New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his top aides were facing new allegations Friday that they covered up the scope of the death toll in New York’s nursing homes from the coronavirus, after admissions that they withheld data in an effort to forestall potential investigations into state misconduct.
The latest revelations came in the wake of private remarks by the Governor’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, and a cascading series of reports and court orders that have nearly doubled the state’s official toll of nursing home deaths in the last two weeks.
The disclosures have left Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, scrambling to contain the political fallout, as lawmakers of both parties call for censure, including stripping the Governor of his emergency powers during the pandemic, federal and state investigations, and resignations of Ms. DeRosa and other top officials.
In a conversation first reported on by the New York Post, Ms. DeRosa told a group of top lawmakers Wednesday during a call to address the nursing home situation that “basically, we froze,” after being asked over the summer for information by the Trump administration’s Department of Justice.
At the time, the Governor’s office was simultaneously facing requests from the state Legislature for similar information.
“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,” Ms. DeRosa told lawmakers, according to a partial transcript obtained by the New York Times.
The news of Ms. DeRosa’s remarks sparked a flurry of angry denunciations, including from Mr. Cuomo’s fellow Democrats.
“This is a betrayal of the public trust,” state Senator Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat from Brooklyn, said on Twitter. “There needs to be full accountability for what happened.”
Condemnation was even louder from Republicans, who have seized on Mr. Cuomo’s performance on nursing homes – where more than 10,000 New Yorkers have died during the pandemic, but the state long stalled on releasing full data – as evidence of duplicity or even criminality.
“It is time to move past the lies and finally uncover the full truth,” said Representative Tom Reed, a Republican, who called for a federal investigation Thursday night.
Early Friday, Ms. DeRosa, the top non-elected official in the state, sought to clarify the context for her remarks, saying she was trying to explain that “we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request to deal with the federal request first.”
“We informed the houses of this at the time,” she said, referring to the upper and lower chambers of the Legislature.
She added that the administration was “comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout.”
“As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfil their request as quickly as anyone would have liked,” she said.
The revelation of Ms. DeRosa’s remarks comes two weeks after a damning report from Letitia James, the state’s attorney-general, who accused the Cuomo administration of undercounting coronavirus related deaths connected to nursing homes by the thousands.
The report forced the state’s health department to make public more than 3,800 previously unreported deaths of residents who died outside a care facility, such as those who died in hospital, and whose numbers had not been included in the state’s official nursing home tally.
Since then, the number of deaths connected to New York nursing homes and long-term care facilities has only ballooned, to about 15,000 confirmed and presumed deaths, from 12,743 in late January, as of this week.
The administration released the latest figures as a result of a court order following a six-month battle between the Cuomo administration and the Empire Center, a conservative-leaning think tank, which requested a full accounting of nursing home deaths under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
The virtual meeting this week among Ms. DeRosa and other senior administration officials, including Mr. Cuomo’s health commissioner and budget director, and top Democratic state lawmakers was intended to bridge a growing rift between the Governor’s office and the Legislature.
The Legislature held hearings in early August on the administration’s handling of the coronavirus in nursing homes in which legislators repeatedly questioned state health commissioner Howard Zucker on the full extent of deaths linked to nursing homes. Lawmakers, however, were unsatisfied with Dr. Zucker’s failure to disclose the number of resident deaths outside nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
A few weeks later, the state Senate and Assembly formally wrote to the health department requesting those figures, as well as additional information.
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