ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo, his administration and the state Health Department’s delay in releasing New York’s total number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes created a void that allowed for the spread of misinformation, he said Monday.
In the state Capitol on Monday, Cuomo publicly addressed controversy surrounding the nursing home deaths for the first time in many weeks after reports that a top aide admitted the administration intentionally delayed publishing the total number of nursing home fatalities out of fear of political retaliation from former President Donald Trump and federal prosecutors.
Calls from Democrats and Republicans alike have increased over the last five days for an independent investigation into the state’s COVID-19 policies in nursing homes and its six-month delay to release total virus death counts in congregate facilities to the state Legislature.
Cuomo said Monday that the information delay created a void that backfired.
“We made a mistake in creating the void when we didn’t provide information — we should have done a better job at addressing misinformation,” Cuomo said during one of his longest coronavirus briefings since the pandemic began. “In retrospect, we should have prioritized providing more information.”
More than 15,000 New York nursing home residents died from COVID-19 complications since the state’s first official case March 1 of last year, including those outside the facility in hospitals or hospice, as well as presumed virus fatalities when testing was scarce at the start of the pandemic. The state reported just under 9,000 deaths at the end of January.
Cuomo argued his administration did not intentionally underreport the state’s number of nursing home deaths, but paused gathering nursing home data requested by the Legislature in August because of a federal inquiry about New York’s COVID-19 deaths in congregate facilities.
“We paused the state Legislature’s request while we were finishing the (U.S. Department of Justice) request,” Cuomo said. “We told both houses, the Assembly and the Senate, that we had DOJ request for information and we were prioritizing that. We did give the DOJ request precedence and we told both houses that.”
The Justice Department sent a letter to Cuomo on Aug. 26, 2020, requesting COVID-19 data because of a March 25 state Health Department memo that allowed virus-positive nursing home patients to return to a facility to recover. The order was replaced in early May 2020.
The Justice Department’s letter was a request for data from public nursing homes, or about 26 facilities, including five state-run facilities and a number of county-run sites.
“Data had to be collected and reviewed,” Cuomo’s special counsel Beth Garvey said Monday. “I believe it was 26 nursing homes that we provided voluminous documentation on and all of that had to be verified.”
Justice Department counsel sent a subsequent inquiry Oct. 28 requesting data from the state’s private nursing homes, according to the governor’s office.
“We have been voluntarily producing information on that on a rolling basis as recently as January 8 as offered by DOJ,” Cuomo said.
The governor’s office has not specifically released what data was sent to the Justice Department.
The Justice Department did not respond Monday to requests for an update on the inquiry or what data the state provided the federal government.
Cuomo’s top aides told top Assembly and Senate staff about the DOJ inquiry after some legislative leaders said they did not know about the federal request.
“There was no secret about the DOJ letters,” Cuomo said. “They were in the newspapers ... So we told both houses through the staff. That’s communication on the day-to-day basis.”
Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said chamber Republicans were not notified about the Justice Department request from Cuomo’s administration.
The governor said his team worked tirelessly 24 hours a day, which added to the delay for information.
“Everyone was busy; everybody was here every day,” Cuomo said. “We’re in the midst of managing a pandemic. There was a delay in providing the press and the public all that additional information.
“The void allowed misinformation and conspiracy, and now people are left with the thought of, ‘Did my loved one have to die?’ And that is a brutal, brutal question to pose to a person. ... Everything was done by the best minds in the best interest and the last thing we wanted to do — the last thing that I wanted to do was to aggravate a terrible situation.”
Ortt blasted Cuomo for not apologizing and shifting blame.
“The governor’s major excuse for the failure of his Administration to provide accurate, timely information to the public was, ‘We were busy,’” Ortt said in a statement. “This is a pathetic response coming from a man who had the time to publish and promote a book about his pandemic response while New Yorkers clamored for the truth.
“People want the truth and the only way that can be provided is through investigations by the Department of Justice and the attorney general.”
Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, R-Pulaski, has called for an independent investigation with subpoena power for months, and said the governor’s poor reasons for withholding the data are proof the Legislature must petition or pass legislation to move forward with a probe.
“The governor’s deflections and finger-pointing have run their course,” Barclay said in a statement. “If, as the governor claims, the inquiry from the federal Department of Justice occupied so much time and attention, why not release the information that was ultimately given to federal authorities?”
The Health Department has about 5,000 workers, Barclay said.
“That would seem to be enough manpower to ensure requests are fulfilled in an efficient manner,” he continued. “The time for the governor’s spin is over.”
For nearly a year, Cuomo has defended the state’s March 25 memo, which he said followed federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services guidance from March 13, and March 23 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Health experts, at the time, believed asymptomatic COVID-19 patients did not spread the disease. The CDC released a subsequent report last June that asymptomatic virus patients are contagious.
State nursing homes are required to not accept a patient unless they can provide the proper care, including personal protective equipment, staffing and ability to section an area for quarantining.
“If they don’t do that, they violate the law,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo also reiterated the March 25 directive was put in place at a time when state officials were scrambled to reduce hospital capacity. The state’s high projection of COVID-19 hospitalizations was 140,000 people last spring.
The state will propose for-profit nursing home reforms in upcoming 30-day budget amendments to the Legislature ahead of the April 1 budget deadline, Cuomo said. Proposals will include a state mandate for how an adult care center’s profit is returned to improve the facility.
Officials report 365 of the state’s 613 nursing homes received a virus patient from a hospital. Cuomo said about 98% of the 365 facilities already had confirmed cases of COVID-19 or virus exposure before hospital patients re-entered a nursing home.
“COVID did not get into the nursing homes by people coming from hospitals — COVID got into the nursing homes by staff walking into the nursing homes when we didn’t even know we had COVID,” Cuomo said. “COVID may have been brought into a nursing home because visitors brought it in and didn’t know they were contagious because the guidance was, you can only be contagious if you have symptoms: if you’re sneezing, if you’re coughing.
“That turned out to be wrong,” he added. “That’s how COVID got into the nursing homes.”