Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is at the center of an escalating controversy over deaths in nursing homes, how they were counted and how they handled requests for that data.
Cuomo was lauded early in the outbreak for his forthright news conferences and passionate pleas for more medical equipment from the federal government. He published a book in October titled, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic.”
Now, however, he’s facing bipartisan calls for an investigation and limitations on his executive powers after a top aide said the administration delayed the release of data on Covid-19 deaths of long-term care facility residents because of concerns about a potential federal investigation by the Trump administration, at a time when former President Donald Trump was personally threatening Cuomo.
At the heart of the matter is the question of whether New York could better have prevented the state’s nearly 46,000 deaths, the second-highest total of any US state so far, and whether the decision to discharge recovering residents from hospitals back to nursing homes increased infections among vulnerable elderly residents.
Here’s everything you need to know about the controversy.
State Attorney General Letitia James issued a report in January finding that the New York State Department of Health undercounted Covid-19 deaths among residents of nursing homes by approximately 50%, essentially by leaving out deaths of residents who had been transferred to hospitals.
James also said at the time that there had been some underreporting by some nursing homes of resident deaths in their facilities.
The report preliminarily concluded that deaths were underreported based on a survey of 62 nursing homes, roughly a 10% sample of total facilities across the state.
The attorney general’s report detailed one facility where deaths were underreported to the Department of Health by as many as 29 deaths.
In a statement responding to the report, New York’s state health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, pointed out there was an undercount overall – claiming it was just an issue of classification.
The department “has always publicly reported the number of fatalities within hospitals irrespective of the residence of the patient, and separately reported the number of fatalities within nursing home facilities and has been clear about the nature of that reporting,” Zucker said at the time.
Cuomo has said the questions about deaths started as a “political attack.”
“What I would say is everyone did the best they could,” Cuomo said during a press conference on January 29. “When I say the State Department of Health – as the report said – the State Department of Health followed federal guidance. So, if you think there was a mistake, then go talk to the federal government. It’s not about pointing fingers or blame. It’s that this became a political football right. Look, whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home. It’s – people died. People died.”
How did things escalate?
A top aide to Cuomo, Melissa DeRosa, told state lawmakers in a private virtual meeting this month that the administration delayed the release of data on Covid-19 deaths among long-term care facility residents because of concerns about a potential federal investigation.
DeRosa specifically said the administration “froze” with regard to data requests from state lawmakers because it was concerned last summer about criticism from Trump and hadn’t been sure what information it was going to turn over after a request from the US Justice Department related to an inquiry into the state’s Covid-19 nursing home deaths.
“The letter comes in at the end of August and right around the same time, President Trump turns this into a giant political football. He 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 said, according to a transcript of the call.
In a statement last week, DeRosa sought to clarify her comments on the call with lawmakers.
“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,” she said. “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.”
Cuomo himself said at a news conference on Monday that the state Department of Health has always “fully” reported all Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes and hospitals before insisting there’s “nothing to investigate.”
He also took responsibility for what he said was failing to provide information faster to grieving people.
“The void allowed misinformation and conspiracy, and now people are left with the thought of, ‘Did my loved one have to die?’ And that is a brutal, brutal question to pose to a person,” he said. “And I want everyone to know everything was done. Everything was done by the best minds in the best interest.”
What has the fallout been?
New York’s Democratic leaders are in active discussions to draft a bill to repeal Cuomo’s expanded emergency executive powers.
“There’s momentum moving in the direction of removing his powers,” a source told CNN’s Lauren del Valle. A bill is likely to be introduced this week in the state legislature and voted on early next week.
The source said there was support for the removal of Cuomo’s expanded powers before the aide’s comments were made public, but now “it’s definitely going to happen.”
Cuomo said Monday there was no connection between the nursing home questions and his emergency powers, and he said his Covid-19 legal actions are only to protect the public.
“These are public health decisions,” he said. “They’re not local political decisions, and they have to be made on a public health basis.”
Other lawmakers are calling for a probe of the episode, and the state Republican Party chairman has called for Cuomo’s impeachment.
“The gravity of this coverup can not be overstated,” New York GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy said at a recent news conference.
“The Cuomo administration purposely lied and withheld evidence and information to avoid prosecution,” he continued. “Andrew Cuomo must be prosecuted and Andrew Cuomo must be impeached if this evidence exists.”
CNN’s Dakin Andone, Lauren del Valle and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.