The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo draws bipartisan ire for withholding data on nursing home deaths

The governor, who became a Democratic star for his early handling of the crisis, is accused of downplaying a key part of the coronavirus’s death toll

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), accompanied by his chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, prepares to talk to news media after meeting with President Donald Trump in New York in January 2017. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) faces a mounting political firestorm over allegations his office hid the coronavirus’s true toll in the state’s nursing homes, with new disclosures this week triggering demands for a criminal probe and bipartisan calls for him to be stripped of his emergency powers in the pandemic.

The governor, who became a Democratic star for his early handling of the crisis, is accused of downplaying a key part of the coronavirus’s deadly toll in New York by withholding data on nursing home residents who died of covid-19 in outside facilities, such as hospitals. While Republicans have been the Cuomo administration’s fiercest critics, Democrats also are calling for consequences after news reports that a top Cuomo aide told lawmakers on Wednesday they feared the coronavirus data would be “used against us.” The aide said officials “froze” after inquiries from the Department of Justice.

The aide’s admission, first reported by the New York Post, follows the New York attorney general’s announcement late last month that coronavirus deaths of nursing home residents could be twice as high as the state’s data showed. That led the state health department to add thousands of deaths to its nursing home count during a hail of criticism. Now the fallout has widened.

Republican state senators called Friday for a special session to strip Cuomo of his expanded emergency powers granted the during the pandemic. Congressional Republicans in New York asked the Justice Department to “immediately open an obstruction of justice investigation” into Cuomo and his administration, decrying an “intentional and unconscionable coverup impacting thousands of our most vulnerable residents.”

More than a dozen Democratic state senators on Friday issued a letter with their support for stripping Cuomo’s emergency powers. State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D) issued a separate statement calling for those powers to be rescinded, along with a “full investigation” and subpoena of the governor.

“At a time when we need New Yorkers to trust their elected officials the most, the governor and his administration knowingly chose to lie and play politics with New Yorkers’ lives,” Ramos said.

Even lawmakers who say they do not want a fight with the governor said the Cuomo administration owes New Yorkers an apology. State Assemblyman Ron Kim (D), who was on the Wednesday call with Cuomo’s aide, said in a Friday interview that for all the public recognition of Cuomo — “he wrote a book, he won an Emmy, he’s very popular” — his administration has made serious missteps on policy.

“If he doesn’t apologize to the public, if he doesn’t come clean with data, why it was delayed, I think all of us — not just me — will continue to have issues with this administration,” said Kim, whose uncle is presumed to have died of covid-19 in a nursing home last year.

Responding to the furor Friday, the governor’s office issued a statement from Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, whose comments this week fueled the allegations of a coverup. DeRosa said officials “needed to temporarily set aside” state legislators’ request for information last year after receiving an inquiry from the Justice Department. The governor’s office told lawmakers that at the time, the secretary said.

“We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout,” DeRosa said. “As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked. But we are committed to being better partners going forward as we share the same goal of keeping New Yorkers as healthy as possible during the pandemic.”

Health Commissioner Howard Zucker defended the state’s nursing home numbers after the state attorney general’s report describing an undercount in deaths. He has noted that the additional deaths of nursing home residents were counted in the state’s overall tallies.

Zucker said the question was one of categorization. “There was no undercount of the total death toll,” he said.

New York Sen. Rachel May (D) told The Washington Post that lawmakers have long been aware of what she called “an attempt to massage the numbers” by state officials.

“We knew what was not in those numbers,” she said of the state’s nursing home death count. “It wasn’t like we were totally ignorant of what was going on.”

“It was just that it was really frustrating that they were choosing this counting system that was clearly designed to make them look good,” she added.

Cuomo’s office was already under increasing fire for its handling of the pandemic. The New York Times reported this month that at least nine senior officials have left the state health department, including the state epidemiologist, amid concerns that the governor was sidelining experts.

Then Wednesday’s Zoom conference call — which included several Democratic committee chairs in the state Senate and Assembly — sparked a new round of criticism.

Asked about delays in providing information, DeRosa said that state lawmakers’ inquiries last year came as “President Trump turns this into a giant political football,” according to a partial transcript of the call provided by the governor’s office.

“He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes. He starts going after [New Jersey Gov. Phil] Murphy, starts going after [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom, starts going after [Michigan Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer,” DeRosa said, noting that President Donald Trump directed the Justice Department to investigate in New York.

“And basically, we froze, because then 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, what we start saying was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” DeRosa said, according to the transcript. “That played a very large role into this.”

Officials asked to “pause on getting back to everybody until we get through this period and we know what’s what with the DOJ,” she said, noting that the Justice Department never seemed to go through with an investigation.

Pressed on nursing home residents’ deaths in hospitals and other outside locations, Zucker told lawmakers over the summer he was not ready to give a number. The state legislature wrote to the health department on Aug. 20 with questions about the missing nursing home data and other issues. Six days later, the Justice Department requested information on nursing home deaths too.

The state Senate and Assembly got the health department’s response to their questions this week.

New York Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt (R) said in an interview Friday that there is enough support in the Senate to remove Cuomo’s expanded pandemic emergency powers. Republicans have attempted that unsuccessfully many times, he said, but now they have significant Democratic backing.

Just across the Hudson River from Albany, Rensselaer County Executive Steven F. McLaughlin, a Republican, also had harsh words for the governor — as he has consistently since the start of the pandemic.

Last March, McLaughlin said he defied a Cuomo directive to accept elderly coronavirus patients discharged from hospitals into Van Rensselaer Manor, the county-run nursing home. Rather than broadcast his decision, McLaughlin said he simply refused the admissions, unless an individual tested negative for the virus.

Speaking on the fallout over the nursing home death counts, McLaughlin called Cuomo “the head of a criminal conspiracy.”

“They have lied to the people of New York repeatedly for months, for close to a year now, and he needs to resign and take his senior staff with him,” McLaughlin, who has sparred frequently with the Democratic governor, said. “They have lost all moral authority to lead the state.”

Cuomo is not the only high-profile leader coming under increased scrutiny of his performance in the pandemic. On the West Coast, Newsom (D) has seen his political standing slip as the virus raged out of control in his states to the point Southern California hospitals were stretched to their limits this winter and oxygen ran low.

Like Cuomo, Newsom received early plaudits for his handling of the pandemic with one of the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home orders when many politicians were reluctant to take that step. But he has also faced backlash for his administration’s abrupt rollout of several policy initiatives to curb the spread of the virus. Democrats have been increasingly critical of the governor, though they have not been as sharp in their criticism as New York legislators frustrated by Cuomo.

Newsom faced strong criticism after the San Francisco Chronicle reported in November that he attended a birthday party with at least a dozen people from different households at an upscale French restaurant in Napa — the kind of gathering his administration urged Californians to avoid.

Republican activists in the state launched an effort to boot him from office with a mid-March deadline looming to submit 1.5 million signatures to qualify a recall election for the ballot. The Public Policy Institute of California conducted polling in January showing his approval rating slipped from a 64 percent record high in May to 52 percent — a narrow majority in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

Ben Guarino contributed to this report.