Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s political future soared with his early handling of the pandemic, but it may also turn out to be his Achilles’ heel.
Cuomo adopted a high profile in the New York state’s COVID-19 response, and became increasingly mention as a U.S. presidential candidate in 2024 or beyond.
But state Attorney General Letitia James released a 76-page report today (Jan. 28) that found serious, consistent discrepancies in the number of nursing home deaths reported by the Cuomo administration.
The attorney general said she is continuing to investigate more than 20 nursing homes across the state that “presented particular concern.”
“Other law enforcement agencies also have ongoing investigations relating to nursing homes,” she said.
The attorney general asked 62 nursing homes — about a tenth of the state’s total — for data about on-site and in-hospital COVID deaths.
The attorney general’s office found 1,914 deaths, compared to the state’s claim of 1,229 deaths. Just over 40,000 New Yorkers have died from virus or virus-related complications.
Of particular interest are circumstances “where the discrepancies cannot reasonably be accounted for by error or the difference in the question posed,” the AG’s office said.
As the pandemic accelerated from the spring into the summer, New York’s nursing home coronavirus death toll began raising eyebrows.
At the time, the state was only counting residents who died on nursing home property and not who died off premises at a hospital.
The issue had political overtones because Cuomo ordered nursing homes in March, as the pandemic was widening, to take COVID patients.
As long as they were medically stable, the notice said, it was appropriate to move patients in. Further, nursing homes were prohibited from requiring that medically stable prospective residents be tested for the virus before they arrived.
Between March 25 and May 8, an estimated 6,326 COVID-positive patients were admitted to nursing homes, according to a state health department report.
The issue came to a head at the Democratic National Convention. Cuomo used his appearance on a national stage to attack the Trump administration’s coronavirus response.
While the criticism was justified, it opened Cuomo up to charges that he had sentenced nursing home residents to death by “seeding” homes with COVID-19 patients.
“Does the #DemConvention know @NYGovCuomo forced nursing homes across NY to take in COVID positive patients and planted the seeds of infection that killed thousands of grandmothers and grandfathers?” Tweeted Michael Caputo, a Trump Department of Health and Human Services spokesman.
Cuomo has, otherwise, received high marks for his handling of the pandemic, given New York City and state were hit hard early on.
He even wrote a best-selling memoir about his performance during the crisis. But nursing homes became a sticking point.
James’ damning report contained some faint praise. It noted that Cuomo’s actions were consistent with federal guidance at that time, but still “may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities.”
For it’s part, a state health department report laid the blame for nursing home deaths on employees who may have been asymptomatic.
Patients admitted to homes, the report noted, “were no longer contagious when admitted and therefore were not a source of infection.”
James’ report also laid some of the blame on nursing home employees who “failed to comply with critical infection-control policies.”
But those actions don’t appear to explain the widespread under-reporting of nursing home deaths, and political opponents charged that it smacked of a cover up.
“The Department of Health has betrayed the public trust,” Rob Ortt, the Republican State Senate minority leader told The New York Times.
Conservatives have pressed home their attack with a lawsuit filed by the Empire Center for Public Policy, a right-wing think tank.
State Democrats have also been trying to get to the bottom of the controversy.
James Skoufis, chairman of the Senate investigations and government operations committee told The Times that he would subpoena data from the health department if necessary.
Earlier this week, he accused the state of “stonewalling” his committee.