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‘The last thing we wanted to do’: Cuomo regrets New York nursing home death data ‘void’

January 18, 2021 - Albany, NY - Governor Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update from the Red Room at the State Capitol. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

Governor Andrew Cuomo admitted Monday that mistakes were made in the state’s disclosure of data regarding COVID-19 deaths in New York state’s nursing homes, but shook off allegations of wrongdoing.

During an afternoon press conference, Cuomo offered a thorough defense of his administration in the wake of another tabloid’s bombshell report that Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, apologized to state lawmakers for withholding from them the COVID-19 death data while they responded to requests last year from the federal Department of Justice.

Cuomo said he would “take responsibility for creating the void that allowed for” the spread of disinformation and politically-driven conspiracy theories about his administration’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes serving the senior population most vulnerable to COVID-19. 

Even so, the governor stopped short of making a full apology, or of embracing calls for further investigation that have surfaced since last week’s bombshell report — as well as the findings of state Attorney General Letitia James’ probe which found that the state Health Department underreported nursing home COVID-19 deaths.

He insisted that the administration acted on the level, but had suffered a months-long breakdown in communication that led to public scrutiny over its response to COVID-19 in nursing homes. 

“The void we created allowed for disinformation, and that created more anxieties for the families of loved ones,” Cuomo said. “The last thing that we wanted to do, the last thing that I wanted to do, was to aggravate a terrible situation.”

Praised at the start of the COVID-19 crisis last spring for the state’s response to it, Cuomo had been dogged for months with questions about virus-related deaths in nursing homes. Much of that scrutiny came in response to the state Health Department’s March memo on the readmission of nursing home patients who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 back into nursing homes.

That policy, Cuomo said, followed the advice provided at that time the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

“Residents leaving the hospitals were not likely to be contagious because, at that time, the viral load is so low that it’s not contagious,” the governor explained. 

Moreover, Cuomo said, the nursing homes had to agree to take the patients back on — and most of the facilities, at that point, were already dealing with many COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, hospitals were quickly filling up with COVID-19 patients and needed the additional beds to meet the demand.

The death rate in the nursing homes, the governor claimed, was not directly impacted as a result of the policy.

“COVID did not get into the nursing homes by people coming from hospitals. COVID got into the nursing homes by staff walking into the nursing homes when we didn’t even know they had COVID,” he said. Asymptomatic visitors also unknowingly brought the virus in with them and added to the infection before medical experts realized how easily COVID-19 could spread, he added.

Yet the nursing home readmission policy served as fodder for political attacks and conspiracy theories primarily from Cuomo’s political opponents. Then in August 2020, the federal Justice Department and the state legislature made requests to the Cuomo administration for full data on nursing home COVID-19 deaths.

Cuomo said his administration gave the federal request precedence in August and complied with it in full. The administration “paused the state legislature’s request,” he said, to focus on satisfying the federal request. On Friday, DeRosa had said the state legislature’s request went unfulfilled due to the second COVID-19 wave that hit last fall.

But Cuomo admitted that his administration did not do enough to fully inform the public, including the press, about the nursing home COVID-19 deaths — or to combat disinformation and political attacks connected to it. 

“The void in information that we created started misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and now people have to hear that, and they don’t know what is the truth,” Cuomo said. “The truth is you had the best medical professionals and advice on the globe. The truth is it was in the middle of a terrible pandemic. The truth is COVID attacks senior citizens. The truth is, with all we know, people still die in nursing homes.”

Yet Cuomo — when asked, as a former state attorney general, if he would have considered opening an investigation into the fiasco under another administration — suggested that he didn’t believe “there’s anything to clear here.”

“It is a fact that the state legislature did a request. We told them we weren’t going to address the request at that time, we’d honor the DOJ request first. There’s nothing to investigate there,” he said.

The administration’s failing, he suggested, was public communication, not public law.

“We should have spent more time focusing on the info request from press, from [others], because what happened, as a result was that it created a void. And when you create a void in this world at this time, something is going to fill that void,” he added.

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