New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s cover-up of his nursing home death cover-up isn’t going so swimmingly.
You may remember that when we last left the defiant satrap of the Empire State, he and his aides were trying to defend their decision to slow-walk official numbers on nursing home deaths from COVID-19, numbers that were a dramatic undercount due to New York’s curious practice of not counting patients who died in the hospital as nursing home deaths.
The issue was magnified due to the fact that the Democratic governor had ordered those homes to accept COVID-positive patients who had been discharged from the hospital.
As The New York Times noted in its original February coverage of the matter, just a few weeks after New York Attorney General Letitia James delivered a damning report that said deaths in nursing homes “may have been undercounted by as much as 50 percent,” top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa told state Democrats there was a reason the administration didn’t give them an accurate count.
The explanation? DeRosa said the Cuomo administration “froze” last summer when the Department of Justice asked it to provide an accurate count of nursing home deaths.
“We were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice, or what we give to you guys, and what we start saying, was going to be used against us and we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” DeRosa told state Democrats.
Well, if a New York Times report from Wednesday is to be believed, there was a whole lot more freezing going on than that.
According to The Times, the Cuomo administration had been “repeatedly overruling state health officials over a span of at least five months, according to interviews and newly unearthed documents.”
This included a scientific paper on the subject that went unpublished, an audit of the nursing home death numbers that was only released months after it was finished and a state Health Department report that was rewritten by Cuomo’s people to conform to the official line that the governor’s order played no part in nursing home deaths.
“As the first wave hit New York in March 2020, the administration put in place a policy to prevent nursing homes from turning away patients discharged from hospitals after treatment for Covid-19,” The Times reported. “Some critics blamed the approach for the large number of resident deaths in the spring, a toll that the administration then put at around 6,000.
“But by the time the policy was rescinded less than two months later, it had become clear that not all the deaths were being included in that tally: Those who died after being transferred to hospitals were not counted as nursing home deaths. Lawmakers and others began asking for a complete count of all resident deaths, but the governor’s aides said parsing the numbers was difficult because of a fear of double counting, among other possible errors.”
Concerns about accuracy, The Times reported, were often used by Cuomo’s aides to delay numbers.
“Even as internally, health officials had increasing confidence in the statistics on nursing home deaths, by May, it was clear to lawmakers and others that the Cuomo administration was not including residents who had died in hospitals in its tally of nursing home deaths,” the report said. “State officials said they could not release the figures because of the possibility of ‘double counting’ or other issues in the data.
“It was the primary reason given by Dr. [Howard] Zucker, the health commissioner, during a pair of hearings on nursing homes at the State Legislature in August. ‘When the data comes in,’ he testified, ‘then I will be happy to provide that data to you.'”
The problem is that the data was already in and would soon be in again. Aides to Cuomo knew in early spring 2020 that the numbers were way off, The Times reported, and Health Department statistics confirmed the state had over 9,000 deaths from nursing homes, as opposed to the 6,000 it was reporting.
After the August hearings, DeRosa — not trusting the Health Department numbers — had one of Cuomo’s top coronavirus advisers meet with the Health Department to go over the deaths. While he flagged roughly 600 as being questionable, that still left over 9,000 — well more than the state was reporting, The Times reported.
And then there was the Health Department report on nursing home deaths and whether Cuomo’s forced readmittance policy had anything to do with the spread of COVID-19. On June 18, DeRosa sent an email to Cuomo aides and other health officials indicating she wished to steer the report so it confirmed the governor’s narrative.
“We are getting anxious over here on this report,” DeRosa wrote, before presenting what she thought were the points the report should expound “from my perspective.”
All of them, The Times reported, were points that lent credence to the idea readmitting the patients had nothing to do with COVID spread.
This led to a final report that said residents admitted from hospitals “were not a driver of nursing home infections or fatalities.” However, it was extensively rewritten by Cuomo aides — and an original draft report noted the limitations in analyzing whether the policy had any effect on infections and deaths.
The draft also included the death total: 9,739 by the end of May, far higher than the state had announced.
Cuomo’s team in Albany continued to dither when it came to releasing an accurate death count, leaning on the 600-ish deaths that were flagged as questionable. Many — including Gareth Rhodes, the coronavirus adviser who met with the Health Department and flagged those deaths — had urged Cuomo to release the numbers to state legislators.
While the state provided the accurate death count to the DOJ in September, it still slow-walked state legislators who wanted to see the data.
In October, a draft letter from Zucker to the State Assembly speaker revealing the death toll went unsent; it’s unclear why, although one assumes the health commissioner didn’t just forget about it.
In addition to the shopworn accuracy argument, the governor and his coterie claimed the tally was being used as a partisan cudgel.
“On the numbers, there’s a lot of politics being played,” Cuomo said during an Oct. 12 news conference when asked about sharing the data with the public or state politicians. And there was politics being played, just not in the way the governor said.
Take how Elkan Abramowitz, Cuomo’s lawyer, framed it: “The chamber responded to the DOJ request with what they deemed to be totally accurate numbers,” he said. “They didn’t want to have a public debate about other numbers at the same time.”
“What’s going on in the press now is exactly what the chamber wanted to avoid while William Barr was AG,” Abramowitz added, referring to former President Donald Trump’s attorney general.
This is supposed to be the guy defending the governor; he believes it’s exculpatory to argue that Cuomo didn’t want to publicly disclose how badly he’d bungled the response to COVID-19 while there was a Republican president because telling the truth might have been worse for Cuomo then. Just throwing that out there.
The Times’ report comes on top of a heap of other headaches for Cuomo.
For instance, consider the fact all of this numerical prestidigitation on COVID deaths in nursing homes was going on as Cuomo was pitching a $4 million book deal on his leadership.
As The Times reported, Cuomo is now under investigation by Attorney General James for misusing state resources to write the book — and one assumes the unctuous tome it produced, “American Crisis,” probably wouldn’t have been commissioned or published if those nursing home numbers were public.
To top it all off, James is also investigating numerous claims of sexual impropriety by Cuomo.
Unsurprisingly, Abramowitz still maintains Cuomo was merely concerned about accuracy and didn’t trust the numbers, despite plenty of evidence he’d been thoroughly apprised numerous times about how many deaths there had been.
“The whole brouhaha here is overblown to the point where there are cynical suggestions offered for the plain and simple truth that the chamber wanted only to release accurate information that they believed was totally unassailable,” Abramowitz said.
Essentially, then, Cuomo’s people are diligently working on the cover-up to the cover-up about the cover-up.
The data don’t change — and neither, it seems, do the excuses.
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