New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he should have been more “aggressive” in calling out reporters and politicians for “lying” about his handling of Covid-19 deaths among long-term care residents.
Cuomo, who’s been accused of covering up the true scope of the death toll among the vulnerable population, said during a news conference Friday that he didn’t combat the “misinformation” about the situation enough and it hurt New Yorkers who lost loved ones.
“I did not aggressively enough – we did not aggressively enough, take on the misinformation that caused people pain and, of course, pain for grieving families and that’s what I regret, I’m not going to make that mistake again. If you’re lying to the people of the State of New York, I’m going to call it out. If you are lying in a report, I’m going to call it out. If you’re lying in a newspaper because you have your own partisan agenda, I’m going to call it out,” the governor said.
The governor also announced sweeping nursing home reform legislation that he’s proposing in amendments to the state budget.
The reform will aim to ensure nursing home operators prioritize patient care over profits, increase staffing and are held accountable for health and safety violations.
Cuomo said Friday he won’t sign the budget without these reforms.
State lawmakers have already introduced a collection of bills addressing some of these nursing home reforms and are expected to pass them in the Senate next week.
Residents of long-term care facilities account for more than 15,000 confirmed and presumed Covid-19 deaths in New York since the start of the pandemic, according to the state Department of Health.
Until last month, the state only publicly reported the deaths of those residents who died in a facility, not those who succumbed to the virus after being transferred to a hospital or elsewhere.
“It is a lie to say any numbers were inaccurate. That is a lie. Total deaths were always reported for nursing homes and hospitals,” Cuomo said.
The governor did not address the news reported by CNN earlier this week that the US attorney’s office in Brooklyn, along with the FBI, is scrutinizing the handling of some of the data surrounding Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities in New York.
Governor defends his decisions
Cuomo doubled down Friday on his defense of the state administration’s handling of public data on Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes, reiterating points he’s made previously about prioritizing a Department of Justice inquiry over a state legislative request for similar information.
“We paused the state request and we told them that we paused the state requests. They were told and they knew. And we gave DOJ precedence, yes, because that’s how it works,” he said.
Several state lawmakers publicly disagree with Cuomo’s categorization of how they were informed. A spokesperson for the Assembly speaker says the governor’s office only informed them of the delay, but not why.
The governor said he’s agreed with state lawmakers that it’s time to “move forward.”
“I’ve spoken to the legislative leaders, and we agree that we’re in the midst of dealing with a real pandemic. We have a lot going on. And we have to put politics aside and move forward and have a more constructive dialogue,” Cuomo said.
Meanwhile, New York State Senate leaders are pushing a bill that would repeal the current law granting Cuomo expanded executive powers and create a legislative mechanism that would avoid unilateral directives from the governor’s office during a state of emergency, according to a legislative source familiar with bill discussions.
‘We made the right public health decision,’ official says
New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, in what appeared to be a pre-written speech, recounted the department’s handling of Covid-19 spread last March.
Zucker said ultimately he feels they made the right call with the widely-debated March 25 order that sent thousands of Covid-19 patients to nursing homes. State officials ended the policy May 8.
“March 25th was not the driver of Covid infections, it was not the driver of Covid fatalities. The facts are the facts,” Zucker said.
Asymptomatic employees were the main cause of Covid-19 spread in long-term care facilities, according to the health commissioner. He said his department identified 37,000 nursing home staff members infected with the virus last spring.
Zucker said 98% of the 365 facilities that received Covid-19 patients from a hospital under the admissions policy already had the virus prevalent in the facility when those patients were submitted.
He said 132 nursing homes that never took a patient under the policy still had Covid-19 fatalities.
“We made the right public health decision at the time, and faced with the same facts, we would make the same decisions again,” Zucker said.
Zucker is expected to testify next Thursday during a health care budget-related legislative hearing with lawmakers.
The governor offered a formal apology to Zucker and the health department during the press conference for enduring “unfounded” and “unscrupulous attacks.”
“I want to say to Dr. Zucker and all the health staff, thank you for a great job,” Cuomo said. “I’m sorry you have to do it in a lousy political environment, but that’s where we are. I’m sorry that you had to deal with COVID, I’m sorry that you had to deal with the pandemic, I’m sorry that you had to miss your family working seven days a week, and I’m sorry that you have to be abused in the partisan politics of the day.”
CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.