefully downplaying the danger his March memo might have worsened. 

Hours after the report dropped, DOH officials updated the public data with 3,800 more nursing home deaths, covering residents who died in hospitals. The data dump increased COVID-19 deaths related to nursing homes in the state by over 40 percent. 

“DOH has consistently made clear that our numbers are reported based on the place of death,” Zucker, the health commissioner, said in a statement. “DOH does not disagree that the number of people transferred from a nursing home to a hospital is an important data point, and is in the midst of auditing this data from nursing homes.”

He blamed the issue on the Trump administration, which did not require nursing homes to submit weekly data on COVID-19 deaths until May.

Cuomo addressed the AG’s report callously at a press conference: “Who cares [if they] died in the hospital, died in a nursing home?” he said. “They died.”

In explosive leaked call, top Cuomo aide reveals administration did withhold nursing home data

The slow-moving trainwreck lurched forward again last week when a call between a top Cuomo aide and some Democratic state lawmakers leaked. In it, secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa said that the administration had purposefully withheld information from lawmakers to avoid becoming part of a politicized probe out of the Trump administration Department of Justice.

“Basically, we froze 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 and what we start saying was going to be used against us and we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” she said.

The call was good for no one, including the lawmakers on the other end who have come under fire for not sharing its contents with their peers. Instead, the New York Post broke the story.

‘I will go out tomorrow and destroy you’: Cuomo doubles down under pressure

Last week, 14 Democratic senators issued a statement urging that Cuomo’s emergency powers related to the COVID-19 crisis be revoked. Nine Democratic assembly members echoed the call in harsher terms Tuesday, saying “we must absolutely consider above all the sanctity of the democratic institution that we call the Legislature of the State of New York, and resolutely pursue justice in the face of an executive who we can say without hesitation has engaged in intentional criminal wrongdoing.”

Cuomo, at a Monday press briefing, did not back down from the fight. “Apologize? Look, I have said repeatedly, we made a mistake in creating the void,” he said. “When we didn’t provide information it allowed press, people, cynics, politicians to fill the void. When you don’t correct this information you allow it to continue and we created the void.”

Instead, he reportedly went after Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat who had given the New York Post critical comments about the administration’s behavior after the DeRosa call leaked. Kim alleges that Cuomo said on a private call that he would “destroy” him and make him feel his “wrath” if he didn’t send out a statement walking back the quotes he gave to the Post. 

In a lengthy statement, an aide to Cuomo said that Kim was “lying” about the call and detailed their “long, hostile relationship.”

Cuomo may lose emergency powers, and the feds are looking into the mess

The Democratic leaders of the Senate are now moving forward to strip Cuomo of his emergency powers, which would have expired in April. The measures could be voted on as soon as next week. Among other things, the bill would establish a 10-person committee of members from both chambers to evaluate any pandemic-related directives issued by Cuomo in the future. Cuomo would need to sign such a bill should it pass, but Democrats have veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

Meanwhile, as first reported by the Times Union, the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn have opened an investigation that involves how the task force assembled by Cuomo handled nursing homes during the pandemic. It is reportedly in its early stages, but focusing on the work of some senior members of the governor’s team.

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