Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the first time Monday acknowledged a lack of transparency in his administration’s initial reporting of coronavirus deaths in New York nursing homes, admitting that the “void” of information furthered disinformation and induced anxiety amid a deadly pandemic.
Cuomo, who was a Democratic favorite early in the crisis, admitted that his administration did not promptly answer questions from the public and media about the number of residents in New York’s nursing homes and long-term-care facilities who died from covid-19 — now more than 13,000. He said that delayed response allowed for a void “filled with skepticism, cynicism and conspiracy theories which furthered the confusion.” But Cuomo, not directly apologizing, defended his administration’s actions in the face of an unprecedented strain.
“If you could do it all over again,” Cuomo said, “I understand the public had questions and concerns and the press had many questions about nursing homes.”
Cuomo’s remarks come days after his top aide Melissa DeRosa admitted in a call with state lawmakers that the administration “froze” handling an inquiry sent from the Legislature about the data while it handled a request sent by the Department of Justice regarding the deaths. In DeRosa’s conversation with lawmakers, first reported by the New York Post, she said the administration feared that the data would be “used against us.”
DeRosa clarified her remarks when the call came out, saying the Legislature’s request was “temporarily set aside” to “deal with” the federal inquiry.
“As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked,” she wrote in the statement.
Cuomo has come under fire, especially from Republicans, after nursing homes in the state accepted coronavirus-positive patients under a controversial directive from his administration.
More than 9,000 recovering coronavirus patients were transferred to nursing homes early in the pandemic, The Associated Press reported.
New York’s attorney general Letitia James in late January reported that nursing home resident deaths were undercounted by as much as 50%. Shortly after, the state’s reported death toll increased by thousands.
Echoing what his aide admitted to lawmakers, Cuomo said his administration “paused” answering lawmakers, repeating an assertion that they were prioritizing the federal inquiry over the letter from the state Legislature.
The federal inquiry was responded to by early September while lawmakers’ questions went unanswered, The New York Times reported. His administration has maintained that it asked the lawmakers for more time in September, explaining that it was dealing with a federal inquiry.
New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not know about questions from the Justice Department other than what was reported by news outlets, spokesman Mike Whyland said Monday. Whyland said Cuomo’s administration told — not asked — lawmakers about the delay to fulfill their request.
“Let me be clear, the Governor’s office reached out to staff and said they needed more time to supply information requested by the members,” he tweeted. “They were not asking for permission and it wasn’t a negotiation. It was merely a heads up.”
Republican state senators have called for a special session to strip Cuomo of his expanded emergency powers granted during the pandemic. The controversy has pitted Democratic lawmakers against the governor too.
“At no point did the Administration notify the legislature about a DOJ investigation,” Democratic state Sen. Jessica Ramos tweeted. “People died and Cuomo lied then he had the gall to write a book.”
Cuomo has advertised an upcoming book about his handling of the pandemic.
On Monday, Cuomo faulted the void created by his government on the stress the staff was under coordinating a response to the virus and deaths and planning for a vaccine rollout.
“In retrospect, should we have given more priority to fulfilling information requests?” he asked. “In my opinion, yes, and I think that’s what created the void. But do I understand the pressure everyone was under? Yes.”
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