ALBANY — Many state Democrats joined Republicans’ cries Friday for an independent investigation into the state’s delay in releasing COVID-19 death data in New York nursing homes and rescinding Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s broadened authority lawmakers granted at the start of the pandemic last March.
Legislative leaders in both chambers are discussing the potential for an independent probe into the state’s COVID deaths in congregate facilities after Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa admitted to Democratic lawmakers in a private Zoom call this week that the administration intentionally underreported total nursing home fatalities. She said it was done out of fear of political retaliation from former President Donald Trump and federal prosecutors.
“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,” DeRosa said to Sen. James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, according to a partial transcript from the governor’s office. “What we start saying was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation.”
Cuomo did not have a regularly scheduled COVID-19 briefing Friday because of an 11:15 a.m. meeting at the White House with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other U.S. governors to discuss the amount of aid for states and localities in the next coronavirus relief package.
The New York Post first reported DeRosa’s statements Thursday night after obtaining a recording of Wednesday’s two-hour closed virtual meeting between Cuomo’s top aides and several Democratic legislators, including Sens. Rachel May, who chairs the Aging Committee; Gustavo Rivera, the Health Committee chairman; and Skoufis, who chairs the Investigations and Government Operations Committee.
The state’s reported total of COVID-19 deaths in congregate care facilities has increased nearly 60% over the last two weeks to 15,049 people in adult care facilities who died from the virus as of Feb. 9, including 4,122 nursing home resident deaths that took place outside the facility. The state Health Department reported 8,951 total COVID-19 nursing home fatalities Jan. 27.
The state was mandated to release additional death figures Wednesday night in response to a court order and advocates increased demand for an investigation with subpoena power into the state’s handling of the crisis in congregate facilities.
“We said we would release additional data once our audit was complete and ahead of the commissioner’s budget testimony — We’re doing that,” Health Department spokesman Gary Holmes said in a statement Friday.
The U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to Cuomo on Aug. 26 of last year requesting COVID-19 data because of a March 25, 2020, Health Department memo that allowed virus-positive nursing home patients to return to the facility to recover. Many people argue the directive may have contributed to the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.
The governor’s office did not release what data was sent to the Justice Department, or when.
In a statement Friday, DeRosa defended what she said to Skoufis.
“I was explaining that when we received the DOJ inquiry, we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request to deal with the federal request first,” she said. “We informed the houses of this at the time. 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.
“As I said on a call with legislators,” she added, “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 ...”
The Justice Department sent a subsequent inquiry Oct. 28 about the state’s nursing home data, according to the governor’s office. The department did not respond Friday to requests for an update on the inquiry or what data the state provided the federal government.
Fourteen Democratic senators called for the immediate repeal of Cuomo’s emergency powers and broadened spending authority Friday that the state Legislature approved March 3 in response to COVID-19.
May, Rivera and Skoufis were three of the 14 representatives on the joint statement, which included Democratic Sens. Alessandra Biaggi, Jabari Brisport, Samra Brouk, Jeremy Cooney, Andrew Gounardes, Robert Jackson, John C. Liu, John Mannion, Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, Julia Salazar and James Sanders.
“We urge the Senate to advance and adopt a repeal as expeditiously as possible,” according to the senators’ joint statement Friday. “... it is clear that the expanded emergency powers granted to the Governor are no longer appropriate.”
Cuomo’s executive authority to issue directives is set to expire April 30.
Senators in the Republican minority conference have presented a resolution to rescind Cuomo’s broadened powers since session began Jan. 6.
“For months, my colleagues have been accused of playing politics when in reality, we are trying to get answers for the thousands of families who lost loved ones in nursing homes,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said Friday. “The leaked tape of the secret meeting held between administration officials and legislative Democrats confirms that not only did Cuomo’s office deliberately withhold information from the public and the Legislature, they did it to obstruct justice and dodge a federal investigation.
“It’s an absolute dereliction of duty and breach of public trust, and everyone involved must be held accountable,” he added.
Assembly Republicans met for two hours Friday afternoon to discuss the issue. Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, R-Pulaski, said members of the minority are upset by the Cuomo administration’s dishonesty.
Barclay, Assemblymember Kevin Byrne, R-Mahopac, as well as Republicans in both chambers held press conferences and released statements, standing united in calls for Attorney General Letitia James — who released a report two weeks ago that officials underreported COVID-19 nursing home deaths by about half — or another special prosecutor to conduct an investigation.
They pushed their Democratic colleagues to act in holding a series of public hearings and subpoenaing Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and other witnesses.
The Assembly leader doubted the Cuomo’s administration and Health Department officials will admit to mistakes.
“I’m sure they’re going to argue they’ve done nothing wrong,” Barclay said.