By Emily Drooby and Erin DeGregorio
WINDSOR TERRACE — Governor Andrew Cuomo’s secretary, Melissa DeRosa, admitted the Cuomo administration withheld the state’s nursing home death toll out of fear that the numbers would “be used against us” by the Department of Justice in an investigation, according to an audio recording obtained by the New York Post.
“He [former President Donald Trump] starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes. He starts going after [New Jersey Gov. Phil] Murphy, starts going after [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom, starts going after [Michigan Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer,” DeRosa reportedly said. “And basically, we froze.”
DeRosa released the following statement on Feb. 12, one day after the recording was leaked:
“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 response to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout.
“As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked. But we are committed to being better partners going forward as we share the same goal of keeping New Yorkers as healthy as possible during the pandemic.”
A handful of local politicians and other state lawmakers have since called for a thorough investigation and prosecution of Cuomo in light of these findings.
On Feb. 15, Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay urged the Legislature to cancel its winter break for the week of Feb. 15 and hold a special session to address this matter — including stripping Cuomo‘s emergency COVID-19 powers that had been originally granted on March 3, 2020. He also urged Democrats to sign a petition to issue subpoenas that would pressure the Cuomo administration to testify at a legislative hearing and reveal information regarding the nursing home deaths.
“The circumstances surrounding the governor’s nursing home cover-up and revelations from his staff’s closed door meeting with Democratic legislators is unforeseen and unprecedented,” Barclay said in a statement on Feb. 15. “The Legislature was not originally scheduled to reconvene this week. But we need to face reality, this is hardly the appropriate time for a break.”
New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik also wrote in a statement on Feb. 12: “Governor Cuomo, the Secretary to the Governor, and his senior team must be prosecuted immediately — both by the Attorney General of New York State and the U.S. Department of Justice. This bombshell admission of a coverup and the remarks by the Secretary to the Governor indicating intent to obstruct any federal investigation is a stunning and criminal abuse of power.”
New York State Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Jabari Brisport, Samra Brouk, Jeremy Cooney, Andrew Gounardes, Robert Jackson, John C. Liu, John Mannion, Rachel May, Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, Gustavo Rivera, Julia Salazar, James Sanders, and James Skoufis also called for the repeal of the governor’s emergency powers.
The group issued the following statement on Feb. 12:
“Without exception, the New York State Constitution calls for the Legislature to govern as a co-equal branch of government. While COVID-19 has tested the limits of our people and state — and, early during the pandemic, required the government to restructure decision making to render rapid, necessary public health judgments — it is clear that the expanded emergency powers granted to the governor are no longer appropriate.
“While the executive’s authority to issue directives is due to expire on April 30, we urge the Senate to advance and adopt a repeal as expeditiously as possible.”
The Associated Press also reported on Feb. 11 that 9,056 recovering COVID-19 patients were sent to hundreds of nursing homes during the spring of 2020. According to reports obtained by the AP, this number is more than 40 percent higher than what New York State’s Department of Health (DOH) previously released.
As of Feb. 1, there have been 9,244 confirmed and presumed reported COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, which includes nursing homes and adult care facilities. Of the 9,244 reported deaths, 9,025 have been attributed to those in nursing homes. However, the DOH has only recorded the number of seniors who have passed away in nursing homes — excluding deaths outside those facilities, such as the hospitals they were transferred to.
A Brief History
Cuomo issued an executive order on March 25, 2020, that mandated nursing homes had to admit recovering COVID-19 patients returning from hospitals. The order, which was reversed on May 10, intended to free up hospital beds, as hundreds were dying every day during the height of the pandemic.
In July 2020, the DOH reported that 6,327 recovering patients from hospitals had been allowed to return to nursing homes by the time the directive was reversed — as well as that a majority of the 310 nursing homes that admitted such patients already had one confirmed or suspected case among residents or staff members.
In its July report, the department also said that patients sent to nursing homes posed little danger to residents because they had spent an average of nine days at the hospitals — consistent with federal guidance at the time about how long it took for people to stop being contagious.
“At least 98 person 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,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker told the AP in a statement.
In the Wake of New Reports
This most recent AP report also comes on the heels of New York State Attorney General Letitia James’s findings, released on Jan. 28, that the DOH undercounted COVID-19 resident deaths associated with 62 nursing homes by an average of 56 percent.
Cuomo deflected and defended himself the following day, saying the office’s findings confirmed what Zucker has stated in the last year and that New York followed federal guidelines issued at the time.
“It’s not about pointing fingers or blame. It’s that this became a political football,” Cuomo said during his press briefing on Jan. 29. “Whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home, the people died.”
During the week of Feb. 8, the DOH also announced a new count of 2,729 “readmissions” of patients sent back from a hospital to the nursing home where they had lived before.
Cuomo traveled to Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12 — along with other mayors and governors from around the country — for a scheduled meeting with President Joe Biden that focused on the federal American Rescue Plan for dealing with the coronavirus.
Cuomo and Arkansas Governor and National Governors Association Vice Chairman Asa Hutchinson issued the following statement after meeting with President Biden and Vice President Harris on Feb. 12:
“Governors from across the country and the political spectrum have said for months that flexible and direct aid to state and local governments is essential for our continued front-line response to the COVID-19 crisis and our national economic recovery. During our Oval Office meeting today with President Biden, Vice President Harris, and a bipartisan group of Governors and mayors from across the country, the President and his team made clear that they recognize and appreciate how critical this targeted relief is for our ability to recover from this pandemic.
“We thank President Biden, Vice President Harris, and their team for a productive meeting and their support, and call on Congress to ensure sufficient state and local aid is included in the final relief package. The finish line of this pandemic is in sight, and this support will give states and territories the resources we need to reach it, while continuing to provide the essential services our constituents rely on.”