New York's Handling of COVID-19 in Nursing Homes
New York state should have worked harder to fulfill requests for information from journalists and members of the state Legislature on nursing home residents who died from COVID-19 over the past year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.
In a rare concession, Cuomo said the state was wrong to stonewall lawmakers and members of the media on that data, saying it created a void for disinformation and “conspiracy theories.”
"I accept responsibility for that. I am in charge. I take responsibility,” Cuomo said. “We should have provided more information faster. We were too focused on doing the job and addressing the crisis of the moment and we did not do a good enough job in providing information."
The answer was in response to a question about the administration’s decision not to release information on deaths of nursing home residents due to COVID-19 when asked by members of the media and the state Legislature last year.
Reporters began asking Cuomo, publicly, in the spring for a detailed breakdown of nursing home residents who died from the virus, and members of the state Legislature issued a formal request to the administration for that data over the summer.
Lawmakers and the press were looking for the number of nursing home residents who died after being transferred to the hospital, along with more detailed information on those deaths.
But the state Department of Health did not release that information until late January, and only after a report from the New York Attorney General’s Office claimed the administration had undercounted those deaths.
The agency had previously only publicly reported the number of nursing home residents who died within those facilities, excluding hospital deaths from that count. Nursing home residents who died at the hospital were, instead, lumped in with all other deaths.
Information released in recent weeks has shown more than 13,000 nursing home residents died from COVID-19, both at those facilities and in hospitals. More than 4,000 residents died from the virus at the hospital — a number previously unknown to the public.
Cuomo said Monday that disclosing that information to lawmakers and the media should have been a higher priority for the administration.
"We could have spent more time answering press inquiries," Cuomo says. "In retrospect, I'm saying we should have done a better job providing public information."
The remarks came after a story from the New York Post, last week, revealed that the Cuomo administration chose to withhold that information on purpose when asked for it by lawmakers and the press.
Cuomo said Monday that the state chose to prioritize an information request from the U.S. Department of Justice on nursing home deaths over the summer, rather than disclose that information to the Legislature and the media.
The state chose to do that before reporting the information elsewhere, he said, which is why it wasn’t released until recently.
The state has also been in touch with the U.S. Department of Justice at several points in recent months, Cuomo said, with the latest correspondence received on January 8 of this year. He did not say if the federal government has closed out its inquiry.
Cuomo did not say why the state couldn’t fulfill information requests from the federal government, state lawmakers, and the media simultaneously.
But he said his office told members of the Legislature that he had to deal with the federal inquiry first, and that lawmakers were fine with that decision. Some Democrats, following Cuomo’s briefing Monday, said that message never made it to them.
“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,” said Sen. Julia Salazar, a Democrat representing part of Brooklyn.
Salazar was referring to a closed-door virtual meeting between top lawmakers in the Legislature and the Cuomo administration on the information they’d requested on nursing homes.
Last week, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, told reporters that the speaker was never informed of a probe from federal prosecutors as an excuse to delay their request for information.
The inquiry had been publicly reported in the media, but was not used by the Cuomo administration, at the time, to delay disclosure to the Legislature, the spokesman said.
“Other than what was reported in the news, the Speaker had no knowledge of an official Department of Justice inquiry,” the spokesman said.
Republicans, who’ve seized on the administration’s decision not to release more information on nursing homes over the past six months, criticized Cuomo’s comments Monday, saying the state should have the resources to fulfill multiple requests for information at once.
“This is a pathetic response coming from a man who had the time to publish and promote a book about his pandemic response while New Yorkers clamored for the truth,” Ortt said. “To be clear, the Senate Republicans were never notified by the Governor’s Administration regarding the Department of Justice request.”
A handful of lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, have publicly called for an independent investigation into the state’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, but the idea has gained little traction.
Cuomo said Monday that there was no basis for an investigation, and that lawmakers were playing politics with the situation.
“There is nothing to investigate,” Cuomo said.
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Reports say the Cuomo administration had long-sought data on nursing homes for months.
News reports, and a newly released transcript, revealed that Cuomo's top aides withheld key nursing home data from lawmakers and the press last year.
"We paused the state Legislature's request while we were finishing the DOJ request. We told both houses, the Assembly and the Senate, that we had a DOJ request for information and we were prioritizing that," Cuomo says.— Dan Clark (@DanClarkReports) February 15, 2021
Governor can claim (as he’s done) that they withheld the data bc they thought it would be used against them by the DOJ(!). But claiming they informed the legislature is a lie on top of a lie. If he’d been honest in the first place, he may have had one bad news cycle. But now?— Julia Salazar (@JuliaCarmel__) February 15, 2021