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Woulda, coulda, shoulda: Cuomo concedes mishandling of nursing home deaths 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo explained his administration's policy on nursing home deaths during a news briefing on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo explained his administration's policy on nursing home deaths during a news briefing on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo broke days of silence Monday over escalating accusations that he and his top aides deliberately withheld for months key COVID-19 death numbers of nursing home residents who succumbed to the virus — and apologized to the families of the estimated 15,000 long-term care residents who died for the anxiety that  the withholding of those numbers created for them.

In a rare admission of error, Cuomo said the months-long secrecy by his administration over the accurate number of nursing home residents who died of the virus, created a “void.” In a “toxic political environment,” he said, that void became filled with confusion, misinformation and conspiracy theories.

“And now people are left with the thought, ‘Did my loved one have to die?’ And that is a brutal, brutal question to pose to a person,” Cuomo said. “Everything was done by the best minds in the best interest. And the last thing that I wanted to do was to aggravate a terrible situation.”

In a statement, Senate Minority Republican Leader Robert Ortt said it was the governor who conducted a “disinformation campaign” about the actual number of nursing home deaths, and that the governor on Monday failed to adequately take the blame and apologize.

Cuomo repeated a defense first given by his chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, in a Feb. 3 private meeting with top Democratic lawmakers that was later leaked to news media outlets. The governor said Department of Health staff were busy trying to fulfill a request by the federal Justice Department, for more information on nursing home deaths, in what they feared was a prelude to a federal investigation. He said they didn’t have time to also comply with requests by Senate and Assembly committees for similar information.

“Federal government took precedence,” Cuomo said. “We told the Assembly that, we told the Senate that.”

The governor’s defense is unlikely to satisfy his critics, including Democratic and Republican members of the legislature. They say the DOJ request did not come until late August, and they had been seeking the accurate nursing home death total since the previous April.

Legislative leaders also say that they were not told by Cuomo and his aides of the existence of the DOJ inquiry. The governor later clarified that the legislative staff was notified, but that he did not talk directly to legislative leaders.

Cuomo also continued to say that his controversial March 25 directive that required nursing homes to take back residents who had been hospitalized with COVID did not increase the number of deaths. He said he agrees with a July report by his health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, that concluded that asymptomatic staff and visitors brought the disease into the homes.

Cuomo also defended Zucker, who has been a target of criticism. He said he fully trusts his health commissioner’s judgement, and believes that Zucker has always acted using the best scientific knowledge available at the time.

“I would trust Dr. Zucker with my mother’s care,” Cuomo said. “That’s why I trust him with your mother’s care.”

A bi-partisan group of critics have called for a full investigation by the state’s Attorney General and the federal Justice Department into how the Health Department has handled nursing home policy during the pandemic. A Jan. 28 report by Attorney General Tish James that found the Cuomo administration had undercounted nursing home deaths led to the Health Department’s first disclosure of the numbers.

Cuomo said he does not think an investigation is necessary.

The attorney general’s report was also highly critical of the state’s for-profit nursing homes, finding poor adherence to proper infection controls and providing inadequate personal protective equipment to staff.

Cuomo is proposing a crackdown on those homes. He said he’s crafting legislation in the state budget to enact reforms.

Karen DeWitt covers Albany for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY.
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