The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Andrew Cuomo’s bad ‘who cares’ answer on coronavirus nursing home data

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) departs after a news conference in May. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) earned plaudits from his constituents for his early coronavirus pandemic response for one main reason: his willingness to level with them on the state of the threat and to — seemingly — address questions with candor and humility.

That is decidedly not what happened Friday.

Facing a brutal report from his own party’s state attorney general that said the state had undercounted nursing home deaths from the virus, Cuomo essentially argued that it’s neither here nor there.

“Look, whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home, it’s — the people died,” Cuomo said. “People died. ‘I was in a hospital, I got transferred to a nursing home, and my father died.' ‘My father was in a nursing home, got transferred to a hospital, my father died.’ People died.”

It is true that the people died, and where or how they died doesn’t change that particular fact. But Cuomo repeatedly suggested that it’s of no concern — even saying at one point, defensively and ill-advisedly, “Who cares?”

“But who cares? 33 [percent]. 28 [percent]. Died in a hospital. Died in a nursing home,” Cuomo said. “They died.”

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From a public policy perspective, we should care. A death is indeed a death, but there are major and very valid questions about whether nursing home policies led to unnecessary ones. To the extent that more deaths occurred in or came from that setting, it allows us to evaluate how significant that problem was and how much corrective action is needed. Cuomo has to know that.

Indeed, this has long been a question when it comes to the initial response in the Northeast, which was particularly hard-hit at the start of the pandemic. So the idea that this data would be parsed should be no surprise. Questions about the accuracy of New York’s data on this front date back several months. Cuomo has dismissed them as politically motivated, but that defense suffered a major setback given the source of the report: his own party’s attorney general, Letitia James, whom he supported for that post.

Does it mean New York was particularly derelict on this count? Not necessarily. But the relative deaths in nursing homes could provide clues about what to do moving forward, both at a state and national level. It also raises the very real prospect of a coverup, given how much of a negative narrative this was for so many months about his handling of the virus.

The report suggests that the transparency Cuomo has played up hasn’t really taken place in New York. As the New York Times reported Thursday:

… New York State attorney general, Letitia James, reported on Thursday morning that Mr. Cuomo’s administration had undercounted coronavirus-related deaths of state nursing home residents by the thousands.
Just hours later, Ms. James was proved correct, as Health Department officials made public new data that added more than 3,800 deaths to their tally, representing nursing home residents who had died in hospitals and had not previously been counted by the state as nursing home deaths.
The state’s acknowledgment increased the overall death toll related to those facilities by more than 40 percent. Ms. James’s report had suggested that the state’s previous tally could be off by as much as 50 percent.

Elsewhere in his remarks, Cuomo suggested that New York was merely following federal guidance — while suggesting that he wasn’t actually casting blame elsewhere.

“What I would say is, everyone did the best they could,” Cuomo said. “When I say the state Department of Health, as the report said … followed federal guidance — so if you think there was a mistake, then go talk to the federal government — it’s not about pointing fingers or blame. It’s that this became a political football, right?”

But James’s report, notably, said the governor’s policy “may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities.” It said halting testing in some nursing homes might have created misleading data.

Cuomo added, while citing the death of his father, former governor Mario Cuomo (D), several years ago: “I understand maybe the instinct to blame or to find some relief for that pain that you’re feeling. But it is a tragedy. And it’s a tragedy that continues today. I believe everybody did the best they could.”

There is indeed a tendency to try to look for people to blame in such situations. But that’s because something very bad has happened, and everyone in a position of power must be open to being second-guessed and to their claims and actions being subject to scrutiny. Instead, Cuomo suggested that this is much ado about nothing — which, regardless of his actual culpability for the bad data, is hardly the pittance he implied.