Image Courtesy of NBC News
By Javier Mazariegos
The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn have opened an investigation into New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuomo has been under bipartisan backlash this past week after Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa admitted to Democrats of the state legislature in a closed-door meeting that Cuomo’s administration deliberately withheld information regarding the number of nursing home deaths after a Department of Justice request. New York Attorney General Letitia James said the deaths may have been underreported by up to 50%.
Last week, Cuomo admitted that his administration withheld the information which led to misleading figures regarding COVID-19 deaths. In his own words, he was partially responsible for creating a “void.”
“When we didn’t provide information it allowed the press, people, cynics, politicians to fill the void. When you don’t correct this information you allow it to continue and we created the void,” Cuomo told reporters on February 17.
At the start of the pandemic, Cuomo advanced a policy that encouraged nursing homes to take in recovering COVID-19 patients even if they were still testing positive for the virus. Cuomo put this into practice with a memo on March 25, which has been the crux of criticism against him from both sides of the aisle. Two months later, the order was rescinded as positive cases of COVID-19 were on the rise.
In August, the Department of Justice sent a request to each of the state governors for updates on the COVID-19 death toll. At the heels of that request, fearing the Department of Justice would use the high number of COVID-19 deaths as grounds for an investigation, Cuomo’s administration withheld the real number of deaths in nursing homes, reporting only those of nursing home residents who died in hospitals.
Secretary DeRosa explained to fellow Democrats why the administration saw it prudent to withhold the real number of deaths from not only the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice but also the Democrat-run State Legislature of New York.
“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,” said DeRosa.
According to the Albany Times-Union, DeRosa mentioned to Democratic colleagues that the Department of Justice request was coming from a “political hack” urged by then-President Donald Trump to criticize the way New York was handling the pandemic.
The New York Post broke this story last week when a transcript of the February 10 phone call from DeRosa was leaked to one of their reporters.
According to Governor Cuomo’s team, the reason for withholding the information was a lengthy data collection process as well as the fear of double-counting deaths in the early chaotic days of the major pandemic outbreak in New York. New York Health Department officials claimed that only counting hospital deaths without mentioning any nursing home deaths would ensure that no nursing home resident would be counted as both a hospital and a nursing home death.
According to NBC News, New York seemed to be the only state that worried about this issue of double counting. This claim has drawn bipartisan criticism for not finding a way to work around the problem of double counting. State officials in Minnesota, Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts said they had a similar problem which they worked around by carefully cross-referencing the data of hospital and nursing-home deaths after both had been tallied to eliminate any death counted twice.
Initially, the state reported around 8,500 persons residing in nursing homes had died when the real number of persons was closer to 15,000 when those who died outside of the hospital walls were counted.
Some Democrats have urged Republicans to not turn this into another instance of the political “blame game” and have been critical of how some Republicans have approached the problem.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee reported they would use this incident to question Biden’s nominee for Attorney General, Merrick Garland, on how he would go about investigating the problem of New York’s handling of the pandemic.
Some Democrats, including representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-D), have joined Republicans in calling for an investigation of possible mishandling of the information and maybe even violating human rights of New Yorkers regardless of the partisan implications of such a finding.
Last week, Cuomo stopped short of apologizing for the situation, saying, “Apologize? Look I have said repeatedly, we made a mistake in creating the void (…) 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.”
The updated information of the real death count in New York has been released but both Democrats and Republicans have continued to call for the suspension of Governor Cuomo’s emergency powers on account of his mishandling of both the inhabitants of nursing homes and possible attempt to cover-up the real toll of deaths that, according to the New York Attorney General’s heavy-handed 76-page report, may have resulted from his March 25 memo.