Bolstering that account, Cuomo attacked Kim as corrupt during a news conference on Wednesday. In a statement, however, Cuomo adviser Rich Azzopardi denied Kim’s account. Kim was “lying about his conversation with Governor Cuomo,” Azzopardi said — something to which he said he could attest as someone in the room during the call.
Wherever the truth lies, it seems unlikely that many New Yorkers’ opinions of Cuomo will change much based on this feud. A poll released on Tuesday from Siena College found Cuomo’s approval rating in the state is at 56 percent, down from its peak last year but still robust. Asked about his response to the coronavirus pandemic, more than 6 in 10 New Yorkers said they approved of how Cuomo was doing, including a quarter of Republicans.
But if Cuomo’s pugilism isn’t likely to erode views of his tenure, the issue at the root of his fight with Kim might. Kim’s criticism in the New York Post centered on the revelation from Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa that the state declined to provide full data to legislators on the number of nursing home residents who had died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, after the Justice Department announced a probe into the state’s handling of the pandemic.
As we explained last week, the state had for months released data only on deaths of nursing home residents and staff that occurred in the nursing homes themselves, meaning that nursing home patients who contracted the virus and succumbed to it at a hospital were counted as covid-19 deaths in general but not as nursing home-related fatalities. State legislators and reporters repeatedly asked the state to provide fuller data to that effect, without luck. It was only after New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) released more complete information that the state updated its full tally of deaths among the residents and staff of nursing homes.
The number of total deaths didn’t change, but the percentage of those deaths related to nursing homes climbed dramatically, as data from the Covid Tracking Project shows.
(Many states didn’t start reporting data specific to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for several months.)
That the state withheld a full tally of the number of deaths from nursing home residents is the second component of the crisis surrounding Cuomo and, ultimately, perhaps the most important one.
It probably doesn’t seem that way. The third component of the crisis was a March advisory from the state mandating that nursing homes accept residents discharged from hospitals even if they had tested positive for the virus. The governor’s office has argued that this was the same guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the time and was part of an effort to ensure sufficient capacity in hospitals — an effort that was ultimately not needed. But nursing homes nonetheless accepted more than 6,300 coronavirus-positive patients between March 25, when the advisory was issued, and May 10, when it was rescinded.
The state argued in a July report that this wasn’t a primary driver of nursing home-related deaths, noting that the peak in deaths at nursing homes (the line on the chart below) preceded the point at which the most coronavirus-positive patients were returning to those facilities (the columns). This doesn’t prove that no deaths resulted from those readmissions, though that report also noted that the facilities to which those patients were referred already had known coronavirus infections.
Kim, whose uncle probably died of covid-19 at a nursing home in April, told the New York Post that an apology DeRosa made on a call with legislators sounded “like they admitted that they were trying to dodge having any incriminating evidence that might put the administration or the [Health Department] in further trouble with the Department of Justice.” In his call with the assemblyman, Kim told the New York Times, Cuomo pressed him to retract the quote on the grounds that he had misheard DeRosa.
The timeline is important here. State legislators first sought nursing home death data from state administrators in early August. On Aug. 26, the Justice Department, then run by Attorney General William P. Barr, demanded data on deaths as part of a probe of several Democratic-run states — a demand quickly chalked up to President Donald Trump’s looming reelection bid. By that point, New York largely had the pandemic under control.
In late September, though, Cuomo made a claim to reporters that undercuts the idea that the data was simply being withheld out of an abundance of concern about the federal probe.
A reporter from Finger Lakes News Radio asked Cuomo at a briefing what he would say to New Yorkers who had lost family members following the March advisory. Cuomo, predictably, rejected the question as “just factually wrong.”
Then he defended the state’s handling of nursing home infections broadly.
“Do you know what number we are by percentage before you made that statement, which number? Forty-six out of 50 states,” he said. “So — and we had the worst problem. And we’re 46 in terms of percentage of deaths in nursing homes.”
At the time, fact-checkers pointed out that this was misleading: The state was explicitly not releasing full data, meaning the percentage of covid-19 deaths that had occurred in nursing homes was necessarily higher.
Cuomo went so far as to compare his order about nursing home readmissions to what Florida was doing at the time.
“Florida today is doing exactly that,” Cuomo said. “They’re forcing nursing homes to take covid-positive patients because they need the beds in the hospitals. We never got near hospital capacity” because, as he said shortly before, New York had “flattened the curve so effectively.”
It’s true that Florida had seen a surge in cases and deaths at that time.
Data suggested that about half of Florida’s deaths from covid-19 had occurred in nursing homes at the beginning of the pandemic. Over time, that percentage dropped. After New York updated its data to properly tally deaths of nursing home residents, the percentage of covid-19 deaths in the state that occurred among residents and staff jumped above the percentage seen in Florida. (If one excludes those deaths identified as “probable,” that’s not the case.)
There were apparently at least two reasons that, in late September, the state of New York was not terribly interested in revealing the true number of deaths among nursing home residents and staff. One was the reason cited by DeRosa: that the Justice Department had launched a political probe of the state’s actions. The other was the one made apparent in that Sept. 30 briefing (during which, we’ll note, DeRosa jumped in to say that it “defies logic” to blame nursing home deaths on the March advisory): that New York was simply doing better than other states on the metric.
Two weeks later, Cuomo published a book called “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” It touted his handling of the pandemic.
This article was updated with Azzopardi’s statement.