Suddenly on-the-defensive New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo admitted Monday that some data on Covid-19 deaths of nursing home residents was late and incomplete but flatly denied a cover up in his first public comments as controversial statements by a top aide last week risk tarnishing his reputation as a national political and media star in the fight against coronavirus.
“The truth is everybody did the best they could,” the governor said at a press briefing on Monday. “The truth is it was the middle of a terrible pandemic. The truth is, Covid attacks older people. The truth is, with all we know, people still die.”
The nursing home scandal has been slow brewing but exploded after reports that Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa acknowledged during a video call that Albany was slow in providing data requested by state legislators. She said it wanted to deal first with information requests from the Department of Justice and basically “froze,” concerned that figures might be used against it by the former Trump administration.
Cuomo, however, told the briefing that his overworked and dedicated staff had been too busy to respond quickly and thoroughly enough to inquiries by the press and families of Covid victims. That created an information vacuum, he said, that was filled with “skepticism and cynicism and conspiracy theories.”
“I understand the public had many questions and the press had many questions and concerns about nursing homes and I understand that they were not answered quickly enough, and they should have been prioritized. But there was a lot going on. Everybody was overwhelmed. They were answering the DOJ.”
“Nature abhors a vacuum, so does the political system. If you don’t provide information, someone will… The void we created allowed disinformation and that created more anxiety for loved ones,” he said.
“It’s not like people were in the South of France on vacation,” he added. “We were here every day. [But] We should have fielded questions faster.”
In releasing nursing home death tolls, critics had pointed out that the Cuomo administration did not include as nursing home deaths the deaths of nursing home patients who ultimately died in hospitals. All deaths in nursing homes were reported and all deaths in hospitals were reported, Cuomo noted. The state had earlier been accused of recklessly releasing infected patients into nursing homes, which Cuomo has repeatedly denied and did so again vehemently on Monday.
But DeRosa’s comments sparked fresh outrage on the left and right with calls for an investigation. A bipartisan group of state senators has called for the removal of the governor’s emergency powers granted during the pandemic. Some local GOP officials have even raised the possibility of impeachment.
Cuomo’s suddenly defensive stance is a sharp contrast to his status as golden boy governor who turned New York from the terrifying epicenter of the global pandemic into a state with one of the lowest infection rates in the nation, and wrote a book about how he did it (American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic). He was voted in as chair of the National Governors Association and gleefully trashed the Trump administration’s Covid response in widely viewed press briefings.
On Monday, Cuomo insisted that preparing data for the DOJ, which requested nursing home information in July and in October, took precedence over requests from state lawmakers, and that lawmakers were aware. He implied their outrage was disingenuous as well as cruel in creating a false impression among some whose loved ones had died in nursing homes that the deaths could have been averted. He brought up his own self doubts when caring for his ill father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo.
“My father didn’t die in a nursing home. He had a heart ailment for a long period of time and looked to me and I talked to doctors and I was responsible to help him. And I often think about if I did everything that I could. Did I make all the right decisions?”
Asked by a journalist if an investigation might help to clear the air, he said, “I don’t think there is anything to clear here… All the numbers we provided were right. We didn’t provide all the numbers that were requested and that created a void and confused people and allowed conspiracy theories to fester [in a] politically toxic environment.”
Cuomo’s woes comes as, on the opposite coast, another prominent Democrat, his California counterpart Gov. Gavin Newsom, is facing a recall campaign for his handling of the pandemic. His opponents said they have hit the 1.5 million signatures — which need to be verified — required for a proposal.
Separately today, Governor Cuomo extended overnight subway service in NYC by two hours as the city moves towards reopening. The system will only be down between 2-4 am starting Feb. 22 to clean the subway cars. That’s just before he’s allowed large venues across the state (seating 10,000 or more) to reopen at 10% capacity with Covid-tested fans. The will impact mostly sports venues but holds the promise of reviving live entertainment as well. A 100 day-festival of live events called NY Pops Up is set to start Feb. 20.
Cuomo allowed reduced capacity indoor dining to resume in the city on last Friday and just extended opening hours for restaurants and bars in the state by an hour to 11 pm.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.