New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo defended himself Monday against accusations that his administration covered up the actual COVID-19 death toll among the state’s nursing home residents, blaming politics and miscommunication for the controversy.
The third-term Democratic governor acknowledged at a press conference that his administration’s opacity regarding the scope of coronavirus deaths among residents of long-term care facilities was a mistake.
Cuomo suggested that the state’s delay in answering questions about the data from lawmakers and the press had led to “a void” that was “filled with skepticism, cynicism and conspiracy theories, which furthered confusion.”
“In retrospect, should we have given more priority to fulfilling information requests? In my opinion, yes, and I think that’s what created the void,” said the governor, who wrote a book last year about managing the COVID-19 pandemic. “But do I understand the pressure everyone was under? Yes.”
Last week, top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa told Democratic lawmakers that the Cuomo administration had withheld data on nursing home COVID-19 deaths from state lawmakers for months because state officials “froze” over worries that the information was “going to be used against us” by the Trump administration amid a Department of Justice probe. The governor did not directly address DeRosa’s admission on Monday, although he said the state had been focused on a similar DOJ request.
Cuomo’s administration dramatically underreported the number of COVID-19 deaths among residents of New York’s long-term care facilities. A recent court order and a report from the state’s attorney general forced the administration to admit that the death toll was nearly 15,000, up from the previously disclosed 8,500 ― the lower number excluded residents who had died after being taken to hospitals. The new toll amounts to about one-seventh of New York’s 2019 nursing home population.
The news has led to a bipartisan call from state lawmakers for an investigation into why the nursing home data was kept hidden despite multiple requests last year from the New York legislature. More than a dozen Democratic state senators said Friday that they were working on drafting a bill to repeal the governor’s expanded emergency powers as soon as possible. Many Republicans have outright called for Cuomo’s resignation.
A WCBS-TV reporter asked Cuomo on Monday whether state Attorney General Letitia James should investigate him and whether he believes a potential investigation would “clear the air” about his administration’s decisions.
“I don’t think there is anything to clear here. It is a fact that the state legislature did a request, we told them we were not going to address the request at that time, that we were going to honor the DOJ request first. We said that ― that’s a fact. There’s nothing to investigate there,” Cuomo said, without detailing which lawmakers were told and when.
State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, one of the Democrats pushing to repeal Cuomo’s emergency powers, fired back at the governor after his Monday remarks.
“No … you did not tell the *entire* Senate or Assembly that there was a DOJ investigation, as the reason why you didn’t share the nursing home numbers,” Biaggi tweeted. “I found out about a DOJ investigation with the rest of NY’ers in the [New York Post] story Thursday night.”
State Sen. Julia Salazar, another Democrat, also tweeted in response to blame Cuomo: “If the Governor had actually informed the legislature months ago that his office was withholding the data they had on total nursing home deaths, there would’ve been no need for them to have a call with a group of legislators last week to inform them of this for the first time.”
Cuomo’s explanation has been that the Justice Department’s request for data was prioritized over state lawmakers’ request. But according to The New York Times, his administration responded to the Justice Department’s questions in writing by Sept. 9 of last year, while continuing to withhold the information from the state legislature until last week.