Gov. Andrew Cuomo discussed his administration's handing of the COVID-19 crisis in long-term care facilities on Feb. 15.
Courtesy photo: Darren McGee/Office of the Governor

At his first media briefing since the leak of a recorded private conversation between a top aide and Democratic State Senators, Gov. Andrew Cuomo yesterday doubled down in defense of his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis in nursing homes.

The governor said New York ranks 34th out of 50 states in nursing home deaths as a percentage of total COVID-19 deaths. He put New York’s percentage of total deaths at 30% of its total deaths. He singled out three other states with a higher percentage of total deaths: Pennsylvania at 52%, Florida at 34% and Massachusetts at 54%. He said New York had 13,000 nursing home deaths.

But the figures quoted by the governor were misleading.

According to the most recent data released by the State Department of Health, New York’s total long-term care COVID deaths numbered 15,190 as of yesterday — 41% of the state’s total 37,221 fatalities. The 15,190 fatality total includes 13,417 nursing home residents, 961 adult care residents and 812 assisted living residents.

Cuomo pulled out the nursing home number alone and quoted that incorrectly — he said it was 13,000, though state data put the number at 13,417.

But he accurately quoted the percentage-of deaths numbers for Pennsylvania, Florida and Massachusetts, as reported on the COVID Tracking Project website. The data reported there include nursing homes, adult care facilities and assisted living facilities.

So, in making the case for how well New York has done compared to other states, the governor compared a partial number for New York to total long-term care numbers for the other states.

Cuomo allowed that his administration did not handle communications well. It did not timely respond to requests for information from the public and the press, which “created a void” that he said was filled by “misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories.”

“In retrospect, we should have prioritized providing more information,” he said.

Cuomo said his administration delayed responding to state lawmakers’ requests for information about nursing home fatalities so that it could first respond to an inquiry on the same subject made at about the same time by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The governor did not address a statement made by his aide Melissa DeRosa to Democratic lawmakers last Wednesday that administration officials “froze” after receiving the DOJ inquiry last summer, because state officials “weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to (state legislators) …was going to be used against us.”

A recording of the conversation was leaked to the New York Post, which reported on it Thursday.

The report led to bipartisan blowback, with some lawmakers accusing the administration of a coverup and obstruction of justice and calling for resignations and independent investigations.

Cuomo, like DeRosa during the call with lawmakers, said the DOJ inquiry was politically motivated and accused the Trump justice department of taking aim at Democratic state governors in New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Cuomo said the administration prioritized answering the DOJ inquiry and “paused the state legislature’s request” so they could answer the DOJ’s August inquiry and a second DOJ inquiry in October.

DeRosa told lawmakers last week that before the administration could address the legislature’s inquiries, “the second wave happened” and the “vaccine rollout started.”

On Jan. 28, State Attorney General Letitia James issued a report of her investigation which found that the administration had underreported nursing home residents’ deaths by up to 50%, because it did not include in the nursing home count residents who had died after being transferred to hospitals. Deaths in hospitals were reported as hospital deaths and not associated with nursing homes. The day the report was issued, DOH started releasing new data.

The attorney general’s report was followed a week later by a court order directing the state health department to fulfill a six-month old Freedom of Information Law request for long-term care fatality data. Last weekend, DOH released a trove of additional data.

The net result: In one 10-day period, the reported number of long-term care resident deaths grew from just over 8,700 to 15,000.

Cuomo stressed today his contention that nursing home fatalities were not driven by a controversial March 25 DOH guidance document requiring nursing homes to admit or re-admit COVID-positive individuals.

“We have 613 nursing homes in the state. Three-hundred, sixty-five received a person from a hospital. Of the 365 that received a person from this March 25 guidance, which was then superseded in May, 98% of those 365 already had COVID in their facility,” Cuomo said. He did not say if that 98% had an active COVID infection in the facility at the time they admitted a COVID-positive patient, or if the COVID infection he referred to reflected historical data going back to the start of the pandemic.

The governor said the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for “hospital reform and nursing home reform” and he plans to introduce reform legislation in his 30-day amendments to his executive budget proposal. Cuomo said he would focus on “low-performing hospitals” and for-profit nursing homes.

He did not elaborate on what reforms he would propose for “low-performing hospitals” and directed his comments at for-profit nursing homes.

“If you’re a for-profit nursing home, I believe it should be mandated how much you put back into the facility and how much profit you can make,” he said.

For-profit homes are trying to make a profit and “it’s too easy to sacrifice patient care,” Cuomo said. “Everything becomes one or the other,” he said. The for-profit operators choose between investing in staff, supplies and equipment or increasing their bottom line, he said. It is a “tension … that has to be resolved legislatively. Because I don’t want to leave it to these for profit owners to decide what’s right, what’s wrong,” Cuomo said.

The New York State Health Facilities Association/New York State Center for Assisted Living pushed back at the governor’s assertion that pursuit of profit came at the expense of proper staffing, supplies and equipment levels.

“Historic underfunding” of nursing home care, coupled with the state neglecting the needs of nursing homes as the coronavirus swept through the downstate region last spring led to “limited access to testing and extensive staffing and PPE shortages in nursing homes,” according to the organization’s president and CEO Stephen Hanse. The state’s response focused on hospitals, while nursing homes were largely left to fend for themselves, he said.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.